Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Happy Birthday, Butterfly

The great Licia Albanese is having a birthday today, something in the upper 90s, and isn't it nice to know that she's still with us? She topped a remarkable career spanning well over half a century with a bravura performance in Lincoln Center's all-star Follies, which gave her a whole new fan base (me included - for me she's the definitive Heidi, no one better able to plumb the heights and depths of what amounts to the piece's theme-defining aria, "One More Kiss").

I was never a Total Opera Queen in my New York days, but I would get out at least a couple of times a season, often enough to note the differences in impact made by the arrival in the audience of one or another of the Great Retired Ladies. Tebaldi was always received with reverence, the crowd parting, a discreet smattering of applause as she took her seat (always perfect, in something floating and elegant, the kind of thousand-shades-of-neutral gown that perfectly set off her still remarkable beauty); Sills, appearing in her manager's seats or across the way at the Met was still the hometown girl made good, jolly and eager, but very much a Public Figure; Albanese, though - it was like watching a parade, the arrival of Dolly Levi. Always with one or two gentlemen in tow, her lacquered black hair a performance in itself, dressed in Diva Uniform - pearls, shawls, perhaps a fan - and speaking, as one (rather lovely) profile notes, entirely in exclamation points, she could whip the crowd into a little tide of joy, one she would then generously turn over to her successors on the stage. You knew, whether or not the singing really was first rate, that you were out at an Event.

There aren't all that many left who can do that kind of magic, based on time, accomplishment, and that most elusive of ingredients, the Little Something Extra that makes a star.

Speaking of stars, today also sees celebrations in order for, in no particular order, a motley crew that includes thrush Margaret Whiting (another audience-favorite, if at rather different venues), actor/guest Orson Bean, painter-of-anomie Edward Hopper, troubled Ronette Estelle Bennett (gone too soon, and too recently), professional mother Rose Kennedy, etiquetteuse Amy Vanderbilt, Priscilla-tranny Terence Stamp, underused neo-Lena Lonette McKee, and, God help us, Bob Dole. What a dinner party you could make out of that crowd!

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