Emma Marie Louise Cécile Lajeunesse (known professionally as Dame Emma Albani), was a world-renowned soprano for most of the 19th century and into the early 20th century.
She was also a harpist, pianist and teacher. Her birth date is commonly believed to be November 1, 1847 , although some believe she was born in 1848 or 1850. Emma was my fifth cousin, twice removed, as she was the fourth great granddaughter of my 7th great grandfather, Jean Jacques Labelle (1682-1748) of Île Jésus (Laval), Québec, Canada.
Emma was the first Canadian singer to become internationally known and sought after. She performed operas composed by Bellini, Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and later, Wagner. Her audiences included such luminaries as Queen Victoria, Csar Alexander II, and Kaiser Wilhelm I.
Emma Lajeunesse’s parents, both musicians, recognized their daughter’s wonderful talent very early. Although she studied first with her mother, her father took over her training when she turned five. He was a great musician in his own right and was skilled with the harp, violin, organ and piano. Her practice schedule was very busy and strict, in which she dedicated up to four hours a day. In 1856, shortly after his wife died, Joseph Lajeunesse was hired to teach music at the Religious of the Sacred Heart Convent in Sault-au-Récollet (Montréal), where Emma and her sister Cornélia (nickname Nellie) were boarders.
Emma attended from 1858 to 1865, and her talent was evident to the convent’s nuns, who were forced to bar her from the convent’s musical competitions so other children had a chance of winning.
At eight years old, Emma performed her first concert on September 15, 1856 at the Mechanics’ Institute in Montreal. The critics were amazed, and recognized her as a prodigy. She also sang in Chambly, Saint-Jean (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), L’Assomption, Sorel, Industrie (Joliette), and Terrebonne, all in Québec.
Unable to finance a musical education in Quebec, where singing and acting were considered unsavory careers for a woman, Joseph Lajeunesse attempted to raise sufficient money to send her to study in Paris.
In 1865, Emma’s family moved to Albany, New York, stopping at several towns, including Saratoga Springs and Johnstown, where Emma and her sister performed. She became a popular singer in New York, and managed to save enough money for her studies.
In Albany, Emma was hired as soloist for the parish church of St Joseph, where she worked three years singing, playing the organ, and directing the choir. She also worked at composing scores, as well as musical pieces for harp, solo piano and two pianos.
With her father’s savings and financial assistance from well-wishers and parishioners, Emma was able to go to Paris to study at the ‘Paris Conservatoire’ with Gilbert-Louis Duprez, the famous French tenor. Not long after her lessons with him began, Duprez was heard to say about Emma, “She has a beautiful voice and ardor. She is of the kind of wood from which fine flutes are made.”
At the suggestion of her elocution instructor, Signor Delorenzi, she changed her name to the simpler Emma Albani, which sounded more European and happened to be a very old Italian family name. The closeness in sound of her new surname and ‘Albany’ in New York pleased her, as she had been treated so well there.
Emma continued to study in Milan, Italy for a year and with the assistance of eminent voice teacher Francesco Lamperti, she learned solid technique and, along with her rigid discipline, was able to maintain good vocal health. These techniques enabled her to perform a range of roles from light to dramatic.
Emma’s funds diminished, and although she was not yet finished her training, she began to look for work during the 1869-70 season to help support her schooling. She found a position in Messina, and her operatic debut was on March 30, 1870, playing Amina in Vincenzo Bellini’s La Sonnambula. Her debut performance was very well received and she later stated, “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 theater.”
From the time of her debut in Messina, she realized that to portray historical characters, it was not enough to sing well and made a point of visiting museums and reading extensively.
She returned to Milan after her contract in Messina had expired and resumed her instruction with Lamperti. Meanwhile, more work offers began to pour in, including a role she accepted in Rigoletto, which was being performed in Cento. Other roles followed in Florence and Malta, with parts in Lucia di Lammermoor, Robert il Diavolo, La Sonnambula, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and L’Africaine.
After performing in Malta in the winter of 1870 to 1871, she auditioned for Frederick Gye, manager of Covent Garden in London. He was so impressed with her abilities, he signed her to a five-year contract. Before her London contract was to start, she returned to Italy to complete her studies with Lamperti.
Albani arrived in London in the spring of 1872 and her first performance under her contract was on April 2, 1872 at the Royal Italian Opera (the name taken in 1847 by Covent Garden in London) and was a great success. She was the first Canadian woman to perform in this opera house and would perform there until 1896.
Emma continued to perform in various roles and venues throughout Europe, Russia and the United States over the next five seasons. Her performances included that of Ophelia in Hamlet and the Countess in ‘The Marriage of Figaro’.
Queen Victoria later requested a private performance from Albani, who traveled to Windsor Palace in July, 1874 to perform “Caro Nome” from Rigoletto, “Ave Maria”, “Robin Adair”, and “Home, Sweet Home”. This was the first of many occasions on which Albani would perform for monarchs and other dignitaries, but it was also the beginning of a friendship and the two women would visit each other regularly until Queen Victoria died in 1901. Albani would also sing at the funeral of Queen Victoria.
Emma Albani toured the United States in the fall of 1874, visiting Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago and Albany.
In November 1874, Emma went on tour in the United States, where she performed her first role in a Wagner opera as Elsa in “Lohengrin” at New York’s Academy of Music. Her repertoire grew over the years.
After 1876, Emma’s sister Cornélia was always by her side. Cornélia was also a talented pianist and had studied in Germany, later teaching music to the children of the royal family of Spain. Cornélia worked her entire life as Emma’s accompanist and companion, dying soon after Emma.
Emma married Ernest Gye on August 6, 1878. He was the son of the director of the Royal Italian Opera and after his father died in an accident, he took over the position from 1878 to 1885. Their son, Ernest Frederick was born June 4, 1879, became a prominent diplomat and would die in London in 1955.
In 1880, as a result of playing Lucia in “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Gilda in “Rigoletto” at La Scala in Milan, Italy, Emma suffered a setback. The audience was already hostile to non-Italian singers in this theater, but she was not in very good voice, resulting in being unable to impress her listeners. Despite this, her career continued to grow since she performed in cities she had not previously visited.
In 1883, Emma and another singer, Adelina Patti, undertook a long tour in the United States, visiting Chicago, Baltimore, New York and Washington. She also gave three recitals in Montréal, for which appearance more than ten thousand people showed up to greet her, and poet Louis-Honoré Fréchette composed a poem in her honor which he read at a reception.
She remained attached to Canada and toured nine times to perform recitals from 1883 to 1906, traveling from one coast to the other. In1890 Emma performed in two complete operas at the Academy of Music in Montréal, Verdi’s “La Traviata” and “Lucia di Lammermoor”. Albani was always generous to charitable organizations and she supported and performed in a benefit concert in Montréal for Notre-Dame Hospital.
Albani became the first French Canadian woman to perform at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on November 23, 1891 in “Les Huguenots”. That winter, she was in several other productions at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Albani retired from the Covent Gardens opera, and her final stage performance taking place in July 1896 at the Royal Opera House. To accommodate the changing tastes of the theater’s directors and the public, Emma had to show great flexibility and perform diverse roles. Emma received the royal Philharmonic Society’s gold medal or the “Beethoven Medal” in 1897.
Although retired, she still sang in recitals and in 1901 she traveled across Canada, traveling from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Vancouver, British Columbia. She then continued to go on tour in Australia (1898, 1907), South Africa (1898, 1899, 1904), Ceylon (Sri Lanka) (1907), New Zealand (1907) and India (1907). In 1906 she made her farewell Canadian tour. During this period she is said to have recorded nine titles (audio of one follows article) and some have since been remastered and are available today. Her ‘post-retirement’ career came to an end on October 14, 1911 when she gave her last public performance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. That same year she released a book a book of her memoirs, “Forty Years of Song”.
She and her husband retired to Kensington where Emma’s last years were troubled by financial difficulties necessitating that she teach and occasionally perform in music halls. Her circumstances resulted from the war and poor investments, and in concern the British government voted her an annual pension of £100. Word of her difficulties reached Montréal, where “La Presse” sponsored a recital on May 28, 1925 in the Théâtre Saint-Denis. More than $4,000 was collected. Assistance was also sought from the Canadian and Quebec governments, who declined, stating that Albani had become more of a British subject than a Canadian citizen since she had resided in London since 1872).
Dame Emma Albani died on April 3, 1930 at her home on Tregunter Road, Kensington, in London and was buried at Brompton, London, England.
During her lifetime, she received many awards, including the gold Beethoven Medal (given by the Royal Philharmonic Society of London) and the Medal of Honour commemorating Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1897. In 1925 she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Of two streets that were named after Emma Albani in Montréal, the first was dedicated in the 1930s, but was later removed when the road was merged with another street, and the second was named Rue Albani in 1969.
Other honors included a postage stamp issued by Canada Post and designed by artist Huntley Brown. It was released July 4, 1980 and eleven million, seven hundred thousand copies of the stamp were printed. She is also immortalized in a stained glass mural at Montréal’s Place des Arts station.
Wikipedia – Dame Emma Albani, online [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Albani].
- “Forty Years of Song,” by Emma Albani; Project Gutenberg Canada website; [http://www.gutenberg.ca/ebooks/albani-forty/albani-forty-00-h-dir/albani-forty-00-h.html]
- Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online [http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?&id_nbr=7930]
- Les Labelles, Daniel Labelle online [http:www.leslabelle.org]
- Wikipedia – Dame Emma Albani, online [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emma_Albani].
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