Licia Albanese studied initially with Emmanuele de Rosa in her home town of Bari, visiting him every day, and continued her studies in Milan with Giuseppina Baldassare-Tedeschi (a distinguished former Madama Butterfly) with whom Albanese developed a close relationship. She made her unofficial operatic début in 1934 substituting for a sick colleague as Butterfly in the second act of Madama Butterfly at the Teatro Lirico in Milan, and went on to win a national singing competition in Bologna in the same year. Some uncertainty attaches to the details of her formal début. This was either in the rôle of Mimì/La Bohème at the Teatro Petruzelli, Bari, under the name Alicia Albanese, in 1934; or during 1935 in Parma or Milan, on both occasions as Butterfly. She was quickly engaged to sing Micaela/Carmen and Pamina/Die Zauberflöte in Rome, and Mimì in Naples. During 1935 she also made her débuts at the Verona Arena (Anna/Loreley) and La Scala, Milan (Lauretta/Gianni Schicchi and Mimì), where she began a long vocal partnership with Beniamino Gigli. She took part in the 1937 Coronation season at Covent Garden, singing Liù/Turandot and Nanetta/Falstaff, and in 1938 sang Silvia in the Italian première of Haydn’s L’isola disabitata at the Florence May Festival.
In 1940 Albanese made her début at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, as Butterfly and achieved immediate success: she was to reprise this rôle on seventy-two occasions at the Metropolitan. She stayed with the company for twenty-six years, until in 1966, insulted by what she considered a derisory contractual offer by manager Rudolf Bing, she returned the document unsigned. At the Metropolitan Albanese sang a total of 427 performances of seventeen rôles in sixteen operas, establishing herself as one of her generation’s pre-eminent interpreters of Violetta/La traviata, and excelling as Manon/Manon Lescaut in addition to Butterfly. Other parts which she sang with the company included Nedda/Pagliacci, Marguerite/Faust, Susanna/Le nozze di Figaro, Donna Anna/Don Giovanni, Giorgetta/Il Tabarro, Tosca, Micaela, and Lauretta. She also sang regularly with the San Francisco Opera, whose music director Gaetano Merola she greatly admired, giving 120 performances of twenty-two rôles between 1941 and 1951.
The high esteem in which Albanese was held in America may be judged by the fact that it was she whom Toscanini invited to sing Mimì in the fiftieth anniversary broadcast of La Bohème, the first performance of which he had conducted in Turin in 1896. So successful was this that the maestro asked Albanese to sing Violetta in his subsequent broadcast of La traviata, also in 1946. Both these productions were afterwards released commercially on disc. Albanese made her Chicago début in 1941 as Micaela and went on to sing as a distinguished guest in Baltimore, Cincinatti, Philadelphia, San Antonio and St Louis. In 1951 she returned to La Scala, as Butterfly, which she also sang in the same year at Rio de Janeiro. She retired from the stage in 1970, but remained a force in opera in America through her teaching and the Albanese Puccini Foundation, which annually awards substantial cash grants to young opera singers.
Albanese’s voice in her early career had a most appealing freshness and innocence, as may be heard in her 1938 recording of La Bohème (Mimì) with Gigli, and in the excerpts from the 1937 Covent Garden production of Turandot (Liù)with Eva Turner, conducted by Barbirolli. Later her voice filled out, while retaining its range, flexibility and beauty of tone: her 1954 recording of Manon Lescaut, opposite Jussi Björling, is a fine example of her mature art. Other recordings of note are the studio recording of Carmen (Micaela) conducted by Fritz Reiner, and a live recording of La rondine (Magda) from 1960. Albanese possessed a strong dramatic instinct and sought to make her performances as fresh as possible, giving them considerable dramatic edge as well as musical warmth.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).