Saturday Diary / The soprano who sang me to success

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When I was a teenager attending performances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Licia Albanese virtually owned the title roles in Verdi’s “La Traviata” and Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” She was an icon of my formative years. The Italian-born soprano died at her home in New York on Aug. 15 at the age of 105.

I always felt that I grew up with Ms. Albanese, hearing her live at the Met in the 1950s and listening to her recordings at home.

I particularly recall a 78 rpm disc that I played over and over. It was the Act 2 duet from “La Traviata” — the heartrending “Dite alla giovine” — with baritone Robert Merrill. Every subsequent Violetta I’ve heard has had to bear comparison to her high standards.

Although she couldn’t have known it, Ms. Albanese was responsible for my having a career as a music critic.

In March 1962, while I was a doctoral student at Boston University, one of my professors — Czech-born musicologist Edith Vogl — got it into her head that I should be a music critic. She called her friend Harold Rogers, arts editor of the Christian Science Monitor, then a Boston-based national newspaper that devoted a single page to religion but also had great arts coverage. She told him about her student, and Mr. Rogers suggested that I submit two music reviews of local concerts, not for publication, as a kind of audition.

One of those two reviews — the one that got me the job — was of a recital by Ms. Albanese. In that review, I called her “an incomparable performing artist,” praised her “excellent diction” and said her rendition of an aria from Boito’s “Mefistofele” was “as fine ... as one is ever likely to hear.” Re-reading what I wrote in that audition piece, I find that I was also painfully honest, saying that at this point in her career, “she can no more summon the vocal resources for the roulades of ‘Sempre libera.’ ”

A week later I was a freelancer for the Monitor. Before I left Boston six months later to begin a professorship at Duquesne University, I had written 26 published reviews for the Monitor, as well as one for the Montreal Star. The portfolio I amassed was crucial in my being hired by the Post-Gazette in September 1964, as a freelancer to assist then music critic Donald Steinfirst. This in turn led to my becoming Post-Gazette music critic after Mr. Steinfirst’s death in 1972.

The Metropolitan Opera annals say that Ms. Albanese performed the glamorous Violetta 87 times, and the hapless Cio-Cio-San 72 times. Mimi in “La Boheme” was another signature role, tallying 64 performances, as well as Micaela in “Carmen” (42).

And those figures only represent her Met performances — a total of 427 performances in 17 roles from 1940-66 — not including her numerous guest appearances with smaller companies. She starred in six Pittsburgh Opera productions between 1948-62, appearing in “La Boheme” in 1948-49 and again in 1957-58; Massenet’s “Manon” in 1952-53 and 1961-62; “La Traviata” in 1954-55; and “Madama Butterfly” in 1955-56.

She was conductor Arturo Toscanini’s soprano of choice for his legendary 1940s broadcasts (now reissued on CD) of “La Traviata” and “La Boheme.” She has 47 entries in, which lists all currently available CD and DVD recordings. Two of these are DVDs: an early telecast from Voice of Firestone, and a 2001 concert recording of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies.”

Her voice itself was not particularly beautiful. It was a slim sound, although nonetheless strong and penetrating. In her later years it could become shrill and breathy. What made her singing special was her phrasing, which should be required listening for every aspiring soprano today. She could wrench your heart or make you smile just by the way she shaped and colored a particular line. There was also the clarity of her Italian diction, which meant a lot to me at a time when I was studying singing and struggling to learn that language.

At one point, I wrote Ms. Albanese a fan letter. She sent me an autographed photo that I still cherish, but I never actually met her until about 20 years ago, when she returned to Pittsburgh as a special guest for a Pinza Foundation benefit, and again, a few years later to be a judge for Pittsburgh Opera’s Traviata 2000 voice competition. She was an elegant figure, and quite gracious when I told her that she had been a significant influence in my life.

Thank you, dear Ms. Albanese, for the career that you unknowingly inspired in me, but most of all for the beautiful music and insights into the art of singing that have remained with me throughout my life.

Robert Croan is a Post-Gazette senior editor and former classical music critic.

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