For over 40 years, Canadian singer Emma Albani enjoyed enormous success on the live stage, making history as the first Canadian opera singer to achieve international status.
Opera enthusiasts in countries such as France, Italy, England, Mexico and Australia were enchanted by her singing and came in droves to see her performances. Among her admirers were such prominent figures as composer Charles Gounod, violinist Joseph Joachim, and even Queen Victoria.
Although she lived in Canada for only a few years as a youth, Albani always regarded her birthplace with fondness. In her memoirs, Albani wrote
"I have married an Englishman, and have made my home in England, but I still remain at heart a French Canadian."
(Emma Albani, Forty Years of Song, London: Mills & Boon, Ltd., 1911, p. 213)
Childhood and Education
Marie-Louise-Emma-Cécile Lajeunesse was born on November 1, 1847, in Chambly, Quebec, where she lived until 1851. (Note: There is some uncertainty as to Albani's date of birth. In her autobiography, the singer claims to have been born in 1852, however at the convent she attended as a child, her birth date is registered as 1847.)
She was the first child of Mélina and Joseph Lajeunesse. Emma received her first music lessons from her mother, but began studying music with her father when she turned five. Joseph Lajeunesse was a professional musician who was proficient on the violin, harp, piano and organ. He taught Emma to play the harp and piano, insisting that she practice up to four hours each day.
In 1856, Mélina Lajeunesse died while giving birth to her third child and Joseph was left to raise the children on his own. Eventually, he secured the position of music master at a prestigious convent in Montréal, which was run by the Dames des Sacré-Coeur. Emma and her sister Cornelia were allowed to attend the convent and were able to obtain a relatively high level of education free of charge. Emma's talent for music was instantly apparent to the nuns—to the extent that she was soon barred from participating in the convent's music competitions because she won so often. She continued to receive musical instruction from her father and also to perform publicly, improvising on the harp and piano, and singing songs like "Robert, Robert, toi que j'aime." (Albani, p. 23)
When the time came for Emma to decide on a future career, she was encouraged by the convent's Mother Superior to pursue music. However, other French Canadians were less willing to support her. At the time, a career on the stage was considered an unsavoury occupation for a woman; actresses and singers were seen as no better than prostitutes. (Cheryl MacDonald, Emma Albani: Victorian Diva, Toronto: Dundurn Press Limited, 1984, p. 32) As a result, Emma was unable to secure any financial support for a musical career from the French-Canadian community. So in 1865, she and her family moved to Albany, New York.
Emma was 18 years old when she and her family arrived in Albany, and she was an accomplished musician, playing several instruments as well as composing and arranging music. She joined the choir at St. Joseph's Church and obtained the position of first soprano, as well as church organist and choir director. The citizens of Albany were more tolerant in their views on women and stage performance, and they held a number of benefit concerts to raise money for Emma's musical education. In 1868, they presented the young musician with the proceeds of these concerts and soon afterward, Emma made her way to the city of Paris.
In Paris, Emma studied with Gilbert-Louis Duprez, a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire and principal tenor of the Paris Opera. Six months later, she moved to Italy to study with Francesco Lamperti, a teacher renowned for his mastery of the Italian method of singing. It was at this time that Emma's elocution teacher, Signor Delorenzi, convinced her to change her last name from Lajeunesse to the more European-sounding Albani. Emma was particularly pleased with her new last name because it so closely resembled the name of the city of Albany, where she had received such generous support. (MacDonald, p. 46)
Before her education was complete however, Albani's funds began to run out and she started to look for paid singing opportunities. Eventually, she secured an engagement in Messina, Sicily that paid her 20 pounds, or 500 francs per month. (Albani, p. 46) Thus in April of 1870, at the age of 22, Albani debuted in the city of Messina in Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula. As she recalled in her autobiography, the Sicilian audience responded to her debut performance with wild enthusiasm. She wrote, "I was literally loaded with flowers, presents, and poetry, the detached sheets of which were sent fluttering down in every direction on the heads of the audience; and among the numberless bouquets of every shape was a basket in which was concealed a live dove. They had painted it red, and the dear little bird rose and flew all over the theatre." (Albani, p. 41)
After fulfilling her contract at Messina, Albani returned to Milan to resume her studies with Lamperti. It was not long before she accepted another engagement in Cento, where she appeared in Rigoletto for the first time. Albani next performed in Florence and then in Malta, singing in La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Robert il Diavolo, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine.
While in Malta, Albani made the acquaintance of a number of British soldiers who were stationed there, and they persuaded her to go to London to pursue an engagement at Covent Garden. In June of 1871, one year after her debut in Messina, Albani arrived in London to audition at Covent Garden. After hearing her sing, Frederick Gye, the manager of the prestigious opera company, offered the young singer a five-year contract and scheduled her Covent Garden debut for the following spring.
While waiting for her debut, Albani attended Covent Garden performances and heard some of the singers (among them opera legend Adelina Patti) with whom she would share the stage in the following season. She remained in London for a short time before returning to Italy to continue her studies with Lamperti. Together they studied Ambroise Thomas' Mignon and Rossini's Conte d'Ory in preparation for another engagement at the Pergola Theatre in Florence. Whenever she could find a spare moment in her busy schedule of performance and studies, Albani endeavoured to experience other aspects of the rich culture of Milan, Sicily and London by visiting their art galleries and museums. The Pergola Theatre engagement, which included performances of La Sonnambula and Lucia di Lammermoor, was a resounding success and Albani made her way back to London for her first Covent Garden season.
On April 2, 1872, Albani debuted at Covent Garden as Amina in La Sonnambula and her performance deeply impressed both the audience and critics. Her admirers showered her with gifts of flowers and jewellery, and one reviewer wrote, "The great event of the month has been the success of Mlle. Albani, who made her debut as Amina in 'La Sonnambula'. With a genuine soprano voice, a facile and unexaggerated execution, and a remarkable power of sostenuto in the higher part of her register, this young vocalist at once secured the good opinion of her audience . . . . there can be no doubt that future performances will fully justify the verdict so unanimously and unmistakably pronounced upon her first appearance." (MacDonald, p. 64)
Although only 24 years old when she debuted at Covent Garden, Albani had already performed publicly in as many as eight different operas in five European cities.
Albani became interested in oratorio (large-scale musical works on a sacred theme) through two musicians she met during her first season at Covent Garden. Composer/conductor Sir Julius Benedict and Covent Garden organist Joseph Pitman encouraged Albani to perform oratorios in order to expand her vocal repertoire. Opportunities for singing both oratorio and secular music were in abundance, due to the numerous music festivals held each year throughout the English provinces. So when she was offered a minor role at the Norwich Festival in October of 1872, Albani eagerly accepted. She sang "Angels, ever bright and fair" from Handel's Theodora, and thus began a career in oratorio performance that would endure long after the conclusion of her career in opera.
After singing at the Norwich Festival, Albani travelled to Paris for an engagement at the Salle Ventadour and then returned to London for her second season at Covent Garden. During this season, she sang the roles of Ophelia in Hamlet and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro for the first time. Her next engagement took her far from London—in November of 1873, she departed for Russia, appearing first in Moscow in the operas La Sonnambula, Rigoletto, Hamlet and Lucia di Lammermoor, and then performing in St. Petersburg, where the Tsar attended the performances and personally congratulated the singers. Albani was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response of the Russian audience who, more than once, applauded Albani through 20 curtain calls in one evening.
During her third season at Covent Garden (1874-75), Albani sang much of the same repertoire as in the first two years: La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix and Flotow's Marta. In her biography Emma Albani: Victorian Diva, Cheryl MacDonald suggests that Albani's Covent Garden roles were limited to these operas due to "lively competition" among the singers: "Sopranos, and to a slightly lesser extent, tenors, had an extremely possessive attitude toward their roles. Certain operas 'belonged' to specific individuals, and no other singer in the company could perform those roles. To do so invited ostracization and the full brunt of a fellow artiste's temperamental wrath." (MacDonald, p. 65-67)
Fortunately, Albani had many other engagements, both public and private, outside of Covent Garden through which she could explore other repertoire. Just after the end of her third season at Covent Garden, one such opportunity occurred that especially delighted Albani—Queen Victoria commanded the young singer to perform at Windsor Castle. In July of 1874, Albani met the Queen for the first time and sang "Caro Nome" from Rigoletto, "Robin Adair", "Ave Maria" by Gounod, and "Home, Sweet Home". (Albani, p. 90)
Queen Victoria was both an appreciative and well-informed patron of music. At one time, Felix Mendelssohn had been her teacher and through her studies, she had developed an interest in a wide variety of musical styles. On subsequent performances for the Queen, Albani was asked to sing French and Scottish songs, as well as works by Brahms, Grieg, Handel and Mendelssohn. (Albani, p. 89)
In the autumn of 1874, Albani embarked on another ambitious tour, this time to the American cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington and Chicago. Accompanied by a lady companion and Ernest Gye, son of Covent Garden manager Frederick Gye, Albani arrived first in New York and then gave a concert in her hometown of Albany. The highlight of her American engagement was a production of Wagner's Lohengrin, in which Albani appeared in the role of Elsa. The management in New York had decided to produce the opera at the last minute, thus Albani had had only 15 days to study her role. She sang the role in Italian, as was the custom at that time, and a review from the New York paper Republic stated, "The worst enemies of Wagner -- and he has many obdurate ones -- cannot but admit that there is a peculiar spell of fascination about his melodious harmonies, and of these Mlle. Albani looks, acts, and sings as the very priestess of them might." (Albani, p. 106)
By the time Albani had started her fourth season at Covent Garden in 1875, she was making 250 pounds per month. (MacDonald, p. 77) For the next 4 years, she continued to appear at Covent Garden, adding to her repertoire such roles as Marguerite from Gounod's Faust, Elisabeth from Wagner's Tannhäuser and Senta in Wagner's Der Fliegende Hollander. In addition to her Covent Garden appearances, Albani continued to tour ambitiously, singing in Venice, Paris, Nice, Ireland, Scotland and the English provinces. She also secured yearly engagements at the English music festivals. In 1875, she appeared at the Norwich festival, singing in Mendelssohn's Hymn of Praise and Sir Julius Benedict's St. Cecilia. She sang in both the Bristol and Birmingham festivals in the following year, appearing in Elijah, Beethoven's Engedi (Mount of Olives) and Handel's Messiah. Other oratorio engagements included performances at the Leeds Festival (1876), the Gloucester Musical Festival (Sept. 1877) and the Worcester Festival (1878).
On August 6, 1878, at the age of 30, Albani married Ernest Gye in London. She became pregnant with her first and only child shortly thereafter, but continued to perform, appearing at the Norwich Festival and then embarking on another tour of Russia. While in Russia, Albani was devastated to learn that her father-in-law, Frederick Gye, had passed away as a result of a hunting accident. The manager of Covent Garden never had the opportunity to see his grandson, Frederick Ernest, who was born on June 4, 1879. Albani did not appear in any operas during the year her son was born, but by the spring of 1880, she was back on the Covent Garden stage performing a new role in Herold's Le Pré aux Clercs.
Concert tours took Albani to Florence, Nice and Brussels, and in 1881, she was invited to sing in Wagner's Lohengrin at the Royal Opera in Berlin. Emma had sung the role of Elsa on numerous occasions, but only in Italian. For the Berlin performance, she restudied the part in German and gave her first performance in the German language in front of a receptive audience in Berlin. A Berlin correspondent of the Times reported, "Madame Albani appeared to-night as Elsa in Wagner's Lohengrin, singing her part in the native German. The house was crowded to the very ceiling, and extravagant prices were paid for seats. The Emperor and his Court were present, and all the leaders of Berlin society. Madame Albani achieved what may well be called a complete triumph, greater even than any she has won hitherto. After the first and second acts she was recalled thrice, and when the curtain finally dropped, four times, the audience cheering enthusiastically." (Albani, p. 162)
A few years later, in 1884, Albani sang the part of Elsa in German at Convent Garden. Opera companies had been chastised by critics for their practice of performing all opera in the Italian language and in order to keep up with the changing tide, they had begun to produce operas in their original language. (N.A. Ridley, Record Collector, issue devoted to Albani, Vol. 12, February-March 1959, p. 84)
Albani's reputation as an international opera star became further established throughout the 1880s, as she amassed success after success in countries all over Europe. She performed in Holland, Norway, Austria, Prague and Hungary, and continued to tour the British Isles, the United States, Mexico and Canada.
Touring in Canada and the United States required an extensive amount of train travel and questionable hotel accommodations, and Albani and her travelling companions had their share of discomfort. However, the journey was made worthwhile by the warm reception they often were given upon arriving at their destinations. For example, in 1883, Albani arrived at the train station in Montréal to find a cheering crowd who escorted to her hotel, where she was met by another crowd so dense that she had to be carried over the heads of people into the building. (Albani, p. 174)
In an interview with a New York Tribune reporter, Albani described her 1889-90 tours of the United States and Mexico. "We have been roasted in Mexico, drenched to the skin in San Francisco, frozen to death in the western cities. We spent six days in the cars without stopping from Chicago to Mexico. It was simply horrid. But three weeks in Mexico were ample compensation for all discomfort. Mexicans do not see good opera very often, and will cheerfully pay $12 a ticket and live on bread and water." (MacDonald, p. 159)
During the 1880s, Albani had a number of encounters with renowned composers. In March of 1886, she met composer/pianist Franz Liszt at a London reception and he expressed his admiration for her talent after she sang the lead in his oratorio The Legend of St. Elisabeth. Albani also had a close relationship with composer Sir Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan) and sang in his oratorio Golden Legend at the 1886 Leeds Festival. She met Johannes Brahms on a visit to Vienna and her performance of an excerpt from his German Requiem moved the composer to tears. (Albani, p. 256)
Albani's final season at Covent Garden (1896) included yet another new role -- Isolde from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. She appeared opposite the famous tenor Jean de Reszke and both received rave reviews. Albani retired from the Covent Garden stage soon after this performance, but her singing career was far from over. She embarked on a nation-wide tour of Canada in 1896, concertizing in Halifax, Montréal, Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver. In 1898, she appeared before a crowd of 3,000 in Sydney Australia, before moving on to Brisbane, Melbourne and Adelaide. (Albani, p. 164) She continued to receive invitations from Queen Victoria to sing at Windsor Castle and when the Queen died in January of 1901, Albani was the soloist at the final services at St. George's Chapel.
Near the end of her career, Albani's concert engagements brought her to Tasmania, New Zealand, South Africa and India. She also made several recordings dating from around 1904. Included in the recordings are arias by Handel, Gounod's "Ave Maria", and "L'Eté" by composer Cécile Chaminade. Albani was already past her prime when she made these recordings—in fact, as early as 1896, there was evidence that her voice was beginning to deteriorate. A review of a concert that took place at Toronto's Massey Hall described her performance in this way: "Albani is still wondrous in her volume and braviture, but the music has gone a little out of her voice; the fatal hardness that tells of wear and tear and strain is creeping in." (Canadian Home Journal, vol. 1, no. 11, March 1896)
On October 14, 1911, at the age of 54, Albani performed publicly for the last time. One year later, she published Forty Years of Song, in which she recorded her lengthy and eventful career that included over 35 operatic roles. After her retirement, Emma and her husband continued to live in their house in Kensington, but as a result of some poor investments, they experienced devastating financial difficulties. Albani began teaching and even performed in music halls to earn money, but by the mid-1920s, her situation was quite desperate. Fortunately, benefit concerts held in Montréal, London and Emma's hometown of Chambly, raised enough funds to allow the aging singer to live in comfort until she died in 1930.
Before her death, King George V honoured Albani with the title of Dame Commander of the British Empire. In 1939, the citizens of Chambly unveiled a plaque in her honour and a street was named after her in Montréal. (MacDonald, p. 192) In the latter half of the 20th century, further efforts have been made to honour her memory. Eight of her recordings were re-released in 1967 for Canada's 100th birthday. In 1980, a special postage stamp commemorated the 50th anniversary of her death. Her name has even appeared in fiction: Canadian author Ann-Marie MacDonald mentions both Albani and her autobiography Forty Years of Song, in her best-selling novel Fall on Your Knees.
Emma Albani's early successes in opera, her relationships with esteemed composers and musicians, and the devoted audiences that attended her performances for 40 years are a testament to her professionalism and her extraordinary musical abilities. Many other Canadian singers, like Pauline Donalda and Eva Gauthier, would enjoy rewarding singing careers, but Emma Albani has the distinction of being the first Canadian to achieve such phenomenal success on the international stage.
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