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Learning to listen to Italian opera with Licia Albanese

Late nineteenth-century photograph of The Old Met in New York, site of some of Albanese's best performances
Late nineteenth-century photograph of The Old Met in New York, site of some of Albanese's best performances
watermarked copy from The Dunne Archive

I just finished reading Margalit Fox’ obituary for The New York Times on the occasion of the death of Italian-born soprano Licia Albanese. She died this past Friday at her home in Manhattan at the age of 105. Fox has written a comprehensive account of Albanese’s life, and providing a hyperlink to her text is more important than trying to compete with her. Nevertheless, while I never saw Albanese perform on the stage, she played a major role in the cultivation of my listening skills in the domain of Italian opera.

This came about during my undergraduate years, when I served as Classical Music Director for the campus radio station at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Because the call letters WMIT had been taken, the station took, instead, the call letters WTBS (for Technology Broadcasting System). (Yes, that should sound familiar to most readers. I understand that MIT managed to take in a pretty penny when they released those call letters to Ted Turner!) During my tenure, Walter Toscanini, son of Arturo Toscanini, was making tapes of his father’s NBC broadcasts available at no charge to “educational” stations (as they were called before Public Broadcasting was institutionalized); so I planned a program series called Memories of a Great Conductor.

I was conscientious enough about this project that I felt it important that I listen to each of these tapes before airing any of them. As a result, I found myself discovering areas of repertoire that I had previously ignored. The most important of these domains was that of late nineteenth-century Italian opera. This never figured in the records that my parents had collected. I do not think they had recordings of any opera by any composer other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Thus, while I recognized the names of Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, I had never previously felt that any of their operas deserved very much attention.

As a result, preparing for this Toscanini radio program provided me with my first serious contact with the music of both La traviata and La bohème. Since the tapes came with neither program notes nor libretti, my orientation was provided by Milton Cross’ Complete Stories of the Great Operas (which, in turn, probably came from the source texts Cross used in announcing the Texaco broadcasts of the Metropolitan Opera). I went into this work with the preconception that Italian opera was tedious and maudlin. However, under Toscanini’s baton, these performances were anything but; and I discovered that I could follow Cross’ summaries at a comfortable pace.

When it came to the singers, the only names I recognized were those of Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill. (I was supposed to be raised as a nice Jewish boy.) However, it was through preparing the announcements of these recordings that I came to recognize the name of Licia Albanese, who sang both Violetta and Mimi under Toscanini. It was through the chemistry between Albanese and Toscanini that I began to appreciate that the performance of both Verdi and Puccini involved much more than virtuoso warbling. Under Toscanini’s baton, Albanese endowed both of these characters with a sense of personality that went far beyond a well-trained voice that could take on any technical demands.

Regular readers know that, as a result of my project to write about Arturo Toscanini: The Complete RCA Collection, these two recordings are now part of my CD collection. Thus, while I have lost count of the number of Violettas and Mimis I have encountered since those “first contact” experiences, I continue to embrace the Albanese recordings for their definitive qualities. Much of that has to do with Toscanini’s own connection to the repertoire, but it also involves the ways in which Albanese took a by-the-book approach in her work with Toscanini, attaching more significance to the characters she was portraying than to her own personality as a diva.

It thus did not surprise me to read in Fox’ obituary that Albanese rejected the noun “diva,” calling herself only “a plain singer with lots of expression.” That capacity for expression was probably what mattered most in her work with Toscanini. It was also what mattered most in shaping and refining my capacities for listening seriously to both Verdi and Puccini.