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Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation remembers soprano, honors Stephen De Maio at 40th anniversary dinner concert

November 7, 2014 By Nino Pantano Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Host Brian Kellow and Artistic Director Steve De Maio with Licia Albanese as Madama Butterfly behind on screen. Photo by Don Pollard
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A performance held on Oct. 26 at Rose Hall-Jazz at Lincoln Center was dedicated to the memory of the beloved Metropolitan Opera soprano Licia Albanese (1909-2014), who passed away on Aug. 15 at the age of 105.  Albanese had headed the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation for four decades.

Albanese was born in Bari, Italy, and was a U.S. citizen since the 1940s. She received an award from former-President Bill Clinton and the NYC Handel Medallion from former-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani. Albanese, who sang for the San Francisco Opera for 20 years, is on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her singing of the “Otello” duet (Verdi) with Mario Lanza in the 1956 film “Serenade.”

Other supporters of the Foundation mentioned were longtime state Sen. Roy M. Goodman, whose daughter spoke of his philanthropic largess, legendary operetta soprano Martha Eggerth Kiepura (The Merry Widow) and esteemed Brooklynite Rev. Vincent J. Termine, 93.

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Termine was pastor at several Brooklyn churches, including Most Precious Blood in Bensonhurst, St. Michael-Edward in Fort Greene, St. Blaise in Crown Heights and devoted to the Albanese-Puccini Foundation.  

Sachi Liebergesell,whose late husband Rolf was fondly remembered, is president of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation and spoke eloquently of Licia Albanese. The audience sang along with a screen image of Albanese in her 80s at a past gala, singing “Star Spangled Banner.” The stage had a large backdrop of Licia Albanese in a scene from Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”

Host Brian Kellow (author and Opera News features editor) spoke of seeing Licia Albanese for the first time at an airport as she was rushing somewhere carrying her own luggage in her 80s — an endless source of zest and energy.

Famed Chopin pianist Marjan Kiepura (present with his wife, Jane) — son of soprano and film star Marta Eggerth and Metropolitan tenor Jan Kiepura who toured the world together in The Merry Widow — compared his mother, who passed away last December at age 101, to a twinkling star in the heavens.  Eggerth appeared at the Albanese-Puccini gala until she was in her mid-90s. Her Viennese-Hungarian medley was an unforgettable highlight.

Artistic Director Stephen De Maio, who also serves as president of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, received an award for his invaluable contributions to many organizations as artistic director, board member and adviser in support of young singers.

Five guest artists — who are former vocal competition winners — received Distinguished Achievement Awards, performed and were accompanied by gifted pianists Arlene Shrut and Jonathan Kelly.

Tenor John Matz sang an impassioned “Lamento di Federico” from “Cilea’s L’Arlesiana.”

Met singer Lisette Oropesa sang “Prendi” from Donizetti’s “Elisir d’amore,” her soprano voice floating and soaring through the hall.

Soprano Lori Phillips sang a thrilling “Minnie’s aria” from Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West.”

Jan Cornelius, soprano sang a heartfelt poignant “In quella morbide” from Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut,” an Albanese favorite.

Tenor Roberto Iarussi sang a lovely “Non piangere liu” from “Turandot” save for the ending when a cold curtailed the finale with some uneasiness at the top. 

“Dunque io son” from Rossini’s “Barber of Seville” featured mighty mezzo Ewa Nino and dynamic baritone Jarrett Ott. They negotiated the Rossinian terrain with dexterity with a soaring finale.

Mozart’s Papageno-Papagena duet from “The Magic Flute” was delightfully sung by mezzo soprano Alexandra Schenck and Brooklyn’s own baritone Ricardo Rivera. The harmonious blending of two such captivating voices elicited much applause from the audience including Rivera’s Grandmother Ramona from Sunset Park.

Baritone Kidon Choi sang “Si Puo? Si Puo,’’ the Prologue from “I Pagliacci” by Leoncavallo with silken ease all the way up to the sustained B flat. Choi’s warm and mellow baritone is needed today.

Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” was regally served with “La ci darem la mano.” Marina Costa-Jackson was ripe and ready for Don Giovanni’s advances and practically ran offstage, dragging him along. Costa-Jackson’s bright radiant soprano and Jared Bybee’s luscious lustful baritone beguiled us all.

The famed Pearl Fishers duet by Bizet with tenor Mingjie Lei and baritone Brian Vu gave their all in an exotic tuneful blend of honeyed hue.

Delibes’ “Fantaisie aux divins mensonges” from “Lakme” was sung by tenor Paul Han. Han’s lovely pianissimos in the French style, captivating voice control and the superb accompaniment by Maestro Eve Queler and orchestra made a very compelling case for a revival of this opera at the Metropolitan Opera. Maestro Queler’s concert revival of this work still echoes in memory. Ms Queler encouraged the singers by her baton magic and personal warmth. 

Shirin Eskandani thrilled us with “Non piu mesta” from “La Cenerentola,” with a magical mezzo flying carpet that took us to Rossini land.

French soprano Virginie Verrez sang “Wie du warst” from Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” and as always proved her versatility and elegance as a performer.

Courtney Johnson triumphed in “Signor ascolta” from Puccini’s “Turandot.” Kudos to Grace Paradise at the harp.

Baritone Alexey Lavrov moved the audience with his lusty poignant and powerful singing of “Questo amor vergogna mia” from Puccini’s “Edgar.”

Rebecca Pedersen used her sparkling soprano in the bird song “Stridono lassu” from Leoncavallo’s “I Pagliacci” with coloratura dexterity and clarion power.

First prize winner Met bass baritone Ryan Speedo Green sang “Solche hergelaufne Laffen” from Mozart’s “The Abduction of the Seraglio” using all the colors of the rainbow.

The top award was given to Benjamin Bliss whose lyrical vibrant tenor showed us all how “Una Furtiva Lagrima” from “Elisir d’amore” should be sung, in a golden age performance of sweetness and power. His final cadenza was flawless.

The young singers were superbly accompanied by Maestro Eve Queler and members of Opera Orchestra of New York.

Both Brian O’Connor, Esq. General Counsel and host Brian Kellow emphasized the importance of such afternoons of beauty and culture in today’s world. Presenter Betty Cooper Wallerstein in her tribute to patron Rose Braverman agreed.

The dinner for several hundred patrons and friends afterward at the NY Athletic Club continued the honoring of Stephen De Maio, as attendees dined on Filet Mignon, fine wines and chatted with singers and friends.

Brooklynite soprano and vocal coach Elaine Malbin who made recordings with Mario Lanza were in the crowd, also including the Gerda Lissner Foundation’s Karl Michaelis, Michael Fornabaio, Cornelia Beigel, Joyce Greenberg and Barbara Ann Testa. Steve De Maio’s sister New Jersey educator Marie De Maio and Gloria Gari (Giulio Gari Foundation) were also in attendance.

Stephen De Maio was lauded as a man of many hats, all of them donned for young opera singers as fine arts teacher at Marymount College, president of the Gerda Lissner Foundation, artistic director of the Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation, artistic director of the Giulio Gari Foundation, on the board of the Martina Arroyo Foundation, Opera Index and Loren Zachary Foundation to name a few.

We tip our collective hats to Stephen De Maio and The Licia Albanese-Puccini Foundation which he helped found. Thanks to the 40 years of guidance by Licia Albanese.

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