The Heart of the Matter: Conversations with Licia Albanese

By Raymond Beegle
Special correspondent for Classical Voice

                            Mme. Albanese with the author at her club in Manhattan

                            Mme. Albanese with the author at her club in Manhattan

When great people speak about themselves, the world they describe sometimes appears to be astonishingly prosaic. Goethe, for example, in his autobiography, devoted many pages to gossip and such things as painting flowers on chairs that belonged to the father of his current sweetheart. Gandhi’s memoirs are often centered on what cereal he ate in the morning and what fruit he ate in the afternoon. Perhaps this is because their great thoughts and deeds had already become the property of the world and little fragments such as these were all they had left to call their own. However in the flow of their narratives one finds, at intervals, some of their deepest and most intimate observations: Goethe’s remark about wonder, for example, or Gandhi’s thoughts about perfection.

I encountered this phenomenon when asking Licia Albanese about her relationship with music. Replies to questions regarding artistic matters very quickly steered themselves toward memories of having cocktails in Gigli’s castle, or how her husband kept Bjoerling sober between recording sessions. In the midst of such breezy, wonderfully told, recollections, a profound observation, on the other hand, shedding light on the past golden age of singing, would surface. I was glad that a recording device was at my side, because Albanese left no time to ponder, but was off again, telling how she met Greta Garbo in church, or how Victor de Sabata scolded a colleague.

It is a pity that the written word cannot convey the manner in which these stories were told because her speech was close to singing: very rhythmical, highly inflected, and heavily accented, so that each word bore its utmost weight and meaning. There was much laughter too, and almost every sentence spoken by Albanese ended with an exclamation mark. I place the decision to include or delete them in the hands of the editor! Sitting beside this cordial and dignified woman of ninety-three, one was struck by the boundless ardor for music and life which fills her, and gives her the power to draw us back to a more beautiful time when music came from a deeper place in the heart, and had deeper meaning to a more discerning public.

On Learning -- from teachers

‘And who were your important teachers,’ I asked. ‘Well, I had great teachers, and I learned on stage from artists older than I was, from directors and conductors too, but I also had to find things out myself. My first important teacher was Emmanuele de Rosa. He lived in Bari and I studied with him every day. You have to do it every day! You cannot learn different! Then there was my last teacher in Milano, Giuseppina Baldassare. She sang Butterfly in Bari and all over. She gave me her costumes. She gave me everything she had. These teachers did not use technical words. The quality of the voice is the first thing they set, then you start to learn opera – not to learn “nyaah, nyaah, ooah, ooah” like you hear today!


On learning -- from colleagues

Oh, I learned so much from all the beauty I had around me on stage! Schipa, Gigli! They had a beautiful school for me to hear when I began to sing with them. But everybody at that time had this. To hear the Schipa in L’Amico Fritz! ‘Suzel, buon di!” He took them easy, the recitatives. Now they take it… (She rushes through the phrase). But it must be like talking! They don’t teach this! They don’t learn themselves to do this! They don’t listen! They should listen to records, not to teachers now, because the teachers don’t know! So… the cherry duet! We were in a great theater, and I was standing on stage by a wall, and there was a tray of cherries. And we put real cherries in our mouths! And Schipa ate them, and then, “Fresche scintillano, di brina ancora…” and even eating, to think – he could still sing! And you had to do this all, do this whole thing with the cherries in your mouth, and sing this part!

On Toscanini

‘Last night I was thinking – so many great conductors! They were warm, they had feeling; you got to know them. And such energy from the back, the arm, through the baton! They were with you till the cutoff! And now… (She holds her arm limply) What is this?? Its nothing!... With all the conductors I used to say “please give me idea! I want to sing different! You have idea! You work with the great singers. You have to give me something to do!” I was always anxious to do something more, something different. Otherwise the music dies. But I used to invent for myself on the stage too!

Of course, I learned a lot from Toscanini. I remember our first meeting when he sat and talked politely with me, to make me feel good, before he listened, and then he said, “Do you want to go through something” Then we went through the entire score of Boheme! It was always like that. First you go through the entire opera with him alone. Everybody alone. Then you put it together. That’s good. That’s what we used to do! You know, every conductor knew voice then, because every conductor had to sing all the parts when they were students. Oh, Toscanini was so funny! The voice I have today, he had all the time! (She imitates him in a squeaky voice… “uuh..eeh..t’amo!” and laughs).  And I had to sing with this! He was warm, respectful. When I would say to him “Maestro! Please give me idea!” he says “Certainly, I’ll give to you!” (laughter). So he said “Oh, well, you do this! You could maybe hold this note a little longer…”  I remember he said to give the expression with the breath (sighs deeply) “Obbedisco, signor!” and that when Rodolfo says “e tuoi occhi bruni” she should put the eyes down; she has beautiful eyes, Mimi! But now, nobody has ideas. Even when they do, nothing happens! They don’t feel it. They cannot give the feeling because something is lost! I had the fortune to sing with the great, the really great people. The continuation of bel canto. Now you don’t hear it.

On de Sabata

‘I remember de Sabata. They told me about the temper of de Sabata and I find a gentleman! So calm. Beautiful man! White hair, tall! Sometimes he’d say “Licia! I want to come to your home!” But with respect, such respect, and we respected them! And he gave me ideas – those great conductors, they gave ideas to the singers because we should never sing the opera twice the same way. He would say “Make the phrases long,” or “Don’t sing the Puccini role the same way you sing Mascagni.” Those are the kinds of things they don’t tell the young artist now! Also, “Hold the last note until the orchestra is finished!”’  I couldn’t help but ask her if she thought the composer expected singers to do that. Her reply was very funny. ‘Too bad I never sang with a composer - so I do it my way!’ After some reflection she added ‘I think they left it to the artist…  But I’ve seen de Sabata mad! One time in La Scala there was a Suzuki. He starts to scream and yell at this poor girl! She could not follow his tempo. I do! Give me the tempo and I go with you! But there are some singers… they know one tempo, and that’s all! Well, he banged his hand, threw his arms around and walked out! “When you learn that faster, then I’m going to conduct you!” he screams! And I went up to him and said (she speaks quietly) “maestro… you must have patience…!” You know, many years later, after the war, he conducted Butterfly when I returned to La Scala. And he told me after the first performance not to take the whole stage so much, but stay up front because the public wanted most to hear me!

On Garbo

Look at Greta Garbo! The Traviata! The Greta! I met her. I had dinner with her, and she came to my performances, because I could see her! In the first row! But she was so strange! There used to be a little church near my home on Park Avenue, and I would go in there sometimes on my walks to pray. So, one time I went in to light a candle, and I see a lady there with a big hat, bending down to put a candle too – and even so I knew it was Greta. So I say quietly, “Why Miss Garbo… how good to…” but before I finished, she turned and ran out of the church! Strange… couldn’t she stop to hear what I was saying? It’s strange because, listen… when young people stop me, say in London or Paris, and say “Miss Albanese! What are you doing here?!” I say, “Like you! To look at the beautiful city!” When they ask to see me the next day for autographs, I say “sure, sure! Come to my hotel and I sign!” It’s such a pleasure for these kids, and I kiss them, I embrace them!’

On directors

‘I also remember stage directors, and even prompters. The best prompters were the ones you couldn’t hear! But I remember some wonderful, helpful directions. For instance, at the end of the first act aria in Traviata, to start from the back of the stage. There! Then you, facing the public, walk! And when you finish in front of them, my God! The house comes down! But then, most everybody had style, movement. We never cross the colleague when they are singing. If a woman is singing you can cross in the back, but never distract from her. Also, the movements of the face - when your colleague is singing - your face must say something. You just don’t sit there and listen! In Boheme, ‘Talor dal mio forziere’” (she sings)” Mimi is curious! “forzieri!? You are rich!? Then! Let me listen better to what you are saying!” (Albanese laughs) but not to take away the things from him! And now! In Cosi they have Don Alfonso empty the sand from his shoes while Dorabella and Fiordiligi sing. And when in an opera they sing about a tree there is no tree on stage, or if they sing about the moon, there is no moon! Terrible! Horrible!’  

On singers of yore

                                                                 Claudia Muzio

                                                                 Claudia Muzio

When asked about the difference between singers of her time and the singers before her, she quickly replied: ‘We were the same!  Jeritza, Toti Dal Monte, the great artists, they were the same kind, the same style. It was bel canto! Now, they don’t follow that school! I remember Muzio! Beautiful woman. Tall, black eyes. She said to me “when I come back from South America I want to hear you sing.” But when she came back she died! Muzio! A heart attack. Also Rosetta Pampanini. She was the first great artist to hear me sing and encourage me. I have some of her records. I heard her sing Iris, and it was the same as if she was speaking! They were all following that school. And they all did something different in each performance. With me too. The director teaches you some steps, this and that, and then, two weeks later, they leave you alone. They say “Licia, we let you do… we know you.” But now! You do steps they don’t teach, and “leave!” “What?” I think… “I have to be you on the stage? I cannot be myself?!” This is opera now! You repeat! They repeat! Then I have to say, “For what I have to see the opera!?” I used to change with Pinza, with all the great artists. I learned from the beginning on stage. Those great singers on stage were my teachers! I learned from them a lot!’

On singers of her own time

One of the most striking qualities Albanese displayed in the course of our meetings was her generosity of spirit in regard to colleagues. Even other sopranos!  ‘Stella Roman! What a voice! She was a friend. Maybe she used too much mezza voce…later this is no good! It interferes with the forte! But it was a beautiful voice – round, beautiful. And Rosa Ponselle! I knew Rosa, and spent happy times at her beautiful villa. But then there was Zinka Milanov. The great Milanov! Oh, you know that for me it was the queen of voices! I also loved Moffo. We were great friends! I always went to her dressing room after Traviata, and in the dressing room I would say “Anna! After me… maybe after me… you are the great Traviata!” (Laughter). She was so pleased! And she… I said, “you know, you have something different from me! You have a figure, the beauty of Traviata! “ But the figure for me! I had always to thin myself! To watch myself to be thin, and be ladylike! And…  too bad! She went like that! (Snaps her fingers) I still cry when I hear her name! I pray for her! Just to say please come say something in the dreams. We get dreams – ‘Tell me something!’

Also there was Tebaldi! I brought her, you know, in this country. I heard her in Bologna to sing Otello. Oh, yes, because then I gave her Otello in San Francisco. Maestro Merola was in San Francisco and I said to him “Maestro! I heard a singer! In Italy! You must have her here!” He said, “Licia, what I give her? The operas are given already!” I said to him “Give Otello!” And he said, “But you have this!” “Give it to her! I’ll give it up. If you want, I’ll sing after.” I swear I said this. I always help the artist! But she was really great! She was something on the stage! She was fantastic! And when somebody is a miracle on the stage, I don’t care. I take away my opera and give it to them. I never was jealous! Never! God sent to me everything, and I didn’t ask “God, let me be a prima donna, give me this, give me that!” No! “What do you want me to do?” All these others, these great artists! They too had this kind of religious feeling, and they had it in their voices! Be sure to say this. This is what is missing!’                                                                                                                

                                                                  Renata Tebaldi

                                                                  Renata Tebaldi

Regarding tenors and baritones: ‘Of course Gigli I always praise. He chose me to do  Boheme with him. He said “I want Licia Albanese for this performance!” So, everybody came to the performance to hear him, but they heard me too! He was really pleased with my singing. We sang a lot in Italy. I met his family. I was part of his family and stayed with them in the country, in their beautiful old castle with his two children, Enzo and Rina.. The wife of Gigli she was so sweet. We would swim together each morning, and at night there would be beautiful dinners. Gigli had a lot of servants. He had two cooks, and two or three servants to serve at table. Beautiful! Also Schipa was very charming. Schipa also used a lot of mezza voce. He knew how to use it, but again with him, because of this, his fortes were sometimes hard.

And the singer, Lauri-Volpi! I learned from Lauri-Volpi – he never finished with holding the high note! Never! That was his big thing! I remember once in Turandot, I was singing Liu, and he started his “Vincero” as if he would never come down! People came down the aisles! They all came down like this! That’s what they don’t give the public anymore!

And Björling!’ I asked her if she had difficulty working with him. ‘Very good! Everything very good! I never fight with anybody, even the silly debutant! They say Björling used to drink. With us, no! My husband took him like this! (She grabs me by the arm). “You go to dinner!” We take him to dinner – we paid! We go to the Restaurante Vecchia Roma to eat there with everybody, (we were recording in Rome), and while we were eating, he never touched a bottle. But when we finished, my husband said “…you want to drink now?” We were back in the hotel by then. “Drink! This is for you!” (She laughs) He didn’t touch!

                                                                   Jussi Björling

                                                                   Jussi Björling

I admired Tucker and Peerce too; they were also cantors. Maestro [Toscanini] liked Peerce, but the quality of Tucker was like Caruso, Gigli, Schipa! In California I went to the synagogue to hear Tucker, and people in the synagogue asked, “Licia! Here? Are you Jewish!?’ (She laughs). I said “No! I don’t care what I am! I want to listen because they sing well!”  In Italy we didn’t care what religion you had. I don’t care! I embrace everybody! God gives to everybody. He is the Father, and He will be forever. Most people believe, but if they don’t… (she laughs) that’s still good for God too!  At the end of my career I sang with Corelli. He was so nice! He had everything! Looks, poise, expression of the face – and what a voice! And he was terribly shy. He used to call me Suora Licia, or Signora Lica, and I say “Franco! …ma il mio nome e Licia! Come on! We are all human!” What a great tenor! I think in my career I sang with the great, great, great!”

                                                               With Jan Peerce

                                                               With Jan Peerce

‘He is full of jokes, full of jokes!’ She said of Pinza. ‘I admired him very much, with his head of curly hair and his grace – and then there was who I used to call the American Pinza, Jerome Hines. Oh! After Pinza he was the great basso! So nice! I would praise him and he would say “Licia, Thank you! But I want to imitate Pinza!” “Ok,” I said, “you do Pinza, but with your physique, so big! It’s something different – something to impress the public!” Si! Beautiful! And with each of these artists you are different. With each of them your character is different. When I sang Traviata with Tibbett or Warren, (my God! what beautiful American voices), I was not the same. And they used to come and work with me to learn how sang the greats! I would give them the idea, and they would grab, and study it themselves.’

On singers of today

When asked about differences between singers of her era and singers today her remarks were direct: ‘You know, I don’t want to offend anybody, but now they are not to my taste. Only Domingo is still of the old school. I don’t know… I see, sometimes, on television, as if someone is being choked, and I say from my bed “Open your throat! Open everything! Open your heart!” And I see that they attack a note, (she makes choking sounds) and it comes to a stop! No, no, open, open! Enthusiasm, love, beauty!” I wish I could liberate them! (Again she acts as if she were choking). This is not beauty! And they sing on the notes, not on the words!  But if you just sing notes, it’s not really singing. It’s the beginning of grimaces and throaty sounds! There is no expression!

For instance, in Traviata, when you enter, “Flora! Amici!” It must be like an actor! Not just notes, “Flo-ra-a-mi-ci” (She sings blandly).  ‘Also later on when Alfredo’s father comes, you listen to him, and become emotional! Poor father! He is suffering from my actions. So then I promise him, ok, I leave Alfredo! “Dite alla giovine” is two times. You have to change what is written. First is… (she sings)… “Dite alla giovine, si bella e pura…” piu forte.  The “pura!” More inflection because… “I don’t remember to be pure!” See? The character. “Bella, yes, I like she… but …pure! I don’t remember!” Every word -  you must come to see what is in it! This I don’t hear! Also the voice must express different kinds of love. There’s love for your mother, and that’s different from Violetta’s love for Alfredo. How is it possible they don’t know!? To say the truth, they could learn - everybody has a heart - but they have to learn with the heart, not with the mind. There is too much mind! With the heart it is warm, it is filled with feeling, filled with love, even if you only speak!

‘With Mimi, you know when she was coming up the stairs and then her candle went out - she doesn’t know what direction to go and she knocks on a door, and somebody is there, and it is dark. I know too what its like to go up dark stairs! And then,”Chi e la?” “Scusi…” (Albanese sings). ‘First of all this voice is because she has tuberculosis and she came up to the fourth or the fifth or the sixth floor. She lived on the tenth floor, or maybe eight.’ (She makes sounds of being out of breath, and then coughs). ‘See, when you bleed, the cough comes and she is with consumed lungs! So you don’t just sing “Scusi!” (She sings in an expressionless full voice). Even with that you give softly, and take the note long! Reach the public! After all, she’s behind the door! Tell me! These directors that direct the artists on the stage, don’t they know they have to change the voice?’ ‘Some of them have never heard opera,’ I ventured. ‘They don’t have teachers, maybe,’ she replies, ‘… but even if the teachers don’t know how to teach, can’t you hear beauty? Can’t you listen to records? They could listen to Caruso, to Tebaldi, and to Galli-Curci. Well, and even if they do, they cannot imitate it! Maybe because they listen to everything else too… all the horrible music… and that comes into their singing, you know.’

On recordings

When we spoke of her immense discography I asked her which recordings she would recommend to students today. ‘All of them!’ She replied, and it must be said that in all the recordings this writer has heard, the quality of her singing is consistently brilliant. She talked about the difference between singing in a theater and singing in a recording studio: ‘I learned you have to feel like you are on the stage. Otherwise the message doesn’t come through. You can’t just be there to sing the notes into some machine with the music in front of you! Most of the time its better not to have the music at all. Just to sing freely. When I found this out I felt much better in the studio.’ It was surprising to discover, however, that many of her recorded live performances have never been released.  ‘They made for me some broadcasts which I want to put out. Afro Poli and I sang on the radio every Thursday for ten years! Also, I sang Fedora in St. Louis! Beautiful! Great! Especially when she speaks on the music! “…Ecco il sonno… le gran notte! - Loris! Dove sei!” she starts to be blind. She’s blind. But I think I speak beautiful! And I want the public to hear this talking on music! I tell my son, “all those records – people would want them!” But he says no! And I ask, “What we do? When I die, ok! But when you die… where the records go?... In the trash!”

Tutto finito

At the end of our conversations I thought of Pasternak’s remark about how good it is when many wonderful things lie in the past, where no one can get at them. ‘My God! Sometimes I cannot sleep when I think of the past! Everybody now they say “Licia, you look so well! We still love you!” I say, “Well! You tell me now!?” (She laughs). I say “You were thinking to see me with a cane? To hang on the cane!?” When someone wanted to help me walk on stage at a contest I said “What!? You want to steal the applause from me?! I want to look stupid alone!” The audience laughed and laughed! Yes, I still walk with big steps, I do many interesting things, still go out almost every night, and when I come home I tell the maids that they haven’t vacuumed well enough! “Here, give it to me! Move that chair, so I can clean again under the bed!” I also teach but this is very difficult. Passion, love, religion, a sense of beauty – where? – gone! The students now don’t feel here! [She points to her heart]. I teach, my teachers taught me, but I had that something. I want to teach the old beauty, but these kids don’t have their own ideas to bring. It’s true also in the great theaters. What has happened? Why does the director of the opera give staging into the hands of somebody who doesn’t know opera? Where are the conductors? Where are the voices? Where is the message? Who is there to teach these things?... Tell me!” There was a long pause, and she ended quietly “How tragic for me! …no… the opera is finished!”

Raymond Beegle is Contributing Editor of Opera Quarterly, has written for Fanfare Magazine, the Classic Record Collector (UK), and also appeared on The Today Show (NBC) and Good Morning America (CBS). As an accompanist, he has collaborated with Zinka Milanov and Licia Albanese.  Currently Mr. Beegle serves on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music in New York City.