Emma Albani | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Emma Albani

She began studying the piano with her mother before she was four, but in her fifth year her father took charge, teaching her piano, harp, and singing.
Emma Albani, singer
After studying in Paris and Milan, Albani embarked on a career which took her to the world's most famous opera houses. By the time she retired in 1896, she had sung 43 leading roles (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/PA-127289).

Albani, Emma

 (Marie Louise Cécile) Emma Albani (b Lajeunesse). Soprano, teacher, b Chambly, near Montreal, 27 Sep or 1 Nov 1847, d London 3 Apr 1930. She was the eldest daughter (the second child) of Joseph Lajeunesse and Mélina Mignault. On her father's side she belonged to the seventh Canadian generation of the Lajeunesse family; the first of that name to arrive in Canada, Étienne Charles, called Lajeunesse and born in Brittany in 1649, had married Madeleine Niel in Trois-Rivières, Que, in 1667. On Albani's mother's side her grandmother, Rachel McCutcheon, was descended from a family of Scottish origin established over many years in Plattsburgh, NY. The exact date and year of Albani's birth have not been established with certainty to this day (see Compositions).

Early Training and Performances

She began studying the piano with her mother before she was four, but in her fifth year her father took charge, teaching her piano, harp, and singing. The family lived in Plattsburgh from 1852 until 1856, the year of Madame Lajeunesse's death, after which he and his three children settled in Montreal. In September 1856 Emma performed for the first time in public as a singer and pianist at the Mechanics' Hall in Montreal, and later she made several other appearances in the area. In 1858 she and her younger sister Cornélia became resident students at the Sacré-Coeur Convent in Sault-au-Récollet, on the outskirts of Montreal, where their father taught music. Emma's voice and her talent for music soon drew the attention of her teachers and companions. In August 1860 she sang on the occasion of the visit of the Prince of Wales, who had been invited to attend the inauguration of the Victoria Bridge. On 13 Sep 1862 she and her sister participated in a 'grande soirée musicale' at the Mechanics' Hall. Emma performed as singer, pianist, harpist, and composer. The concert was presented under the auspices of high-ranking civil and military authorities for the purpose of 'helping the Misses Lajeunesse to meet the expenses of their forthcoming trip to Paris, where they intend to study at the Conservatoire'. In La Minerve of 16 September an anonymous review spoke of 'a voice that seemed sent from heaven' and predicted an international career for her. Unable to raise the necessary amount to send his two daughters to Europe, Joseph Lajeunesse, after their graduation in July 1865, took them to the USA, interrupting the journey to give concerts at towns along the way and staying rather longer at Albany, NY, where Emma soon was engaged as a soloist at St Joseph's Catholic Church. For three years she sang the great masses of the classical repertoire, played the organ on occasion, and even conducted the choir. In 1868, assisted by the congregation and with the encouragement of the parish priest, Mgr J.J. Conroy, she left at last for Europe.

Studies in Europe and Opera Debut

In Paris she studied singing with Gilbert-Louis Duprez and organ and harmony with François Benoist. Eight months later she went to Milan to work with Francesco Lamperti, who taught her the Italian method and arranged for her debut at the Teatro Vittorio Emmanuel in Messina on 22 Dec 1869, as Oscar in Verdi's The Masked Ball, followed by Amina in La Sonnambula one week later and Alina in Donizetti's La Regina di Golconda 22 Feb 1870. She performed the entire 1869-70 season in Messina, singing 44 performances of these three operas between December and April. At the suggestion of her elocution teacher, she then adopted Albani as her stage name, borrowing it from an old Italian family. Her success in Messina was considerable and brought her immediate engagements in Acireale, Cento, and Florence, and also in Malta, where she sang for the whole 1870-1 winter season. Besides La Sonnambula, her repertoire included Lucia di Lammermoor, Rigoletto, Martha, The Barber of Seville, L'Africaine (the role of Inez), Romani's Il Mantello, and Robert le Diable. From Malta, echoes of her success reached London, and the impresario James Henry Mapleson, through the intercession of his Maltese colleague Zimmelli, invited her to join the Italian opera troupe at Her Majesty's.

Covent Garden

Albani arrived in London in June 1871, but her carriage took her, apparently by mistake, to the rival Royal Italian Opera at Covent Garden, which was directed by Frederick Gye. Diplomatically, Gye made her aware of opportunities - including a debut the following spring in La Sonnambula - which would be available to her should she choose to join Covent Garden instead of Mapleson's troupe. A contract with Covent Garden signed and sealed, the singer returned to her teacher, Lamperti, at Lake Como to study some new parts, including the title role in Mignon, which she was scheduled to sing in Florence in the coming winter. Anxious to perfect Mignon, she went to Paris, where the publisher Heugel introduced her to the opera's composer, Ambroise Thomas, who coached her in the role. In December she enjoyed another success in Florence, at the Teatro della Pergola, where, in addition to her regular roles, she sang Adèle in Rossini's Le Comte Ory. Her Mignon was so well received that she was obliged to give 9 performances in 10 days. For her London debut, 2 Apr 1872, she sang Amina in La Sonnambula, yet another triumph for the young singer, who immediately became one of the stars of Covent Garden. That same season she performed in Rigoletto (Gilda) and sang the title roles in Martha, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Linda di Chamounix, establishing the great London house as her home base; she sang in it every season until 1896, except for four.

In the autumn of 1872 her first appearances at the English festivals were followed by successes in Paris at the Théâtre-des-Italiens in La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Rigoletto. The 1873 London season brought her fresh triumphs in Auber's Les Diamants de la couronne, Thomas's Hamlet, and The Marriage of Figaro (as the Countess). After triumphs in Moscow and St Petersburg she returned in 1874 to Covent Garden, where for the first time she sang Elvira in I Puritani. A contract with the impresarios Maurice and Max Strakosch took her to the USA for a tour 1874-5. On 21 Oct 1874 she made her debut in La Sonnambula at the New York Academy of Music and went on to sing Lucia, Mignon, Gilda, Martha, and then Elsa (Lohengrin), her first Wagnerian role, learned in 15 days. The Strakosch tour lasted until February 1875, whereupon she went to Venice to sing Lucia with Tamagno, the future creator of the title role of Verdi's Otello.

On her return to Covent Garden she sang Elsa in the English premiere of Lohengrin in addition to her usual roles. The following season saw the London premiere of Tannhäuser, with Albani as Elisabeth. After a tour of England and Ireland she took part in the festivals of Birmingham and Leeds, then sang another season in Paris at the Théâtre-des-Italiens, where this time her success as Linda, Lucia, Elvira, Gilda, and Amina was conclusive. She was received by President MacMahon and sang at the Élysée Palace. In London her 1877 season was marked by her performance of the role of Senta in The Flying Dutchman and by her participation in the Handel Festival at Crystal Palace before an audience of 20,000. In the spring of 1878 she sang in La Traviata in Paris, then gave the first performance of an opera written for her by von Flotow, Alma l'incantatrice. On August 6 she married Ernest Gye, who had just taken over the management of Covent Garden from his father. The marriage produced a son, Frederick Ernest, born 4 June 1879. (In 1955, after a distinguished diplomatic career, Albani's son, who lived 1941-52 in Montreal, died a bachelor in London. In 1934 he had established at the RCM the Albani prize, which has continued to be awarded annually to a young singer.)

1878-1885: Canadian Performances

During the ensuing years, Albani sang again in Russia (1878), as well as in Belgium and Monte Carlo. In 1882 in Berlin she was Elsa in a performance of Lohengrin before Kaiser Wilhelm I, who received her in his royal box and bestowed on her the honour of Hofkammersängerin (court singer). Two years previously, her appearance at La Scala in Milan had produced one of the rare failures of her career. Though ill, she insisted on singing Lucia and Gilda before hostile audiences. Her failure to complete a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor created a resounding scandal. In London in 1881 she added Rubinstein's The Demon to her repertoire, singing under the composer's direction. The following year she sang in Boito's Mefistofele and Gounod's La Rédemption at the Birmingham festival, with Gounod himself conducting. Gounod later wrote Mors et Vita for her, and she premiered it in 1885. In January 1883 she revisited New York to sing with the Symphony Society of Walter Damrosch. She went to Albany and then embarked on a long tour of the USA, sharing star billing with Adelina Patti in a troupe provided by Mapleson. She made her debut in Chicago in I Puritani, then visited Washington, Baltimore, New York, Toronto, and Brooklyn. Toronto, where she sang Lucia at the Grand Opera House, was the first Canadian city she had visited after an absence of almost 20 years.

At the end of March 1883 she returned at long last to Montreal, to give three concerts at Queen's Hall. A delirious public gave her a tumultuous welcome. Newspapers estimated the number of admirers who turned out to greet her on her arrival at 10,000. She was the guest of honour at a civic reception, during which poet Louis-Honoré Fréchette recited a long poem he had composed in her honour.

In London she then presented another season at Covent Garden and sang in festivals. In 1884 she sang the title role in Reyer's Sigurd, and Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. She spent the summer in Scotland, near Balmoral, where Queen Victoria, who had become her friend and confidante, visited her on several occasions. In the autumn she made another tour of Holland and Belgium. In London she sang Dvořák's cantata The Spectre's Bride. The Czech composer was the conductor the following year when Albani performed the title role of his oratorio Saint Ludmilla. She also sang in Arthur Sullivan's The Golden Legend in London and Berlin under the composer's direction.

Operatic Debuts: Montreal and Metropolitan Opera

In 1886 Franz Liszt came to London, and in his presence Albani sang the leading role in his oratorio The Legend of Saint Elisabeth, earning the composer's congratulations. Then followed a new season in Berlin (Lohengrin and The Flying Dutchman) and tours of Belgium, Holland, Scotland, and Scandinavia. The Canadian diva was welcomed enthusiastically everywhere and received several honours from the royalty of the countries she visited. She returned to Canada early in 1889, performing in Montreal, Quebec, Toronto, Hamilton, and London, then went to the USA. In the fall, after a brief sojourn in London, she returned again to sing in the USA, Canada, and Mexico. In May 1890 she made her Montreal operatic debut in La Traviata and Lucia di Lammermoor at the Academy of Music. On 10 May 1890, at the Victoria Rink at a benefit concert for the Notre-Dame hospital, 6,000 people acclaimed her along with the pianist-composer Salomon Mazurette, the violinist Alfred De Sève, and the Bande de la Cité conducted by Ernest Lavigne. In March 1890 she sang Desdemona in Verdi's Otello at the Metropolitan Opera as a member of the troupe of Abbey and Grau. This was her first appearance in that theatre. On 23 Dec 1891 she made her official debut as a member of the Metropolitan troupe. After Rigoletto she sang in several other operas during the 1891-2 season, including Faust, Les Huguenots, Don Giovanni (the role of Elvira), Otello, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger, and finally The Flying Dutchman. In January 1892 she visited Montreal with her company to perform in Les Huguenots and Lohengrin at the Academy of Music.

1893-1907: Covent Garden Farewell and Touring

She spent 1893 and 1894 giving concerts in Europe with such illustrious musical colleagues as Sarasate and Paderewski and appeared in Vienna with an orchestra under Hans Richter. In 1895 she inaugurated the Covent Garden season, singing Desdemona opposite Tamagno and Maurel, the creators of the roles of Otello and Iago. She sang also in the premiere of Harold, an opera by Frederick Cowen. Early in 1896 she returned to Canada for a short tour in which the violinist Frantz Jehin-Prume also participated. Her last season at Covent Garden was marked by an unprecedented triumph in four performances of Tristan und Isolde with the de Reszke brothers, Jean and Édouard. Describing the duo from Act II, Herman Klein wrote in the Sunday Times: 'Never before at Covent Garden has the wondrous beauty of this scène d'amour been so totally realized. To hear the difficult music sung perfectly in tune was alone a treat that was well-nigh a revelation' (cited by Rosenthal in Two Centuries of Opera at Covent Garden). On 23 July, for the first and only time in her career, she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni. The next day she sang Valentine in Les Huguenots. These performances marked her farewell to the stage where she had made her debut 24 years earlier. In November 1896 she arrived in Canada with assisting artists to undertake a transcontinental tour that took her from Halifax to Victoria. Everywhere she went, Canadians crowned her their 'queen of song.' She then undertook far-away tours in Australia and New Zealand (1898, 1907), South Africa (1898, 1899, and 1904), and Ceylon and India (1907). In England she continued her career as a performer of oratorios and gave recitals. In 1901 she had the signal honour of being asked to sing at the private family funeral service for Queen Victoria in the chapel at Windsor Castle. She then returned to Canada for a tour in the spring of 1901, which was extended until mid-May. Another two-month tour in Canada in 1903 was followed by her farewell tour in 1906, with a company that included Éva Gauthier.

Final Performance and Financial Difficulties

On 14 Oct 1911, at the Royal Albert Hall, she gave her last public recital before a deeply moved audience. Several of her colleagues were on stage, including Adelina Patti and Nellie Melba. The same year she published her memoirs, Forty Years of Song, and retired to her property on Tregunter Road in Kensington. Subsequent reverses of fortune suffered by Albani and her husband compelled her to resort to teaching, and she even sang for a time in music halls. In 1920 the British government granted her an annual pension of £100. When they were approached for assistance, the governments of both Canada and Quebec declined. On the death of her husband in 1925, Emma Albani's financial situation was most insecure. At Melba's initiative a grand benefit concert was arranged at Covent Garden on 25 May, in which Melba, Elgar, and the Canadian soprano Sarah Fischer took part, among others. In Montreal a similar event (28 May at the St-Denis Theatre) along with a public subscription provided the artist, by then in dire straits, with a little over $4,000, which enabled her to end her days in relative comfort. She died peacefully at her home on 3 Apr 1930. The funeral was held two days later at the Servite Church on Fulham Road. Her remains were taken to the neighbouring cemetery of Brompton, where they were placed next to those of her husband.

Honours and Dedications

In 1897 the Royal Philharmonic Society awarded her its gold medal, also known as the Beethoven Medal, previously bestowed on such distinguished artists as Gounod, Joachim, von Bülow, Patti, and Brahms (Paderewski received the award the same year as Albani). In 1925 George V conferred on her the title of Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE). In 1939 the Canadian Commission for landmarks and historic monuments unveiled a commemorative plaque in Chambly on the site of her birthplace on rue Martel. In 1977 the plaque was replaced by a stele surmounted by an inscription outlining her career. In Montreal her name was given to a street in the west of the city during the 1930s, but the name disappeared when the street became the extension of another avenue. In 1969 the name Albani was given to a new artery in the northeast part of the city. In Quebec City the Musée du Québec possesses a portrait of Emma Albani in the costume of Lucia di Lammermoor. It was painted in 1877 in Paris by the US artist Will Hicock Low and was unveiled the same year at the Salon du printemps. The museum also possesses a marble bust, the work of Prince Victor Hohenlohe of Langenburg.

In her lifetime and even to this day expressions of admiration concerning the singer have been numerous and varied. Guillaume Couture, Ernest Gagnon, Alexis Contant, and Salomon Mazurette dedicated songs to her, and Quebec composer Georges McNeill wrote an Albani Galop for concert band or piano (Lavigne 1875) and dedicated to her Fleurs du printemps, a waltz played by the Septuor Haydn and transcribed for piano by J.-A. Defoy (Lavigne 1875). An Albani Caprice Polka for violin and piano by Max Bachmann was published in 1897. In 1883 periodicals reported an Albani hat for ladies and published a recipe for an Albani cake. In 1972 Jean Patenaude founded, in Chambly, Les Éditions Albani, Inc, devoted chiefly to pedagogical works. In 1980 a postage stamp bearing her likeness was released to commemorate the 50th anniversary of her death. In 1989 a non-profit organization, the Maison Albani, was founded in Chambly to promote the dissemination of the arts and to perpetuate the memory of the singer. Albani is the subject of a play by Simon Fortin, Le Pays dans la Gorge, which premiered in Montreal in 1992. An English-language version by Bill Glassco opened in Toronto in 1994. A video production by Nanouk Films was released in 1998.


In the course of a career spanning four decades, Albani became the first Canadian-born artist to achieve international fame. Her exceptionally beautiful voice, the solid musical and vocal training she acquired in her youth and later developed in conjunction with the best teachers, her mastery of French, English, Italian, and German, and her quickness in assimilating a new score all contributed to her strong appeal to conductors and composers and made her one of the most sought-after singers of her time.

Countless press articles and other testimonials paid tribute to her talent. While he was in London in 1886, the Viennese critic Eduard Hanslick wrote, 'By far the best singer at Covent Garden this season, if not the only important one, (in the absence of Patti, who was not engaged), is Madame Albani' (Music Criticisms 1846-99, translated and revised by Henry Pleasants, Harmondsworth, England, 1963). There are numerous written testimonies from famous musicians including Liszt ('admiration and thanks'), Charles Gounod ('my dear and great interpreter'), Hans von Bülow ('the most brilliant singing star of our era'), Hans Richter ('the master singer'), etc. On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw found her art too calculated and often charged her with a lack of spontaneity. With the years Emma Albani's soprano changed from a coloratura to a 'spinto' and even to a dramatic toward the end of her career, and this accounts for her exceptionally diversified repertoire: in 40 operas, 43 different roles ranging from Amina to Isolde. Her reputation as a performer of oratorios also was exceptional. To her musical talents were added personality, charm, and presence that did not fail to impress most critics.


In her youth, Albani tried her hand at composing and wrote some works for piano (Grande marche triomphale, Grand Fantasia on 'When This Cruel War is Over'), for two pianos (Grand Duett on Themes from Sabatier's Cantata), for harp (Variation on 'Tis the Last Rose of Summer'), and vocal works ('Hymne à Pie IX,' 'And Must These States Now Sever,' 'Les Martyrs,' and 'Travail de reconnaissance'). She and her sister performed them in Albany and surrounding region during the 1860s. No evidence of these works had been found in 1990, except for a copy of 'O Salutaris' for voice and piano composed by Emma C. [Charles] Lajeunesse, published by Wm. Hall & Son of New York, undated. The score bears the inscription 'aged 16 years' and 'Op. 9,' and the work is dedicated 'To the Very Revd J.J. Conroy, administrator of the Diocese of Albany,'

The precise year of Albani's birth is still disputed; by 1990 no corroborating documents had been found. The year 1847, adopted by one of her biographers, Hélène Charbonneau, is accepted generally. In her memoirs the singer states that she was born 1 Nov 1852. The stone marking her grave claims 1 Nov 1850. Her first biographer, Napoléon Legendre, suggests that she probably was born in 1848 and baptized later, in Plattsburgh, NY. Other sources have suggested 27 Sep 1847 and the years 1849 and 1851.

Archival materials, comprising correspondence, photographs, and other documents, are held at the City of Chambly, at the National Library of Canada (now Library and Archives Canada), and at the Archives nationales du Québec in Montreal.


Emma Albani, Forty Years of Songs (London, Toronto 1911; New York 1977) translated and annotated by Gilles Potvin as Mémoires d'Emma Albani (Montreal 1972)

Further Reading

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