It's not every day a great opera diva makes it to the century mark. So let's take a moment to cheer for Licia Albanese, the beloved Metropolitan Opera star, who celebrates her 100th today and who most likely would not care to be called 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."
Albanese began expressing herself on stage in her native Italy in 1934 when she took over for an indisposed Madama Butterfly at the Teatro Lirico in Milan. She would turn that Puccini heroine into a signature role with reportedly more than 300 performances, including 72 at the Met. Albanese sang more than 400 times for the company, holding the record for the most La traviatas (87). She sang Desdemona in Verdi's Otello when the opera was the first to be televised from the Met in 1948.
In operatic jargon, Albanese's voice was often labeled lyrico-spinto — meaning a lyric voice that can be pushed toward more dramatic music. She excelled in many Italian roles, especially Puccini, but also sang Mozart and French opera.
The late opera writer John Steane felt that recordings probably did not do Albanese's voice justice. But in his book The Grand Tradition, he makes note of her 1946 recording of La Bohème led by Arturo Toscanini, saying, "By Act 3 we are hearing a performance by Albanese as strong in emotion as it is delicate in the voice, the tenderness and fragility of the character having their place in a resolutely unsentimental reading of the score."
And it looks as if the famous prima donna will also take an unsentimental approach to her 100th birthday. Stephen De Maio, a friend of Albanese's and a director of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, which supports young opera singers, says it will be a very quiet birthday this year. She will be celebrating "with dinner engagements all week long, together with her son and daughter-in-law, as well as friends," De Maio says.