Memories by Betty White
Editor's Note: The following remembrance was delivered by Betty White to an audience at The Heritage, San Francisco, CA in 2005.
I was blessed to be born into a family of music lovers, at least on my mother's side. My mother sang and played the piano and had a passion for Puccini, Viennese operetta, Maurice Chevalier, Grace Moore, and practically all tenors. My bachelor Uncle Ralph loved Verdi, Puccini, Massenet, Bizet, Gounod, anything operatic that was melodious, beautiful, and romantic. My grandmother favored Verdi and all baritones. My grandfather loved the Irish tenor John McCormack, the baritone John Charles Thomas and Nelson Eddy and Jeanette MacDonald. I saw all the MacDonald-Eddy films with both my grandparents. My grandfather also loved to listen over the radio to a show called The American Album of Familiar Music starring Frank Munn and Vivian della Chiesa. I've never forgotten those names. As a child I wandered around the house saying "Vivian della Chiesa, Vivian della Chiesa." I wanted a name like that. Instead I grew up to be Betty White.
Uncle Ralph lived with my grandparents in Alameda, where I grew up. His retreat was an alcove off the living room, where he lounged in what was called a Bell chair, the first chair I ever saw that reclined. There he kept his mahogany console record player and his precious opera records, each in its own sleeve in a thick album. He must have had nine or ten of those albums. We listened together to his favorite arias, which became my favorites. As a nine-year-old, I sat on the rug and was allowed to pull each record from its sleeve. When I remember those afternoons and evenings, my most precious memory is of my grandmother coming out of the kitchen, drying a plate, standing in the living room so she could listen to her favorite aria the baritone's farewell from "Faust." That music always enticed her out of the kitchen so we always played it.
Ralph and my grandmother gave me what I consider the perfect introduction to staged opera. When I was fifteen Ralph took me to our San Francisco War Memorial Opera House on Van Ness Avenue to hear Bizet's "Carmen," with the mezzo soprano Gladys Swarthout, a glamorous woman with a lovely voice. I realized years later that she wasn't the best Carmen I'd ever seen, but she was my first Carmen, and special. That night I was thrilled thrilled by the orchestra, thrilled by the voices, thrilled by the spectacle on the stage, and thrilled by the opera house, especially the chandelier. When I got home, my mother was waiting up to hear my report. As I was getting out of my finery, she said, "What's this?" as she opened the evening bag she'd lent me. Her very favorite and very old handkerchief was in shreds, but I had no recollection of tearing it apart. I no longer tear handkerchiefs, but I still become tense and excited when I listen to opera.
The next year, when I was sixteen, Ralph took me back to the opera house to hear Verdi's "La Traviata," with the Brazilian soprano Bidu Sayao. That was another thrilling night the night I fell in love with Verdi and with "La Traviata."
The next year, when I was seventeen, was a momentous year. My generous grandmother took not just me but also my best friend, Maxine, to the opera house to hear Puccini's "La Boheme," with an Italian soprano, Licia Albanese, who became the idol of my youth. I should say the idol of my life. Or, in the words of a woman who wrote to the Metropolitan Opera Company about her favorite singer, "my high particular." It's been many, many years since I was seventeen, but I can still almost feel the shivers I felt the first time I heard Albanese and Puccini together. Over the years I've heard many sopranos sing Puccini, but she's the only one who ever made me shiver. Albanese was petite, probably five feet, not thin, but not fat. Her black hair was thick and shiny, and her dark eyes flashed. She acted with her face, her body, and her voice. It's hard to describe a voice. Hers wasn't beautiful in the way that Renata Tebaldi's and Leontyne Price's were or Renee Fleming's is today. It wasn't a velvet voice. I would use the word “metallic.” The voice could be tender but more usually urgent, dramatic. Whatever the character's mood, the voice was always intense, as though it were charged. And for me the sound of her voice was always exciting. Technically, her voice was called "spinto," Italian meaning "pushed," between a lyric soprano and a dramatic soprano, with the ability to rise above the orchestra when necessary.
Let's listen now to Licia Albanese and Giuseppe de Stefano in the love duet from Act I of Puccini's "La Boheme" "O Soave Fanciulla," Oh Lovely Maiden. It's Christmas Eve in a Parisian garret. Mimi the seamstress and Rodolfo the poet have just met by chance and fallen in love within 25 minutes. Notice the INTENSITY of Albanese's first note as she joins the tenor in this lovely aria.
After that performance of "La Boheme" when I was seventeen, Maxine and I went backstage while my tolerant grandmother waited outside the building. We stood in line and eventually were face to face with the diva in her dressing room. She was gracious, modest, and, I suspect now, slightly amused. When we told her exactly what everyone else had just told her "You were wonderful, Miss Albanese," she smiled and said what I was to hear her say many times over the years: "It wasn't me, it was Puccini." But she was wrong; It was Puccini and she.
For the next four years, while co-eds at UC Berkeley, Maxine and I saw as many of Albanese's San Francisco performances, as we could. We saw "Boheme" again and again. We saw "Pagliacci," "Otello," "Tales of Hoffman," "Manon Lescaut," "Martha," "Don Pasquale," "Don Giovanni," and most memorably for me, "La Traviata." Albanese has always been considered a Puccini specialist, but for me her most poignant and dramatic portrayal was Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata."
Maxine and I also did some research in the Cal library when we should have been studying for midterms. We discovered that Albanese was born in 1909 in Bari, Italy, on the Adriatic coast. Like many singers, including Maria Callas, she studied the piano before she began vocal studies. Her father died while she was still in her teens, but a cousin financed her studies in Milan with a retired soprano with a marvelous name: Giuseppina Baldassare Tedeschi. She introduced Albanese to many of the roles Albanese later made her own, especially Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." Albanese entered a national singing contest 300 contestants and won first prize, the gold medal! She made her operatic debut in Parma, Italy, in "Madama Butterfly." In 1939, when she was 30, she was chosen to record "La Boheme" with Italy's foremost tenor, Beniamino Gigli. He recommended her to the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York, which offered her a contract without an audition a rare occurrence. Albanese made her Met debut in 1940 in "Madama Butterfly." She sang at the Met for 26 years, 427 performances of 17 roles. Even today she still holds the Met record for the number of her "Traviatas" 89. In 1941, Albanese made her San Francisco Opera debut. She sang here for twenty years 120 performances of 22 roles. In the mid-forties, the legendary conductor Arturo Toscannini chose her for his celebrated radio performances of "La Boheme" and "La Traviata." I listened at home with my mother to those performances. They were exciting. Very exciting.
Let's hear Albanese now in the last act of Verdi's "La Traviata." Violetta is alone except for her faithful maid, she's destitute, and she knows she's dying. She reads aloud a letter from the father of her lover, Alfredo. He tells her Alfredo will be with her soon, but she knows it's too late "e tardi." When she finishes the letter she picks up a hand mirror and shudders because she's changed so much "O come son mutata." Then she sings Violetta's farewell to the past, "Addio del Passato." This is one of Verdi's and Albanese's great scenes.
In 1946, when I was still a Cal coed, SF Opera produced "Madama Butterfly" for the first time since 1941. (The opera wasn't offered during all of WWII because of its Japanese theme). Albanese was given the starring role. I wrote to her at the Palace Hotel, where she always stayed, and asked her for an interview. I had no idea what I would do if she granted the request. I knew I could write something, but who would print it? I wasn't affiliated with a newspaper or a magazine. I was just a college student. Nevertheless, one week later I found myself in the Garden Court of the Palace Hotel having lunch with my idol! I was very nervous, very excited. She was very kind, very easy to be with. We talked about the upcoming production of "Butterfly", and she became animated over her interpretation of the role, particularly how she always tried to keep her voice lighter in the first act because Cio Cio San is so young, only fifteen years "quindici anni." I took no notes because I couldn't eat and write at the same time, but I remembered almost everything she said and I took the article I wrote to the "Alameda Times Star". which put it on page one! No money, but a byline. My grandmother bought 11 copies.
There was one thing wrong with that first post-war production of "Butterfly" Maxine and I couldn't get tickets. We tried everywhere. Remember the old Sherman Clay building on Kearney Street? We stood and stood in line nothing. There wasn't a ticket in town. But one afternoon about a week before the first performance we met a short, genial man standing near Albanese's dressing room door. We started to chat; we assumed he was with the Opera Company. He wanted to know what school we attended and what classes we were taking. After a little while he said, "Are you coming to 'Butterfly'?" We said, "Oh, no," and told him our sad story. He said, "That's too bad; you haven't heard ' Butterfly' until you've heard my wife sing it." This was Joseph Gimma, a New York stockbroker, also from Bari, although they didn't know each other there. Many years later after he died, she was quoted saying, "We were best friends for 50 years and husband and wife for 45." They both became US citizens and had a son who graduated from Annapolis. That afternoon Joseph Gimma took our names and our address in Berkeley, and three days later in the mail came two tickets in the Dress Circle for the first performance of “Butterfly'' since before the war. What a night that was! I will never forget it. I pray I never forget it. Albanese's performance was heart-rending. One San Francisco critic wrote, "Licia Albanese conquered with her Cio Cio San."
Let's listen to her now in the entrance of Butterfly, Act 1. Cio Cio San and her family and friends have just climbed the hill in Nagasaki to join Lt. B.F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy for the wedding ceremony. She is so happy. She says that she's the happiest girl in all of Japan, no, in all of the world. But the tragedy has already begun. Pinkerton has just told the American consul that he's looking forward to the day when he has a real, American wife.
Another night when Albanese “conquered” occurred more than 20 years later at the old Circle Star Theatre in San Carlos. Albanese was in her early fifties and joined an otherwise all-American cast in a production of Puccini's "La Boheme," my favorite opera. Because the stage was round and open, Albanese as Mimi entered the way the audience had, through the doors in the back of the theatre. When she was half way down the long aisle, holding the candle for Mimi's entrance, the audience arose, applauding. It was a stirring, moving moment she hadn't been here for a few years, and she looked wonderful. She wasn't wearing a wig; her own thick, black, shiny hair was pulled back and up, and the long-sleeved, white pleated blouse and long black skirt were very becoming. A friend and I had seats three rows from the stage. Just before Act 3, my favorite act, a bench was placed directly in front of me, and there my idol sat and sang the music that always brings tears to my eyes. How I wish I had a video of that performance. Afterwards, I went backstage. It took Albanese a while; it had been more than 20 years. But she did remember our lunch in the Garden Court of the Palace Hotel. She said, "You were young then! Ah, you're still young."
Now, let's fast forward. Albanese had a brilliant career and she's had an illustrious and very long retirement. She and her husband founded the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, which supports, trains, and guides young singers in the traditions Albanese followed. She's given master classes (how I would have loved to attend one). And she's directed productions of Puccini's operas, including a production of "Madama Butterfly" by the Bay Shore Lyric Opera Co. of Capitola, CA!!
And I have had a lifetime of beauty and joy, listening to Puccini, listening to Verdi, listening to Albanese. One of my favorite pastimes these days is hopping in my Mini-Cooper and driving slowly through Golden Gate Park listening to favorite arias. And when I go to the opera house to hear operas Albanese starred in years ago. I hear two voices, the soprano's on stage and Albanese's in my heart.
Since I'm being sentimental, let's listen to the most sentimental music Puccini ever wrote, "0 Mio .Babbino Caro," Oh my dear daddy, from his only comedy, "Gianni Schicchi." Years ago a critic wrote, "Puccini is so saccharine that he should be given up at age 15 along with banana splits." Another critic wrote, "Puccini's world was small, but he was master of it, and he was a brilliant orchestrator." In "Gianni Schicchi," Lauretta and Rinuccio are madly in love. She begs her father, "0 Mio Babbino Caro," to allow them to marry. If he doesn't, she says she'll throw herself into the Arno River.
And now one final and very special memory. In 2004, at age 95, Licia Albanese was guest of honor at the opening of an exhibit about "Madame Butterfly," as a short story, as a play, as an opera, held at SF's Performing Arts Library and Museum. A friend and I attended that opening. He had to urge me to go. I thought I'd rather remember Albanese the way she looked the last time I'd seen her. But I said I'd go. When I told a friend at The Heritage, where I've been living for the past few years, she said, "Betty, you have to tell Albanese the story; tell her about the lunch when you were 20, tell her about the tickets her husband sent you." I said, "Suzie, she wouldn't be interested." My good friend said, "Betty, tell her the story." And so I did. Albanese was even shorter than she used to be, but she looked elegant and her eyes still flashed. I talked and talked, she listened, we held hands for quite a while. She said, "God bless you." We had our picture taken. A little while later she was standing alone looking at pictures on a wall. I went over, stood next to her, and said spontaneously, "One of my favorite moments in 'Butterfly' comes after Yamadori leaves." I can't sing, at all, but I moved my hand back and forth and said, "Ya-ma-dor-i." There was a pause. Then she, Licia Albanese, sang the remaining music to me, Betty White. When she stopped, I said, ''Then you used to laugh." She looked at me and said, "Ah, you remember everything." I do, I do, and I thank you for listening to these precious memories.
November 13, 2005, The Friendship Heritage Hall
© Betty White