Dame Emma Albani DBE (1 November 1847 - 3 April 1930), was a leading soprano of the 19th century and early 20th century, and the first Canadian singer to become an international star. Her repertoire focused on the operas of Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini which later in her life expanded to include Wagner. Albani performed operas across Europe and North America for audiences as prestigious as Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I and Tsar Alexander II.
Albani was born Marie-Louise-Emma-Cécile Lajeunesse in Chambly, Quebec, to the professional musician Joseph Lajeunesse and his wife, Mélina Mignault. Her date of birth is usually given as 1 November 1847, but other authors have placed here birth in 1848 or 1850, and Albani's memoir puts her birth in 1852. She began her musical studies with her mother, and at age five her father took over her musical lessons. Her father was a proficient musician who was skilled with the violin, harp, piano and organ. He kept her on a strong practice regiment, with as much as four hours a day of lessons on the harp and piano.
The family moved to Plattsburgh in 1852. In 1856 after the death of her mother, she continued her education in a Montreal convent-school, run by the Dames du Sacré-Coeur where her father had obtained the position of Music Master. This afforded her a better education than she might otherwise receive, and additional musical instruction. Her musical talents were clear to the convent's nuns, who had to bar her from the convent's musical competitions so other children might win. Unable to finance a musical education in Quebec, where singing and acting were considered unsavoury careers for a woman, her family moved to Albany, New York in 1865. There she became a popular singer, and saved enough money to continue her studies.
In 1868, she travelled to Paris, where she studied with Gilbert-Louis Duprez at the Paris Conservatoire. She spent six months in Paris, training with Duprez. She then travelled to Italy, where she studied Italian singing with Francesco Lamperti. Under the guidance of her elocution instructor, Signor Delorenzi, she changed her name to the simpler Emma Albani, which sounded more European. The closeness in sound to Albany pleased Albani, as she had been treated so well in Albany.
She returned to Milan after her contract in Messina had expired, to resume her instruction by Lamperti. Additional work offers began to pour in. She soon accepted a role in Rigoletto being performed in Cento. Further roles followed in Florence and Malta, with parts in La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Robert il Diavolo, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and L'Africaine. After spending the winter of 1870-1871 performing in Malta, she auditioned for Frederick Gye, the manager of Covent Garden in London. He was impressed by her talent and signed her to a five-year contract. She was scheduled to make her London debut in the spring of 1872. Before her London contract began she returned to Italy to resume her studies with Lamperti. She made one last performance in Florence, giving renditions of La Sonnambula and Lucia di Lammermoor before returned to London.
Albani arrived in London in the spring, and made her professional debut on 2 April 1872 as Amina in La Sonnambula. Critics and audience members alike were impressed with her strong performance in the role, and her admirers presented her with gifts of flowers and jewellery. At Covent Garden she developed an interest in oratorio after being introduced to it by Sir Julius Benedict and Joseph Pitman, who encouraged her to explore it. Her first opportunity to present a piece came in October 1872, when she performed Angels, ever bright and fair from Handel's Theodora at the Norwich Festival. She also found time and opportunity to travel to Paris, where she performed at Salle Ventadour during the off season.
Her second season in London included performances in the roles of Ophelia in Hamlet and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. During the off time after the second season she travelled to Moscow, performing in La Sonnambula, Rigoletto, Hamlet and Lucia di Lammermoor, then she went to St. Petersburg, where the Tsar viewed her perforamces. Her reception in Russia was extremely positive.
In the third season in London, she performed in mostly the same roles she had in her first two seaons: La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix and Marta. The competition in the opera world of London was very stiff, and it was common for performers to be possessive of their roles. Continuing to perform the same roles was not unusual for a singer like Albani. After her third season, Queen Victoria requested a private performance from Albani, who travelled to Windsor Palace in July, 1874 to perform Caro Nome from Rigoletto, Robin Adair, Ave Maria , and Home, Sweet Home. The Queen was suitably impressed by her performance and would call Albani back to perform other pieces, by composers such as Brahms, Grieg, Handel and Mendelssohn, as well as traditional French and Scottish tunes. In the fall of 1874, she undertook of a tour of the United States, visiting New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Chicago and Albany. On her tour of America, she was accompanied by Ernest Gye, the son of Covent Garden's manager Frederick Gye. She first sang operas by Wagner in New York. She sang in Italian however, as was the custom at Covent Garden.
She returned to London for the fourth season at Covent Garden in 1875. After the season, she performed at the Norwich festival, where she sang Mendelssohn's Hymn of Praise and Julius Benedict's St. Cecilia.
Her fifth season in London (1876) included her company performing the London premiere of Tannhäuser, in which Albani had the role of Elisabeth. That off season she sang at Théâtre-des-Italiens in Paris, and was well received, including a special performance for Patrice de Mac-Mahon, duc de Magenta.
Albani married Ernest Gye on 6 August 1878. She quickly became pregnant, giving birth to a son Frederick Ernest Gye on 4 June 1879. She continued to tour and perform until the birth of her son, who would be the couple's only child. She returned to the stage in the spring of 1880, singing in Herold's Le Pré aux Clercs at Covent Garden.
In 1881, Albani was invited to perform in Wagner's Lohengrin, which was being performed at the Royal Opera in Berlin. She agreed to sing the role of Elsa. Albani had performed the role before in Italian, but relearnt it in German for the Berlin performance. The opera was attended by the German Emperor. The reception was very positive, earning three curtain calls. In 1882, Kaiser Wilhelm I awarded her the title of Hofkammersängerin.
In 1883, she gave three receitals in Montreal. More than ten thousand people showed up to greet her upon her arrival, and poet Louis-Honoré Fréchette composed a poem in her honour which he read at a reception. Her first operatic performance in Canada came on 13 February 1883 in Toronto, at the Grand Opera House where she performed in Lucia di Lammermoor.
On 15 July 1884 in London she sang the role of Brunehild in Ernest Reyer's opera Sigurd and the role of Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette in the same season. She retired to Scotland for the summer, and in the fall toured Belgium and the Netherlands.
Throughout the 1880s, Albani toured Europe and North America, garnering praise wherever she travelled. In 1886, she met Franz Liszt in London, who praised her performance of his The Legend of St. Elisabeth.
Albani made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on 23 November 1891 in Les Huguenots. That winter, she was in several other productions at the Metropolitan Opera House, namely Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger and Der fliegende Holländer.
Albani retired from Covent Garden in 1896. Even in her last season, she continued to receive strongly positive reviews.
After retiring from Covent Garden in 1896, Albani departed for a tour of her native Canada, performing in venues across the country. In 1898, she toured Australia. On the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, Albani travelled to London and sang the solo role at her final service. In spring 1908, the veteran Albani toured the English provinces as part of a company containing two budding talents: 10-year-old pianist Marie Novello, who two years later would become one of Theodor Leschetizky's last students, and John McCormack, who only months before had made his own Covent Garden debut. Albani gave her last public performance on 14 October 1911. That same year she released a book, Forty Years of Song. The books was effectively a memoir, recounting stories of her youth, travels and career, and impressions of fellow performers and the royalty she met over her life, as well as providing some useful advice on singing.
She and her husband retired to Kensington. Poor investments resulted in the loss of much of their wealth, and Albani was forced to give musical lessons to earn income. Her husband died in 1925, compounding the situation, but benefit concerts arranged by friends provided sufficient income for Albani. She died in London on 3 April 1930.
Madame Selitsky, the prima donna who performs in L. M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables (1908) was inspired by Albani. Montgomery later wrote a profile of the singer for Courageous Women (1934), a non-fiction work.
The Canadian Commission for landmarks and historic monuments mounted a plaque at her birthplace in 1939, which was replaced with a stele in 1977.
Two streets in Montreal have been named for Albani. The first was dedicated in the 1930s, but was later removed when the road was merged with another street. The second, Rue Albani was so named in 1969.
Canada Post commissioned a postage stamp honoring her on the 50th anniversary of her death. The stamp was designed by artist Huntley Brown and released on 4 July 1980. Eleven million, seven hundred thousand copies of the stamp were printed.
She is depicted in a stained-glass mural in the Place-des-Arts metro station in Montreal.