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Emma Albani (1847-1930): A Diva Not to be Forgotten

Dame Albani, whose passion for long-sustained head notes was such that there was said to be time for the first trombone player to absent himself from the orchestra and get a drink “at the corner,” whilst the prima donna was resting neatly poised upon her high A. (1)

To a very prepossessing per- sonal appearance, Mlle. Albani adds the possession of a voice of exquisite quality, the pure melodious charm of which is allied to sufficient power for the effective execution of the most brilliant and florid bravura passages ... The delivery of the first few bars of recitative at once showed off the beauty and sympathetic tone of voice and accuracy of intonation. The applause which followed these initiatory phrases was significant of the recognition of an artist of exceptionally high class. The compass commanded by Mlle. Albani is upwards of two octaves to E flat in alt. The singer’s success was great and complete. (2)

SUPERLATIVES ASIDE, FRENCH-CANADIAN EMMA ALBANI, born Marie-Louise-Emma Cécile Lajeunesse, enjoyed a distinguished career spanning thirty years (1870-1900), and at her professional peak her celebrity rivalled that of the great Adelina Patti (1843-1919), her “junior” by just four years. After a star-studded reign, however, as one of the preeminent operatic sopranos of her time, she faced the prospect of poverty in old age. She had lost two fortunes as a result of unwise investments and by 1925 she was in such dire straits she took to the music hall circuit. When word of her predicament reached Nellie Melba (1861-1931), herself by then 64, the Australian diva organized a special benefit concert, the proceeds from which allowed Albani to live her last days in dignified retirement. (3)

In flattering terms, indicative of the journalistic style of the times, a commentary in an 1872 edition of The London Illustrated News hints at a promising career for the then 25-year-old:

The fame of her singing, as well as of the grace of her presence and manner, spread to England; and the director of the Royal Italian Opera, having satisfied himself of the truth, secured this new attraction for his establishment. Her début in England was expected ...but Mr. Gye, as soon as he heard her in rehearsal, determined, rather than destroy its éclat, to postpone it to the commencement of a new season. Mdlle. Albani therefore resumed her studies in Milan, and last winter sang in the theatre of La Pergola, at Florence, before the most critical audience in Italy, to whom she heralded by a message from the old maestro that “he was sending them the most accomplished musician and the most finished singer in style that ever left his studio,” How well she was to redeem his words the Florentines were soon convinced.

Albani’s voice was a rich soprano, of excellent beauty in its higher register and she perfected the art of mezza voce (i.e., literally in “half-voice” and requiring control of tonal placement and breath to achieve a full-bodied but reduced volume of vocal tone). Her diverse repertoire focused primarily on the works of Bellini, Donizetti, Mozart, Rossini and Wagner. She performed in no less than 40 different operas and in 43 different roles. Albani was the first Canadian-born artist to achieve truly international fame. Her recorded legacy, however, is pitifully small.

Madame Albani giving toys to sick children
at the Jenny Lind Infirmary, Norwich

As early as 1888 or 1889, the voice of Emma Albani is said to have been recorded on a rudimentary apparatus belonging to Thomas Edison (1847-1931) at a Handel festival at the Crystal Palace in London. If so, no trace of the experiment has been found. Between 1904 and 1907, and in her early 60s, Albani recorded at least nine titles for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company and the Pathé Frères Phonograph Company. Some of the titles were re-issued in the U.S. about 1940 on the International Record Collectors’ Club (IRCC) label and again in 1950 on the History of Record Sound (HRS) label. In 1967, Rocco reissued eight titles on one side of an LP (5255): ‘Angels Ever Bright and Fair’ (Theodora); ‘Sweet Bird’ (Il Pensieroso); ‘Ombra Mai Fu’ (Serse, Handel); ‘Souvenirs du jeune âge (Le Pré-aux- clercs, Hérold); ‘Home Sweet Home’ (Bishop); ‘Robin Adair’; and the Bach-Gounod ‘Ave Maria.’ It’s also known that she recorded the song ‘Ma Normandie’ by Bérat. (3)

Emma Albani is still held in high esteem in Québec. This is a section of a painted glass mural by German illustrator Frédéric Back (1924-2013), visualizing the distinguished history of music in Montréal. The mural is located at the east mezzanine of the city’s Place-des-Arts metro station. See the complete mural at: https://www.stm.info/en/about/ discover_the_stm_its_history/art-network/list-artworks/place-des-arts- frederic-back

Regrettably, Albani’s recordings came late in her career and while there is evidence of a highly polished technique, not surprisingly at her advanced age, “we shall listen in vain for any exceptional artistry.” (3) In John Steane’s critical assessment, Albani’s rendition of Chamindae’s ‘L’été’ on Pathé certainly hints at a great singer: accurate staccatos, fine trills, good runs. The Pathé recording (50332) can be heard on volume one, side one, of the limited edition of ‘The Record of Singing’ (EMI RLS 724), a half-decent transfer by EMI’s Keith Hardwick. Steane adds:

I see P.G. Hurst in The Golden Age Recorded refers to her “magnificent record made in 1904 of Handel’s ‘Angels Ever Bright and Fair.’” But she breathes in places where both text and music urge that she should not ... and is about as untidy as it is possible to be in moving from one note to another (this also in the Pathé recording of Handel’s ‘Largo’). The voice itself has a choir-boy purity and certainly does not take well to recording. Memory insists that she was at the time “very old,” and it is quite true that she had been singing for thirty-five years ... a bit of the Golden Age that had been better left unrecorded. (4)

‘Angels Ever Bright and Fair,’ by the way, was a particular favorite with audiences of the time and might be described as Albani’s “party piece.” Her interpretation, to today’s ears, however, might seem somewhat “over the top,’ but it has to be heard in the context of the time, reflecting as it does the patriotic sentiments of Victorian audiences (Angels, ever bright and fair / Keep us all within Thy care / Guard the altars of the home / Guard the steps that far may roam). Albani was one of a number of notable women singers of the period who helped to bind the British Empire together – “they were invariably and conspicuously royalist, patriotic and imperial in their outlook.”

Albani’s recorded legacy is disappointing and hardly a testimony to a once greatly admired artist: “...this soprano's records must be heard with a carefully prepared ear – and a historical perspective – if they are to yield much pleasure.” (5) Many of her recordings can be heard on YouTube, but be forewarned the quality of sound, for the most part, is extremely poor.

Early in the 1890s it was evident that Albani’s voice was showing the signs of “heavy mileage.” For example, of her Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in a December 1892 performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, a New York Tribune columnist observed:

Mme. Albani is an artist who always commands respect for the earnestness and intelligence of her efforts. Her wisdom in retaining the role of Gilda in her repertory is questionable. Neither in appearance nor in voice is she able longer to produce the illusion of youthfulness and emotional ardor inherent in the part. The delight which she gives comes from a recognition of her artistic knowledge and devotion rather than the sensuous charm of her singing. Last night these qualities were thrown into a bright light by contrast with the viciousness which marked the singing of all her colleagues, except the choristers, who quite redeemed some of their doleful work last week. (6)

And, of her last appearance at the Met in March 1892, as Senta in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer, a New York Times columnist commented:

The Senta of Mlle. Albani was not vocally perfect, yet it had so many excellences that her hearers must have been inclined to forgive the departures from the pitch which seem to have become an inseparable accompaniment of her singing of late. She did much to atone for them by the intelligence of her work and by the dramatic earnestness with which she imbued all her singing. She earned a fair share of the honors of the evening. (7)

Albani’s Met “experience” was not a happy one. In her autobiography she discusses at great length the successes of her North American appearances on both the operatic stage and the concert platform, but the Met gets “short shrift.” In sharp contrast, her “reign” at Covent Garden, essentially her “artistic home,” is discussed in glowing terms. Université de Montréal musicologist Pierre Vachon offers a more balanced (French language) view for her 24 seasons (1872-1896) at the London opera house, with details of her repertoire. (8)

Albani wisely acknowledged her vocal state and in July 1896 bade farewell to the operatic stage and from then on focussed her energies on oratorio and concert performances. She should be remembered for her illustrious, international career, putting her recordings into perspective. They remain but “mementos” of an age and of glories long past, perhaps colored a little by nostalgia.

Barry was one-time CAPS’ program convenor and editor of the Society’s newsletter and, for twenty-plus years, editor of the journal of the Association for Recorded Sound Collections (i.e., the ARSC Journal). His collecting and research interests focus on Italian opera, in particular the works of Giuseppe Verdi, and also on early sound recordings of opera.


  1. Klein, H. ‘Opera at Covent Garden,’ The Gramophone, July 1925. Klein (1856-1934), “an educated and informed observer of the vocal scene from the 1870s onward,” was a regular contributor to The Gramophone. His complete writings for the magazine, from 1923 to the year of his death, are “a must read” and were published in a single volume edited by William R. Moran, ‘Herman Klein and The Gramophone’ [Portland: Amadeus Press, 1990]
  2. Scott, M. ‘The Record of Singing’ (pp.24-26) [NY: Scribner’s, 1977]
  3. Potvin, G. ‘Encyclopedia of Music in Canada’ (pp.12-14) [Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992]. Potvin (1923- 2000) was a well-regarded Canadian music critic and music historian. One of Canada’s leading music authorities, Potvin was once deemed “the guardian and champion of Québec's musical legacy.” In 1972, he produced a French translation of Albani’s autobiography, Mémoires d’Emma Albani.
  4. Steane, JB. ‘The Grand Tradition: Seventy years of singing on record 1900-1970’ [NY: Scribner’s, 1974]. Steane (1928- 2011) was one of the great authorities on singers and vocal techniques. In addition to ‘The Grand Tradition...,’ his major publications were ‘Voices, Singers and Critics’ (1992), ‘Elisabeth Schwarzkopf: A Career On Record’ (1995, with Alan Sanders), and three volumes of ‘Singers of the Century’ (Vol. 1, 1996; Vol. 2 1999; Vol. 3, 2000). Like Hermann Klein, Steane was a regular contributor to Gramophone (see ‘The Gramophone and the Voice: 25 Years of Quarterly Writings from the Pages of Gramophone’). He was also a regular contributor to such publications as Opera, Opera Now, Musical Times and the New Grove Dictionary of Music and New Grove Dictionary of Opera, broadcasting regularly also on BBC’s Radio 3 and Radio 4.
  5. Movchon, G. ‘To Mark Canada’s Centenary – Great Singers of Her Past,’ High Fidelity, July 1967. https:// www.worldradiohistory.com/hd2/IDX-Audio/Archive-High-Fidelity-IDX/IDX/60s/High-Fidelity-1967-07-IDX- 61.pdf#search=%22emma%20albani%22
  6. Download the New York Tribune review from from the Metropolitan Opera archives at: https://archives.metopera.org/ MetOperaSearch/record.jsp?dockey=0358184. A complete listing of Albani’s Met performances, with a key word search, can be downloaded at: https://archives.metopera.org/MetOperaSearch/searchkw.jsp
  7. Download undated New York Times review from the Metropolitan Opera archives at: https://archives.metopera.org/ MetOperaSearch/record.jsp?dockey=0358266.
  8. Vachon, P. ‘La carrière d’Emma Albani au Covent Garden de Londres,’ Les Cahiers de la Société québécoise de recherche en musique, 2000(?):4(1):20-27. https://www.sqrm.qc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/La-carriere-d_Emma-Albani-au-Covent-Garden-de-Londres.pdf

Recommended Readings

ALBANI, E. ‘FORTY YEARS OF SONG’ [Toronto: Copp Clark, 1911]. The soprano’s whirlwind journey down memory lane is a veritable who’s who of High Society, of Europe’s Royalty, and of the operatic world of the times. Ernest Newman (1868-1959), one of the most celebrated British music critics of the first half of the 20th century, was damning in his review of Albani’s autobiography: “Intellectually uninteresting Madame Alban’s book certainly is. Its tediousness is equalled only by its artlessness. For those who care about such things there are any number of details of the operas and oratorios Madame Albani sang in in this year or that, the presents that were made for her, the flowers that were hurled at her, the poems that were written about her, the great audiences that gathered to hear her, what the newspapers of thirty or forty years ago said about her, and so on and so on. For those who do not care a brass farthing for all the historical debris, what is there? What indeed!’ A digital copy can be read online at: https://archive.org/details/fortyyearsofsong0000emma/page/318/mode/2up

BAILLIE, JP. ‘LOOKING AT THE RECORD: An Album of Toronto’s Lyric Theatres 1825-1984’ [Oakville: Mosaic Press, 1985]. One-time archivist for the Canadian Opera Company, the author offers a fascinating pictorial history of the Toronto opera scene. The album is profusely illustrated with newspaper clippings, including two reporting on Emma Albani’s concert appearances in the city in 1883 (p.78) and 1889 (p.61), drawings, reviews, programs and photographs of the lyric stage.

DAVIES, PG. ‘AMERICAN OPERA SINGERS,’ [NY: Doubleday, 1997]. In his pretentiously titled book, Davies offers, nonetheless, a highly entertaining and well-informed “romp” through operatic life in the U.S. (see pp.82-86 on Albani). For more than thirty years, Davis held sway as one of America’s leading classical music critics “with crisp, witty prose and an encyclopedic memory of count-less performances and performers.” First as a critic at The New York Times and later at New York magazine, Davis wrote precise, sharply opinionated reviews of all forms of classical music, though his great love was opera and the voice, an attachment he developed in his early teens.

HOOEY, CA. ‘DAME EMMA ALBANI,’ The Record Collector, 2016;61(1):2-28. An affectionate “retrospective,” this article, in tone and content, reads much like a condensed version of the sopra-no’s autobiography. The article was published posthumously; the Canadian author died in 2013. Included is a detailed discography including both issued and unissued recordings. A companion piece is a commentary on Albani’s recordings by musicologist Michael Aspinall. The focus of The Record Collector is on historic singers of the 78 rpm era, essential reading for record collectors and “students” of great singing. Check out the publication’s website at: https://www.therecordcollector.org/index.php

KALBFLEISCH, J. ‘RETURNING OPERA STAR Wowed Montreal Fans,’ Montreal Gazette, 10 March 2011. Recalls Albani’s return to Quebec after an absence of more than twenty years and includes the 10 March 1883 Montreal Gazette report: https://montrealgazette.com/ sponsored/mtl-375th/from-the-archives-returning-opera-star-wowed-montreal-fans

KLEIN, H. ‘GREAT WOMEN-SINGERS OF MY TIME’ [NY: Dutton, 1931] This book is well worth searching out for the music critic’s perspective on the “golden age of singing.” The chapter on Emma Albani begins on p.102. Reprints of the book are not hard to come by. A digital copy can be read online at: https://archive.org/details/greatwomensinger00klei/page/n9/mode/2up

MCPHERSON, J. ‘DAME EMMA ALBANI, CANADIAN DIVA, 1847-1930,’ Antique Phonograph News January-February 1992, Canadian Antique Phonograph Society. The author was a life-long opera historian, record collector, CAPS member and a presenter, and by profession a newspaper columnist and editor. For a number of years, Jim was a co-host of ‘Art of the Music’ on CBC’s ‘Live at the Met.’ Jim was the author of a three-part series for Opera Quarterly, ‘Before the Met: The Pioneer Days of Radio Opera.’ Access is by subscription only. First page view:
Part 1 https://academic.oup.com/oq/article-abstract/16/1/5/1489460?redirectedFrom=fulltext&login=false;
Part 2 https://academic.oup.com/oq/article-abstract/16/2/204/1439895?redirectedFrom=fulltext&login=false