Miguel Villabella (1892-1954) was a remarkable tenor whose career in the French speaking world spanned the period between the two world wars. Despite his status as a French tenor, Villabella was born in Bilbao in Spain’s Basque region. His father, celebrated zarzuela baritone Eulogio Villabella, did not wish for his son to follow in his footsteps and sent the boy to Paris to pursue studies for a business career. The young man halfheartedly engaged in his studies but had no interest in business. At first, Villabella concentrated on roller skating and actually set the speed record for skating in 1912 when he was not yet twenty years old. Skating was not the only thing on the youth’s mind, however, and he also indulged in his other passion, singing. A chance meeting with legendary French bass-baritone Lucien Fugère (1848-1935) prompted a change of focus. Although Villabella never lost his love for skating (he was still pursuing the sport as a hobby well into his 50s), Fugère’s encouragement and support led to the young man entering a period of vocal study with the intention of making a career on the opera stage.
Villabella made his first public appearance in 1917, singing arias and duets from Rigoletto in a gala concert in San Sebastian. The following year the tenor made his operatic debut as Cavaradossi in Tosca at the Grand Théâtre de Poitiers. Villabella’s first appearance with a major company took place at the Opéra-Comique in 1920. The opera was once again Tosca, but the role was Scarpia’s police agent, Spoletta. It was as a character tenor that Villabella spent his first several months at the Opéra-Comique. It was as the title character in Messager’s Fortunio that he first made his mark as a leading tenor. Villabella went on to essay such roles as Ferrando in Così fan Tutte, Don José in Carmen, Gérald in Lakmé, des Grieux in Manon and, what was to become his favorite role, Georges Brown in La Dame Blanche. In 1928, the Opéra de Paris contracted the tenor, who made his debut there as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. Villabella sang a variety of roles with the Opéra during the next eight seasons and created the leads in the Opéra premieres of Ibert’s Persée et Andromède, Bruneau’s Virginie and Laparra’s zarzuela L’Ilustre Fregona.
Apart from a handful of appearances in Brussels and Monte Carlo, Villabella’s career was a Parisian affair. His schedule of appearances was nothing short of backbreaking and he amassed an impressive repertoire that included Don Ottavio in Don Giovanni, Almaviva in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Mylio in Le Roi d’Ys, Nadir in Les Pêcheurs de Perles, Wilhelm Meister in Mignon, the Duke in Rigoletto, Alfredo in La Traviata, Rinuccio in Gianni Schicchi, Rodolfo in La Bohème, Daniel in Le Chalet, Zéphoris in Si j'étais Roi, Chapelou in Le Postillon de Lonjumeau and the title roles in Faust, Castor et Pollux, Roméo et Juliette and Les Contes d’Hoffmann. He continued to sing at the Opéra until 1936 and left the stage altogether in 1940. Villabella continued to sing in concerts for a few years, but eventually retired from public life altogether and devoted his time to teaching. The tenor died of complications from surgery in June of 1954 at the age of 61.
Miguel Villabella was the possessor of a lyric instrument of tremendous beauty that he employed with artistry and finesse. His perfectly balanced voix mixte in the softest notes of the upper register was a technique straight out of the 19th century French school. By all accounts, it was not a heroic sized voice. There is even speculation that Villabella’s move from the intimate confines of the Opéra-Comique’s Salle Favart to the larger Palais Garnier of the Opéra de Paris proved too taxing and led to his retirement from the opera stage at the relatively early age of 47. However, the tenor’s later recordings give no evidence of vocal deterioration, indicating that there were other reasons for his withdrawal from the operatic stage.
Miguel Villabella made over 130 recordings for Pathé and Odéon between 1925 and 1935. These recordings give a nearly complete representation of the tenor’s operatic repertoire as well as an impressive listing of art songs and popular standards. Here, Villabella sings "Mes amis, écoutez l'histoire" from Adam's Le Postillon de Lonjumeau. This recording was made for the Pathé label in Paris on March 28, 1934.