Licia Albanese, acclaimed opera soprano known for ‘Madama Butterfly,’ dies at 105

Licia Albanese, the acclaimed soprano who ennobled the tragic heroines of Puccini and Verdi in hundreds of performances with the Metropolitan Opera and on other leading world stages, died Aug. 15 at her home in New York City. She was 105.

Her son, Joseph Gimma Jr., confirmed her death and said he did not know the immediate cause.

For more than a quarter-century, from her debut in 1940 until her final curtain call in 1966, Miss Albanese was a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

She sang there in more than 400 performances of 17 roles — most notably Cio-Cio-San, the title character of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Violetta, the Parisian courtesan of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Although perhaps better known as Butterfly, Miss Albanese played Violetta more often than any other soprano in Met history, according to a death notice placed by the company in the New York Times.

Through talent and sheer stamina, she became a leading lady in the long-ago era when the Met was housed at a now-demolished location at 39th and Broadway and when the Ritz-Carlton, according to Miss Albanese’s recollection, charged visiting musicians $8 per night.


Licia Albanese, the acclaimed operatic soprano, was widely known for her performances in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” (New York Opera Festival Inc.)

Her first onstage performance as Cio-Cio-San, at Milan’s Teatro Lirico in 1934, came as a surprise to theatergoers as well as to Miss Albanese. She was a music student at the time, according to published accounts of her life, and was in attendance at a performance of “Madama Butterfly” when the soprano fell ill. Word got out that there was a young singer in the house who knew the part, and Miss Albanese was called onstage.

Six years later, on Feb. 9, 1940, she debuted at the Met.

“A new Butterfly . . . was seen last night in the title part of Puccini’s opera,” music critic Olin Downes wrote in the New York Times. “She quickly won the audience’s approval by the freshness of feeling, the interest of detail in her performance and the prevailing eloquence of her song.”

Miss Albanese was widely praised for the emotional sensitivity she displayed in her portrayal of Cio-Cio-San, a geisha who patiently and tragically awaits the return to Japan of the beloved U.S. Navy lieutenant who fathered her young son.

“A butterfly never sits on a flower,” the soprano observed. “It flies here and there. That was my Butterfly on stage. I never stopped studying or finding new things to make Butterfly profound.”

In “La Traviata,” she portrayed Violetta Valery, the consumptive heroine who, after a life of frivolity, discovers love and fulfillment too late.

“She created a complete personality that lived and loved and drank champagne and made decisions and died,” wrote the critic Virgil Thomson. “One has heard many Violettas. Miss Albanese’s is, I should think, one of the great ones, because, like all the great ones, it resembles no other yet is wholly convincing.”

She took roles including Susanna in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” Micaela in Bizet’s “Carmen” and Nedda in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” It was noted that her performances as Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme,” like those in “Madama Butterfly” and “La Traviata,” revealed her singular skill.

“Nowhere was [her] mastery of her art more palpable,” reads her entry in the International Dictionary of Opera, “than during the moments that required her to ‘expire’ on-stage.”

Felicia Albanese was born in Bari, Italy, on July 23, 1909, according to her son. As a girl, Miss Albanese aspired to be a dancer before revealing her promise as a singer.

She sang throughout Italy, including in Parma and Naples and at Milan’s La Scala, the country’s premier opera house. Among her early supporters was the tenor Beniamino Gigli.

Miss Albanese came to the United States in 1939 and became a U.S. citizen six years later. She sang at opera houses across the country, including at Washington’s Carter Barron amphitheater, and around the world.

At the Met, she sang with leading opera stars of the era — including Ezio Pinza, who once injected a bit of humor into the soul-sapping tragedy of “La Boheme” by placing a fetid herring under the pillow where Miss Albanese was to die.

She became an experienced performer under the baton of Arturo Toscanini, the revered Italian conductor. He led the performances of “La Traviata” and “La Boheme,” both with tenor Jan Peerce, that were among her most important recordings. A more recent recording was her 1985 performance in “Follies,” the Stephen Sondheim musical, which also featured Elaine Stritch and Carol Burnett.

After her stage career, she gave master classes and supported young artists through the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation. In 1995, she received the National Medal of Arts.

At Lincoln Center, the Met’s location since 1966, Miss Albanese frequently was heard singing on opening night during the traditional rendition of the national anthem.

Her husband of 45 years, Joseph Gimma, died in 1990. Survivors include her son, Joseph Gimma Jr. of Darien, Conn.; two grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

“The best note,” Miss Albanese once recalled, “is the last breath. All you hear is that breath when I die. You breathe and then you die.”

Emily Langer is a reporter on The Washington Post’s obituaries desk. She has written about national and world leaders, celebrated figures in science and the arts, and heroes from all walks of life.
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