Licia Albanese, a revered Metropolitan Opera soprano who achieved superstar status in the postwar era for her emotionally intense and technically accomplished portrayals, particularly of the doomed geisha in “Madama Butterfly” and other Puccini heroines, died of natural causes Friday in New York. She was 105.
She had been attending performances until late last year, but “at 105 she felt it was time for her to go,” her son, Joseph Gimma Jr., said this week.
The Italian-born singer made her debut at the Met in 1940 as Cio-Cio San, the geisha wife of an American naval officer in the beloved Puccini opera. It was one of 17 roles Albanese performed at the Met over the next 26 years, including her widely admired Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and the title role in Massenet’s “Manon.”
In her farewell performance on the closing night of the Met’s old house in 1966, she fittingly reprised her “Butterfly” role, stirring critics and the audience with a dramatic gesture at the end of the famous aria “Un bel di.”
Calling her “a Puccini heroine with few peers at the Metropolitan Opera of the 1940s and ’50s,” longtime music critic Martin Bernheimer once described Albanese as “a soprano who invariably knew how to caress the tenderest of phrases in an individual and poignant manner, and who also knew how to wring the last vibration of emotional fervor from every dramatic climax.”
“Even when her vocalism … failed to enchant the hard-eared purists,” he wrote, “it seldom failed to move them.”
Albanese touched most deeply in death scenes, “whether called upon to demonstrate a gradual, quiet fading away … a final feverish outburst … an intense losing battle to cheat death … or an act of unbearable poignancy such as the suicide of Butterfly,” the International Dictionary of Opera says.
She was often referred to as a “prima donna assoluta” – literally, an absolute first lady – for displaying a level of virtuosity exhibited by a supremely gifted few, such as Dame Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas.
Although she voiced strong opinions about the state of the opera before and long after she left the stage, she never considered herself a diva. “Only God makes a diva,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. “No, just call me a plain singer with lots of expression.”
She was born in Bari, Italy, on July 23, 1909. One of seven children in a musical family, she “wanted first to be a ballerina, then actress,” she said in a 1994 Associated Press interview. “After I find out I had a voice, I combine everything.”
She was 12 when her piano teacher discovered that she could sing and coached her to perform an aria from “Tosca” as a surprise for her father’s birthday.
Albanese was so nervous that she sang with her back to him, but he was so delighted that he launched her into formal training. By 16 she was studying in Milan with noted soprano Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi, who had excelled in “Madama Butterfly.”
She quickly won her first vocal contest over 300 other singers.
Her professional debut came in 1934, when she was pulled from the audience at the Teatro Lirico in Milan and rushed backstage as an emergency substitute in the leading role in “Butterfly.”
She repeated the role for her official debut in Parma in 1935. Soon after she was playing La Scala and London’s Covent Garden.
In 1939, just before dictator Benito Mussolini plunged Italy into World War II, Albanese left for the United States, where her career quickly took off.
In 1945 she married Joseph Gimma. He died in 1990.
Her Met career ended in 1966 at the closing gala before the old opera house was torn down.