|Originally it was to glean memories of Arturo Toscanini that I contacted Licia Albanese, who was a favourite at the Metropolitan Opera from 1940 to 1966. It was quickly evident that the 93-year-old soprano, born in Bari but long domiciled in New York, had a strikingly vivid recall of her career; and it was interesting to find that she still treasured records of singers who inspired her seven or eight decades ago, such as Muzio or Pampanini. She herself recorded La bohème with Gigli and Manon Lescaut with Björling.|
'When I was very young I had first wanted to be a dramatic artist – an actress, and also a ballerina. That was before I found out I had a singing voice. When I discovered I could sing, I put acting and singing together, and that is why people, I think, did love me on stage. Even one of the critics said: "When Licia Albanese sings, it looks like her hands and fingers are also singing." For me it was a wonderful joy to reach the great theatres so early in my career. I was so young, and I couldn't believe it. After I had been heard in a concert on the radio in Turin I had so many offers and I really did not think I was able to sing in the important theatres and belong to the people – but they believed in me, and so it all started'
Licia Albanese's career took off in 1934 when she replaced a sick Cio-Cio San at the last minute during a run of Madama Butterfly at the Teatro Lirico, Milan. By 1935 she was singing at La Scala, in Gianni Schicchi, and in 1937 she reached Covent Garden. From the first she was singled out for her acting and her expressive and dramatic colouring of the text. 'I think that what is most important is the expression of the words. Too many artists think just about the voice all the time and they ruin their voices because they only think of the notes they are singing. I always say to them: "Don't think of the note, but think of the words." In Act 2 of La traviata, when Germont has pressured Violetta to finish her affair with Alfredo and then she sees him again, she sings "Amami, Alfredo" – "Love me Alfredo". Now there is so much that Violetta is saying in just those two words. She had never loved anybody, and she thought nobody ever, ever would love her. Her whole adult life had been her appointments as a courtesan. So when Alfredo fell in love with her, at first she never thought she could belong to him, but finally she said "Someone does love me" and now she is saying "I have to believe you love me". Before, when she still felt she had to be free and go from one man to another, "Sempre libera" needed a very light timbre and carefree expression in the voice, but now after all that has happened, when she sings "Amami, Alfredo" – well, when I sang that I thought in the meantime, "Is this possible that I fell in love for the first time and someone fell in love with me?" So here the voice expresses confusion as well as desperation, because that is what the words express.'
Violetta was one of two roles Albanese sang with Toscanini: she portrayed the consumptive heroines in his 1946 concert performances of La bohème and La traviata; and he wanted her for his 1947 Otello. 'Toscanini first heard me on the radio singing at the Metropolitan Opera, and that is how he came to engage me to sing Mimì and then Violetta with him. In fact his daughter Wally had first told him about me and recommended he should take me, so he listened to me several times on broadcasts and then decided to ask me. He called me personally on the telephone to give this great honour to me. When he said, "This is Maestro Toscanini here", I nearly fainted. I didn't have the courage to talk at first. He asked if I would go and see him at the NBC building, and then when people heard that I was going to sing with him, they said; "You will sing with Toscanini – my God, he is really terrifying." Well, I met Maestro and he was wonderful to me, and the performances and also the rehearsals were unforgettable.
'For the first rehearsal I arrived very early – one hour before he was due to come, just to put my heart in the right place. I waited near the door of the studio where he had his room, and then I saw him passing by, walking with big steps. He went into his room, and after ten minutes, at the appointed time, I knocked on the door. "Who is it?" "Maestro, it is Licia Albanese, I have come to see you". "Oh yes, please come in – please sit down, and do talk, please talk." He immediately made me familiar with him, so that I should not be nervous. He didn't have anyone with him, it was just him and me, and we talked for something like 20 minutes. I then asked him if he still wanted to conduct opera with me, and he said: "Okay – we start now." He went to the piano and we began. We rehearsed a lot for nearly three hours – and then again on several more days, just Maestro and me. It was always like that. First you went through the entire opera with him alone, everybody alone, then you put it together. We got on so well. I said "Maestro, please give me new ideas", because it was in my blood that every time I sang I wanted to do something new – to change some detail, to change my position on the stage, to change an inflection, a gesture, because if the artist does exactly the same thing each time in the same opera it's boring, really boring. Well, he was so kind to give me many beautiful ideas. Most of all he was concerned that I sang bel canto – so often he asked for this, and then when I did it he was so delighted. I hung on every word he said, every phrase that he illustrated with his hoarse voice. I shall never forget him. I am very religious, and ever since then I have prayed for him a lot. I have always prayed for Verdi, Puccini and Toscanini so that I can be with them and they can teach me how to sing opera.
'Toscanini was never aloof with me. One day I said: "Maestro, please – I so like singing with you and you like my singing. Please come to my home so I can cook for you." He said: "Thank you, yes!" I asked both his daughters, Wally and Wanda, what their father liked to eat. "Chicken liver," they said. So I made him chicken liver and onions, very lightly cooked. "How did you know I like this food?" I said: "Oh, some angel told me." He was the most wonderful man to be with, to kiss on his cheeks – he was so happy when I did that: "Maestro, I love you" – "Too bad, I am too old" – "Too bad for me, too," I said.'
Albanese was so passionate about the truth, the expression and the vocal quality in performing that she was at her happiest when appearing with a singer or conductor who empathetically felt similarly. 'I sang with most of the greatest tenors of my time – Gigli, Björling, Schipa, Prandelli – but the most perfect of all and the one I enjoyed singing with more than any other was Corelli: voice, expression, figure, everything – and it was all so perfectly integrated. He was a very fine Cavaradossi when I sang Tosca with him, also a superb Calaf in Turandot. He was my favourite on stage – his face and his lips were so expressive. I once said to him: "Franco, don't worry, when we have to kiss, I'll really kiss you, because I love you." "Signora Licia," he said, "please don't dare to do that because my wife is very jealous." In fact both he and his wife, Lauretta, became very good friends of mine, and I still correspond with Lauretta today.'
Albanese's approach was in many ways ahead of its time. 'With all the parts I sang, I did a great deal of research with books, and also with people I observed in real life. When I first sang Mimì, I wanted to find out what people with tuberculosis really looked like – how they spoke, how they moved, and just how they coughed. One must always remember at all times when one sings Mimì that she is consumptive. And that is not easy to do – to sing her arias and yet to feel you are ill. But of course in real life, people with tuberculosis do express themselves despite their sickness. So I went to a hospital to observe them. I noticed that their cough was very dry but they didn't give a hard and loud cough. If they did that, the pain in their lungs was unbearable. Their cough was slow and controlled. That's why they didn't spit too much blood, although of course they did get blood in their mouth and had to get rid of it. I watched the way they would close their handkerchiefs after spitting blood into them, and although I had no blood in my mouth when I sang Mimì, I made people believe I did.
'I never had any stage director tell me, "Don't do this, don't do that" – never. Like it was when I sang with Toscanini, and also other great conductors such as De Sabata, Serafin, Beecham, Busch, Walter and Stokowski, I always used to ask directors to give me new ideas because I so liked and needed to change details in the performance of a role. Some of them used to say they trusted my ideas, but I always used to ask them for their own ideas and their help. And even the directors who were more concerned to impart their own views from the start used to like the way I would take their ideas and then spontaneously change things my own way as well – put their ideas and mine together. This was the way to be really creative on stage.
'When I sang my parts I always thought the man I was singing with was not just a tenor but Alfredo, or Pinkerton, or Rodolfo or Loris in Fedora, and I showed to the public that I was really in love with him, or mad with him, or mad with whoever. When I give masterclasses I am insistent about this with the young singers. "Don't think of the note," I say. " If you think of where the note should be you won't make a good sound. Think what you say and the sound will come." If you approach singing in that way, really it is not such a difficult art.'
Still vibrantly in touch with music, Albanese is committed to developing young singers through teaching and masterclasses, and they still seek her out. Since 1974 she has chaired the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation, which helps nurture careers. 'When people come to me for lessons, I teach them free of charge. I don't want any money from them. What I want is to help them if I can. Often I find I have to tell them that whenever I took on a new role I learned the whole score, not just my part. You can't sing your part properly unless you know the parts of the people you are singing with and also the music of the orchestra that plays with you. So many singers only know their own parts – that is not enough.
'I also spend a lot of time with them on stage presentation as well as the voice. Not only stage acting, but also stage profile. For instance, when I sang Violetta, I had to make myself look tall. She is a tall and very beautiful woman, so I wore a dress that flowed on to the platform so that the audience could not see the stage platform where I was. That helped to give me an illusion of height. Every person learning opera singing needs to think and be aware of this kind of situation for the role they are performing.
'And of course I am always talking to pupils about the expression in the words and the way the words are shapad in the music. Many years ago I met the great Claudia Muzio after a performance I was singing at the Rome Opera House. She was leaving for South America and she asked if she could hear me sing somewhere when she came back, as she said she liked my voice very much and that I sang beautifully. I said: "Oh, Signora Muzio, I don't sing like you. I have many of your recordings, and I always want to sound like you in 'L'altra notte in fondo al mare' in Mefistofele – it is what you do between the phrases that is so special, with such continuity and feeling of expression in every word all through the aria." And that is the way I always aimed to sing it myself, and it's what I tell to people who come to me for lessons or come to my masterclasses.' Alas, when Muzio returned to Italy she died of a heart attack. Albanese also admired Rosetta Pampanini. 'She was the first great artist to hear me sing and encourage me. I heard her sing Iris, and it was the same as if she was speaking.'
Albanese's teaching also focuses on understanding the individual expressive characteristics of languages – she is conversant with French, English, German and Russian. 'It was because of Leopold Stokowski that I learned Russian, as he asked me to record Tatiana's Letter Scene from Eugene Onegin with him. He was surprised when I sang with a good Russian inflection, and I told him I always went to study a language with people from the country concerned – be it Russian, French or English. I particularly loved singing in English. If you really know and understand a language it helps you to sing so much better, to achieve the right vocal quality. You have to caress the words and their natural shape to make them sound as they should when you are singing. Everything in singing comes first of all from the words. That is how you express the real meaning of music with the voice, and I love to do it wherever I am – in Italy, Germany, France, England, America. And when I see a real gentleman who loves opera – I kiss him. If he is in England or America, I then sing to him: "Kiss me, kiss me again".'
She was true to her word. Larry Josephson, who recorded this conversation with me for the WFMT Radio Network, received a kiss – twice.