Licia Albanese, Last of the Old Guard of Legendary Opera Singers!


“Licia Albanese, definitively the very last of the ‘Old Guard’ of legendary opera singers and the last singer of her generation to have been considered a prima donna assoluta, died last week at the age of 105!  Words are insufficient to make abundantly clear that she never can be replaced.  Aside from having been synonymous with the ‘Old’ Met in the middle of the last Century, her art was so refined that it was made possible solely by virtue of her acute imagination combined with a lifetime of observation and study of the intricacies of the human condition.  She was, without question, the veritable queen of expressivity.  Further to which was the period in which her active career prospered.  Albanese is the perfect example of the artist whose performance style was in perfect correlation with the manner in which she lived.  She is among the best examples of performing legends whose example is by now a virtually extinct art – Albanese worked just as she lived, with complete grace and dedication to her career.  One can name but a very few conductors, instrumentalists and singers who, upon hearing their recordings today, are instantly recognizable – something which cannot be said for more than a handful of today’s crop of sensationalized personalities.  In Albanese’s case, even if one were not seeing her, the mind’s ‘ear’ would instantly recognize her unique style, characterization and voice. 

Hers was an art which was absolutely impossible to replicate.  How familiar we are with the recordings of Marcel Wittrisch who, consciously or otherwise, would hopefully be the next Richard Tauber, but  there was only the great Tauber;  any attempt to copy his unique style would be hopeless.  Those who would have the temerity to fashion their style after Milanov would, without her glorious voice, become a travesty.  Caruso imitators have, throughout the years, suffered aborted careers as a result of their arrogance, and they too have disappeared in the dust of time. 


Licia Albanese,who  studied with the great soprano Giuseppina Baldassarre-Tedeschi, a noted Madama Butterfly from  the early part of the 20th Century, carried on the great tradition of one of the most glorious of verismo artists.  Albanese was particularly noted  for the title role in MADAMA BUTTERFLY, a part she sang more than 300 times.She learned and exhibited the importance of the slightest nuanced gesture in her recreation of an operatic character.  Hers was never an ‘over the top’ style of performing.  On the contrary, Albanese would draw the listener in as she trained her audiences to concentrate rather than to be overwhelmed.  She was a dedicated artist throughout, even if she might have to occasionally sacrifice the beauty of the voice in her effort to place emphasis on words.  

Another perfectionist, Arturo Toscanini, sought her out for a number of his operatic performances during the ‘40s.  As one result, her recorded Violetta under his baton is one of the most vivid portrayals in her arsenal.  Albanese is quoted from 1974:  ‘I never pushed on the low notes, except for some dramatic moments.  I was taught to do it with accent and not with the voice.  It is important to keep the middle voice light, even when dramatic, or you lose the high notes.  The drama comes in accenting the words and with diction’. 

Albanese sang well over 400 performances with the Met, and among them was distinguished in having 41 broadcasts.  In 1939, she emigrated from Italy and came to New York, via Montréal, where she débuted at the Met on 9 February, 1940, as Cio-Cio-San.  She made her mark primarily via imaginative chiaroscuro rather than through overt actions.  She thus became a celebrated star overnight.” 


Classical Music Recordings and Jim's Gems

Hearing André Cluytens conduct the Vienna Philharmonic in 1955 was my introduction to symphonic music – not a paltry beginning, to be sure, albeit that it was in an all-purpose gargantuan auditorium in Burlington, Vermont, the city in which I had been born fifteen years earlier.  The impression was quite wonderful, to be sure, but nothing as thrilling and moving as would be the case when I moved to Boston in 1960, almost immediately becoming an usher in Symphony Hall where Charles Münch presided over that city’s glorius orchestra!  While there, I regularly heard the Boston Symphony usually under Münch, but also under Monteux, Burgin (for Bruckner), Barbirolli, Giulini, Stokowski, Bernstein, and many, many others.  I had the opportunity to hear numerous visiting orchestras, thus Szell with Cleveland, Steinberg with Pittsburgh, Barshai with Moscow, von Karajan with Berlin, etc. 


The latter was memorable not merely musically but more so theatrically since I had the experience (or misfortune) of arriving at the hall just as von Karajan’s limousine came to the stage door.  The chauffeur opened the rear door and merely stood there for quite a while as the passenger prepared himself for a grand exit (prior to a less grand appearance on stage).  His far grander exit from the limousine was due to his very calculated (yes, extra-musically calculated as well) emergence taking the chauffeur’s waiting hand, slowly arriving on the curb, then standing erect as the chauffeur reached back into the vehicle to collect Maestro’s cloak.  After gathering it, he very carefully placed it over Maestro’s waiting shoulders before walking with him to the stage door.  I’ve seen countless entrances during my life, but nothing as ridiculous as this ever before – nor since!  Many recitals also happened in that hallowed hall during the few years I was there, thus I heard Morini, Elman, Szeryng, Rostropovich, Richter, Rubinstein, Janis, Serkin, Vishnevskaya, Dolukhanova, Nikolaidi, Sutherland, Nilsson, Caballé, Corelli, Schwarzkopf (akin to von Karajan, quite a ‘theatrical’ impression was made), Mahlia Jackson, Harry Belafonte, and many, many more. 


Such was my life while still in school and then in my early working years.  A far cry from my hometown and so rewarding, for all for which I had hoped, my hopes were being far exceeded.  My childhood had been quite uneventful and very, very lonely, especially as I am an ‘only’ child who was born to regular middle-class parents who really didn’t quite know what to do with me and my musical interests.  Much of my childhood and adolescent years were spent in the local library and then, after it closed for the day, up the hill at the gorgeous library at the Univerity of Vermont.  University students there must have wondered what such a youngster was doing there, but I simply ignored these ‘older’ folks as I scoured the library card files and then went searching for the appropriate books which caught my interest.  I was seldom at home, and while there I spent the remainder of my time listening to the records I was able to purchase, predominantly via RCA and Columbia record ‘clubs’ in their promotions of classical music. Never would I have imagined that this meagre beginning ultimately would develop into my record collecting, and most assuredly never would I have imagined my becoming a record dealer.  But the seeds were quietly germinating as my life would take its course.


Other than inhabiting the two libraries which I considered ‘home’, and attending wonderful recitals in that aforementioned auditorium in which I heard Boris Christoff, Andrès Segovia, Isaac Stern, the Robert Shaw Chorale, etc., as well as hearing Malcuzinski and seeing the legendary Galina Ulanova with the Bolshoi Ballet in Montréal, in her final appearance in the West, before returning to Moscow, my childhood and adolescent years were relatively pallid, being perhaps a kind of calm before the eventual musical storm of the years which would follow shortly therefter.  I was anxious to leave Burlington, even though I always loved its inherent beauty of lovely elm-lined streets with slate sidewalks and often beautiful architecture overlooking Lake Champlain.  Throughout my adult life, however, I always imagined returning to the quiet and refined place of that time.  When I ultimately did return at age 60, all had changed and Burlington had become like so many other towns and small cities, surrounded by shopping malls and the like.  We chose Saint Albans, a nice smaller city about 25 miles north of Burlington (and a mere 50 miles from Montréal).  One thing we all knew for certain is that we wanted to be in Vermont - - ultimately, a very fine choice!


Several years in Boston merely whetted my appetite for more music, ballet and theatre, so New York was to be an inevitability in my maturing years.  While living in Boston, I made regular trips to the ‘Big Apple’ since I wanted to hear Zinka Milanov in the final years of her career (not the very least, her incredibly beautiful series of Desdemonas, as well as her sole performance in ANDREA CHÉNIER with Corelli, 17 Nov., 1962 [in which both sang gloriously]), as well as Eleanor Steber [including her Donna Anna on the dreadful occasion of Lorin Maazel making his Met début, 1 Nov., 1962], both of whom I heard in the ‘Old House’ at 39th Street and Broadway. 


I tremendously value the sacrifices I made in order repeatedly to visit New York at that time, somehow knowing I’d never hear their like again.  I went out of my way to see Bolshoi Ballet performances featuring Maximova, her husband Vasiliev and the heavenly Plisetskaya – all treasured memories.  So, along with David Norbeck whom I met in Boston in 1964 (not long after his graduation from Bowdoin College), off we went to New York, and while David took up a teaching position, I ventured into the world of music management.  In that field, I was little more than a right-hand-man to those who needed assistance, but in that work I met and worked with some outstanding people and learned so much from them. 


Among the artists we represented were Jean Madeira (nearing the end of her career which would be terminated by leukemia), a kind and sincere person who would befriend me by warning me of the opportunistic vultures in the business who would take advantage of one (especially one so young), use one up and then spit one out.  (This fate never happened to me since I would leave the field after two or three years in it – a period during which I clearly witnessed all that of which Jean had forewarned.)  It was Jean who informed me of so many of the shenanigans of the opera world, so much of it sad, but so very true.  Jean always gave me tickets to all her Met performances, usually as Mrs. Sedley in the stunning Tyrone Guthrie production of PETER GRIMES.  She was quite candid about how hard she had to work in order not to be lost onstage in the electrifying presence of the unforgettable Jon Vickers.  Like Vickers, she also was a magnetic personality.  Years later, after Jean’s death and Vickers’ retirement, the production became limp and uninspired, especially not having Colin Davis’ monumental leadership. 


Classical Music and The Met

Rosalind Elias also gave me her Met tickets, thereby enabling me to attend many more performances.  Thanks to Roz, I attended all performances of DER ROSENKAVALIER, most of them featuring the glorious Régine Crespin as the Marschallin – experiences I’ll never forget!  Of the numerous rôles I heard Roz sing, her Octavian was unquestionably the very, very best.  She was so entirely natural in a rôle which seems to confound many women.  


Eileen Farrell was another singer with whom I was privileged to work.  Eileen became a dear and trusted friend, and it was her husband, Bob Reagan, who asked me to accompany her to the 125th Asnniversary Concert of the New York Philharmonic.  What a fantastic night that was, not nesessarily musically-speaking, but with the very long evening featuring a showcase of invited performers who had appeared with the NYPO over the more recent years of its history.  Outstanding among the guests was Lauritz Melchior who was seated down front in an aisle seat, his chest covered with many of the numerous medals he had received over the course of his long career. 


While Eileen was pleasantly surprised by this spectacle, she was most uncomfortable seeing Marjorie Lawrence in attendance – moreover when Lawrence would come backstage to greet her!  Lawrence’s autobiography INTERRUPTED MELODY which years before had been filmed for screen had as its soundtrack her post-career voice.  This had been scrapped, and Eileen had been called in to do the ‘voice-over’. Eileen warned me that Lawrence was probably sitting out there cursing her!  But Eileen stated emphatically that ‘it won’t work!’.  But after the performance, Lawrence appeared in the green room and heartily hugged Eileen.  It was a thrill for me, personally, to have the opportunity to meet the earlier great Wagnerian. 


Also present that night was the upright, uptight and stiff Richard Lewis.  I had regularly been in charge of his travel and hotel accomodations whenever the tenor would visit New York.  On one occasion, I booked him into the city one day ahead of his rehearsal schedule with the NYPO – a mishap that he never forgot!  He was furious that I had derprived him of one extra day in his comfortable Bermuda home, staying instead in the city which was far from his liking.  On another occasion, after he had phoned me in order to get gratis tickets to a Vickers performance of PETER GRIMES, he was most displeased that his account would be charged for them, and none too happy to have me escort him backstage afterward to meet Vickers himself.  En route to backstage, Lewis’ wife asked me how it felt to be in the presence of the world’s greatest Grimes.  I agreed with her (or so I thought) and replied that we were indeed blessed to have Vickers do the rôle.  I hadn’t realized at that moment that Grimes was one of Lewis’ various rôles in London.  Since I never saw nor heard it, I am allowed no comment.


Another artist we represented was another tenor, the American Richard Cassilly.  Among my various responsibilities was to write the content for publicity for many of our artists, thus I had written one for Cassilly.  He had recently sung in Germany with Birgit Nilsson, so I made reference to it within the publicity.  When he saw my work, he wrote back that my work should be destroyed, that he certainly didn’t need to be mentioned within the context of the great Nilsson, that he could stand on his own merits!  My work was dutifully thrown out! 


On a far brighter and musical note, I had the distinct pleasure and honor of working with and befriending Joseph Fuchs.  I had never before heard Bach played so beautifully and musically, and rarely have I enjoyed such a musical pleasure since (other than the heavenly performance of the Haydn C Major Violin Concerto as played by Szymon Goldberg, in 1982).  Joe and his wife Doris shared many meals with us, at our apartment as well as at chez Fuchs. 


Guiomar Novães was another supreme artist with whom I was involved, but this was no pleasure at all.  Her daily demands were mind-numbing, and in that era of typewriters rather than computers, to change a recital program meant to destroy one’s work and re-type the whole thing.  With any recital (particularly one to be given in New York) she would change the program as many times as there were days in the week.  My fingers feel numb as I recount this ordeal!  I ultimately learned to retain my work which would be, for the moment, incorrect, hold the various programs I had typed, and then deliver to Philharmonic Hall (as it was then called) the (hopefully) final version.  I rarely ceased to be annoyed by her . . . that is, until I would attend the eventual recital or concert program on which she was featured.  And then, it all seemed worth all the effort and aggravation.  Her playing could melt a stone.  She ought to have played like an angel, especially after her hectoring the Steinway officials.  Upon her arrival in New York, the mandatory visit to the Steinway basement would occur as the initial event.  She would spend the better part of a day trying out various Steinways.  In the end, she would always choose the same instrument on which she always played!  Her non-New York programs presented a different kind of problem, so I would send the hiring auspices two or three programs, asking them to phone me before going to press, and in so doing hopefully have a correct one.  But getting to these out-of-town places presented another problem.  In her youth, Novães had been accustomed to being treated like royalty by her Brazilian government. Nevertheless, she was at this time performing and travelling in the United States, as opposed to her homeland, and could not understand why her account would be debited for her travel expenses and accomodations!  She travelled with a most accomodating, kindly Brazilian companion who always served as the genteel peacemaker.  Novães paid her own way, as well as that of travelling companion-servant-maid, etc.  Finally, when Novães performed Gottschalk's Grand Fantasy on the Brazilian National Anthem in the International Piano Library Benefit Concert at Hunter College, 3 October, 1970, although she had been sleeping in her dressing room during most of the evening, when her turn came to make her appearance in this star-studded event, she rose (quite literally) to the occasion and truly brought down the house!  She was triumphant in an already extraordinary concert.


I enjoyed the happy opportunity of meeting Charles Libove and Nina Lugovoy during that time, a meeting which would begin a friendship which would endure for many years, within New York and then in Woodstock (where we all lived).  At the time, Charlie was first violinist of the Beaux Arts String Quartet.  They needed a secretary, so I was approached and happily accepted.  Little did I realize that this was merely the hint at the germinating seed of a later career of being secretary to various musicians – of all types.  When I left the management, it was at the end of summer and most of the artists were out-of-town.  When one of them, Sherrill Milnes, returned he was rather displeased to find me gone.  He phoned me, told me I couldn’t do this (which, I reminded him, I already had), so he took me on as his private secretary.  This connection would last quite a few years, even after I would leave New York, as I then commuted to visit him from Woodstock.  If I hadn’t been a ‘regular’ attending performances of artists I knew at the Met Opera, now I would become a fixture there, especially since Sherrill wanted me present before and after performances.  I heard and saw more opera than most of us witness during an entire lifetime.  A couple of years after my happy association with Sherrill began, he sent me to another apartment in his building to visit Pinchas Zukerman who needed a secretary.   Our meeting went very well, and now I would visit the City weekly for two performing artists, instead of just one.  Pinky was a joy to be with, but now I was finding myself back in New York more time each week than I might have anticipated. Very shortly after joining Pinky, he introduced me to Peter Schickele (of P.D.Q. Bach notoriety), and this association would endure for many years (especially since Norbeck, Peters & Ford to this day handles all of the P.D.Q. Bach recordings, books, t-shirts and other memorabilia).  All these associations provided me with a great variety of valuable learning experiences, but the one for which I was never searching is the one I now value most:  Peter’s recognition and treatment of people in general – a spirituality in a duly profound sense.  With no disrespect to any of the aforementioned, it was this noble soul who taught me, by example, the most! 


Another glorious musician and spiritualist was pianist William Masselos with whom I was blessed with a wonderful friendship.  John Browning also was a joy to work with.  Unlike the aforementioned Novães, John once had to revise his annual active concerto list.  In early September, as artists’ programs and concerti were about to be announced for the coming season, John phoned me in the hope that I had not as yet done his.  I had, and he was sincerely contrite, but he had to tell me that a certain concerto was not yet ‘in his fingers’ and thus would have to be eliminated from the list.  Needless to say, I happily re-did his offerings. 


But speaking of artists’ concerto lists, I had quite a shock one day when Ruggiero Ricci (really Roger Rich) came to the office.  I showed him his list of concerti which was by then yellowed and wrinkled with age . . . and a mile long.  Surely this list needed to be updated, so I asked him which of all these concerti did he actually play.  In his shriekish voice he stated ‘all of ‘um – I play ‘um all’.  So much for that, thought I – and that evening I heard him participate in the Sibelius Concerto . . . an unforgettable event, to be sure!


Several years went by, David and I had moved to Woodstock to get away from the City, and in 1972 we began a small 78 rpm record & book catalogue which we called ‘Nipper’.  This name would endure for many years until one day when EMI discovered we were using this age-old name of which EMI decreed a certain proprietary notion.  They threatened lawsuit, we certainly would never win in this David-Goliath competition, so we simply changed our name to ‘Nobeck & Peters’.  This would endure until 1991 when Peter Ford joined us (via our Woodstock Art Dealer-Friend James Cox), so we changed one more time to ‘Norbeck, Peters & Ford’.  Somewhere in the late 70s, ‘Nipper’ was demanding much more time than originally anticipated, so one very sad (but ultimately very appropriate) day, I terminated all my secretarial responsibilities, then devoting full-time to the record and book business. 


Since that time, we have grown tremendously.  Peter had graduated from SUNY – New Paltz, coming to us several years after having taught English literature there.  During the intervening years he worked for the Federally-funded Legal Services Corporation, assisting the indigent and deprived people who needed representation.  The Reagan ‘trickle-down economy’ phased out Legal Services, and eventually Peter along with it.  Peter was extremely active in environmental causes during the 70s and 80s, his chief and most resounding accomplishment being the saving of Minnewaska, a glorious nature preserve in the Shawangunk Mountain Range, a foothill of the Catskill Mountains.  Peter took on the the Marriott Corporation which wanted to build a resort complex for the wealthy in a pristine wilderness area . . . and won! No small achievement, especially as one views the abhorrent world of corporate greed we witness daily.

Classical Music Online 

In 1984, David decided we should expand our business and take on CDs.  I was horrified!  I had always had enough difficulty in accepting LPs as being ‘real’ records (as opposed to the 78s), and this concept was simply going too far in my very wrong-minded opinion.  I couldn’t imagine how any serious music lover, especially of live and/or historical performances, could in any way be attracted to those relatively tiny, silverish disks with print so small that one could hardly read their notes.  No way, thought I, would we ever take on such a fleeting commodity.  But David persisted, I decided it was only fair to compromise, so at his urging we took on just a mere handful of historical interest CDs from Romophone (of London) which were just becoming available.  They all sold out, within hours!  So we ordered a few more, and the same thing happened again!  Finally, we began buying CDs by boxes of 25-count, each title.  And within a short period, we had to re-order again and again.  And this is how our CD business began – out of disagreement and my very reluctant compromise!  After Romophone (for whom Ward Marston did so much wonderful sound engineering), Ward appeared on the scene with Marston Records, and the rest of that story, as they say, is history!  Gradually, we took on more labels, several of which are still thriving today.  We were fortunate to begin an early association with THE RECORD COLLECTOR when they began to issue their own CDs, followed by VRCS, Truesound Transfers, the Frida-Leider-Gesellschaft, Clama, Aquarius, Malibran, and numerous others.  Today, there aren’t enough hours in the day for all the work we do!

Classical Music expands

Further to the concept of growth, as the business matured, so did I!  When, in 1991, Peter Ford came aboard, I took it for granted that the sole person capable of handling the numerous phone calls was me! How very self-centered and wrong I was!  As things got busier, Peter began to take some of the calls, and it quickly became apparent that his style was infinitely superior to my own, so I was gradually phased out of that aspect of our work.  By so doing, I was now able to do far more research than ever before, thus began to apply more and more critical quotes and biographical notes to our numerous listings.  Today, we are (I hope) justifiably proud of a neat and informative website.  We are a busy operation which involves the three of us in full-time work, plus our fabulous assistants Gail and Allison.  Gail handles all website details and internet positioning, while Allison does all the scanning of books and CDs and is about to take over the book-keeping from David.  We’ve come a long, long way since our humble beginning in 1972!


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