Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Soprano Licia Albanese sang Mimi in Toscanini's 1946 broadcast of La boheme and was his Violetta in La traviata. Mme Albanese gave over 400 performances at the Metropolitan between 1940 and 1966, and gave at least as many performances world wide. She recorded
La Boheme in Rome with Beniamino Gigli in 1939, and fifty years later was Heidi Schiller
in the New York Philharmonic's presentation of Sondheim's Follies. We spoke about Toscanini, and much more from her home in New York on March 26, 2007. Mme Albanese is a feisty and fully alert-to say the least- 94 year old. Today, she teaches and supports young artists through the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation.
See also www.lapfny.org

NOTE: Pithy and clear she is but Mme Albanese is in her nineties and English is not her first langauge. This is a close but not perfect tracsription, with some omissions.
The entire audio interview will be posted at www.wosu.org/interveiws

CP: Welcome, Madame Albanese!

LA: Thank you

CP: When did you first meet Toscanini?

LA: I used to go to his concerts at NBC. I met him there. I went in the dressing room
to say hello to him. He was very happy to meet me. You know he never came to the Metropolitan because he had sometihng, I don't know. But I went to him and asked if I could go and see him. Then one day I was so surpised, Walter his son called and he said, Madame Alabanese my father wants to speak with you. You could imagine, I could faint! You can imagine! I said Maestro Toscanini to call me?! Certainly! With open arms!

CP: When you first met him you had already sung all over the world.
You had sung at Covnet Garden, Turandot
LA: Yes
CP: And you had recorded La boheme with Gigli
LA: Yes
CP: I think Toscanini heard you sining on the radio with the Met.
LA: You're right! You're right! he heard a Boheme...and then he chose me to do Boheme and then Traviata
CP: This was the 50th anniversay production of La boheme
LA: Yes
CPP: Jan Peerce was your tenor
LA: Yes...he was a very great companion and colleague , really kind. We sang a lot. And with Tucker. I thought Tucker's quality of voice was more beautiful than Peerce, but Peecre was fine, but the quality and beauty was Tucker for me. But with colleagues on stage, what we say
we move hands, we move the face, we move the eyes. Now you don't see on the stage anything, nothing.

CP: How did Toscanini compare with other conductors like Mitropoulos you sang with?
LA: Well, Mitropoulos was good. Listen, I sang a lot in Italy with Maestro Serafin.
I was very lucky to sing with the great condcutors. You remeber DeSabata, too.
I did Butterfly wih him. Very kind always. Never, never a condcutor was upset with anybody. Always with knindess. Even if young artist made a mistake, they always approached the artist withkindness

CP: Con amore...
LA: Si..Bravo! con amore!

CP: Ricordi piacere di Serafin, because people don't remember Serafin today
LA: Si, che peccato. He was great. He was all the time. He wanted young people to be known. He took us first to Rome, he took all the new singers to Rome with him.

CP: Did Toscanini have a temper?
LA: Let me think
CP: Because there are stories he would yell at the orchestra, and stamp his feet
LA: He would say IMBECILE! NBC! And I know you can do it he would say. I know you can do it. I have faith in you! But he had to have temper to have good things.
But he used to thank everybody at the end of the performance.
He was very kind. And he would thank us.
You know, Maestro Toscanini would come to the dressing rooms before we start to sing to wish good luck to us. I said, Maestro we should come to you, but he said no, no that's my duty to see all of my artists, that they are okay, and in good shape.
Just breathe before you come on stage. We Catholic would cross ourselves.
Then I would come running on stage like I still do!

CP: What did you think of Toscanini's tempi in Traviata and Boheme?
LA: Well, he told me, Licia this was when I knew the composer he wanted the sempre libera fast. It's nice! It's true! If you can do it, why you not do it?
(sings) Sempre libera follegiare...!
even the words they tell you have to do in a hurry.
My God, do you come to the Met to see the performances?
CP: Yes!
LA: What do you think?
CP: Sometimes a little boring
LA: Non c'e un cuore che parla....
CP: senza personalita!
LA: Si! senza passione
When I do the masterclasses now I say don't think! Make a mistake! Put your soul into the words. Don't do f-sharp, this...that. No! Don't think how high you go. Think on the words and then you can go in paradise...They tighten the throat. This is singing withToscanini and Serafin and all the great conductors. Even the conductor used to teach us vocally what to do.
Now they don't do anything. But the condcutors used to tell us to do more, to do more.
In Boheme with Toscanini, we had a Musetta, very good, nice voice , pretty girl but he would say "CER-ca CER-ca" and then one day after two or three days he said wha is this 'Cerca '(quacking) I want emotion. CER--ca!

CP: So emotion was very important to Toscanini?
LA: Very much. They teach emotion. Forget the notes. You make the voice more beautiful.
In masterclasses today I have to tell you, I make the most ugly voices beautiful voices with the words! With words you have beauty...You say CER-ca because she suffer too to see Mimi dying on the street

CP: Do you remeber a performance of yours that was your favorite?
LA: If was my favorite I would make it too long to sing it...All of it!
I sang in St. Louis too, Fedora...oh, listen I tell you. I did Fedora in St. Louis.
I have all the tapes, I'm telling you. I tell my son to put those tapes out. People can study

CP: You sang Adriana Lecouvreur
LA: I took over that from Tebaldi. Bing called me. And I was ready with everything.
I went to the Met. I dress up. They put pins in because Tebaldi was taller and I was a little short, but I made myself tall!

CP: I have your recording of the Adriana, and I have La rondine
LA: Si. With that beautiful , beautiful tenor. Who? Barioni. Beautiful.
And the scene we make together! Nodoby could tell me what to do on stage.
The tell me somebody else has to do. I said you don't know!
You don't do opera. Everyone comes in the opera to take over.
The people gets boring. You have to change.
I used to change every performance what I have to do.
Director now, and you can say this, they don't know the score. They don't know the books!
When the opera story written, that's why they make a mistake. They don't even know the score.

CP I know you didn't like Butterfly at the MeEt a few years ago
LA: Yes! Now I see the Met Madama Buterfly with puppets.
Can you believe that puppet when they put on the stage. ..
CP: Do you still go to the Metropolitan?
LA: No. No more. Non posso. Because one time I went and I booed.
I booed del Monaco. The son. He said well, I know you booed me. But I said Listen, but learn the opera! Like your father used to sing, he was so great. And he said Don't mention my father! I dont want to be known as son of my father!
But delMoncao how beautful he was on the stage. Every artist in my time has own costume.
Not the Metropolitan costumes. And the public was interested to come and say we want to see which costume you are going to put.....all the operas I sang, I change costumes...

CP: Did you have a favorite tenor? That's a bad question for a prima donna.
LA: To tell you the truth, no. They were all great!
First one was Gigli, in fact Gigli mention my name to Mr. Johnson. He was in search all the time young artists and Gigli mentioned my name. Licia is one of the great young sopranos to come to the Metropolitan.

CP: And he was right!
LA: Yes!
CP: The public alway knows
I thank you so much for your time
LA: Thank you very much. You are so kind. Big kiss! Ciao! ciao!

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Father M. Owen Lee-how to describe him?
Professor of Classics at St. Michael's College, University of Toronto.
Baseball enthusiast. Film buff. Author.
Teacher. Metropolitan Opera broadcast shining light for many years.
Don't miss his books.
With Father Lee's permission I'm posting his remarks made on October 15, 1996
at a testimonial dinner for Edward Downes held at the Metropolitan Opera House.

This is from Father Lee:

Some of you here will know the sense of panic that takes over just before you go on the air with the Opera Quiz. After fourteen years of intermission appearances, I still ask myself, when that moment of silence descends on List Hall and we are poised to start, "Why am I doing this?"

Then I'd hear the voice long known to opera lovers across the length and breadth of the United States, Canada, and now Europe. Instantly recognizable. Part university dean, part kindly father. Wise as Sarastro though not so low in timbre. Warm as Hans Sachs but without the Weltschmerz. Sparkling as champagne in Fledermaus. No need to be unnerved. Edward Downes, the son of Olin Downes (who mastered the quiz when I first tuned in fifty five years ago) is seated professionally at a side table, with a stack of questions beside his microphone. The face that matches the familiar voice is positively beaming good will. He will see that everyone has a good time and no one comes to grief. And once you've answered the first question, the crisis is past.

I think I can say, without too much embarrassment, that I love this man. This wise and humble man who--one time when I was fogged in in Toronto and had sat up all night sleepless on a bus to get to New York and when, after two tough intermissions was on the brink of collapse--he took me up Broadway to his home in the Dakota, cooked me a meal, poured out the manzanilla (he likes Carmen), and started me on a stimulating exchange about our mutual enthusiasm, Wagner, and only then, when I was properly relaxed, sent me back to my hotel for a good night's sleep.

I want to tell you a story about the Dakota, where Mr. Downes lives at the very top, just above Yoko Ono, who can look from her window down on the strawberry fields she planted in memory of her husband, John Lennon, in Central Park.

When the Lennons wanted to move into the Dakota, the management told them that they first had to have a recommendation from someone already in residence. So the world famous Beatle phoned Mr. Downes and said, "We're musicians, too. Do you think you could recommend us?"

Mr. Downes explained, "Well, I'm not really acquainted with your work. But why don't you come over next Tuesday? We can meet, have tea, and perhaps then I can recommend you."

The Lennons said they would, and Mr. Downes promptly phoned his niece, of the newer generation, and said, "Dear, there are two young musicians coming to see me, and I'd feel much more comfortable with them if you were here and poured tea."

"Of course, Uncle Edward" came the reply. "Who are they?"
" I think he said his name was Lennon."

All the niece could say was, with some disappointment at her uncle's innocence, "Oh, Uncle Edward!"

The nicest thing about this story is that Mr. Downes told it about himself.

Thanks, Edward for teaching me to see deeply into operas I thought I knew. Thanks for your kindness, your wisdom, your wit, your encouragement, your professionalism, your love of music and of all good things. God bless you, and speed your new career on the broadcasts, for we sill have much to learn from you.

Fr. Owen Lee
October 15, 1996