This Week in History


A Canadian Diva

For the week of Monday October 30, 2000

Born on November 1, 1847, Emma Albani, a favourite of opera fans all over Europe, was the first Canadian singer to achieve international success.

Emma Albani

Emma Albani
© LAC / C-049491

From early childhood, Marie-Louise-Emma-Cécile Lajeunesse was trained by her music master father in Chambly, Quebec. She began performing publicly, accompanied by her sister on piano, at age eight. While still a teenager, she was invited to be a soloist at St. Joseph's Church in Albany, NY. Her popularity led to a collection to fund further training in Europe. Some believe her stage name, Albani, is partly a tribute to their kindness.

She travelled to Paris to study with Gilbert Louis Duprez, a retired tenor. Through him and Madame de Lafitte, with whom she boarded, she made connections with the Imperial Court. At a ball, an Italian prince, impressed by her talent, invited her to his country. She left just in time, as the Franco-Prussian War was about to begin.

As her funds were starting to run low, her new teacher Francesco Lamperti quickly arranged her first operatic performance in La Sonnambula in Messina. The Sicilian audiences, very critical of new performers, were quite impressed. She completed the season there, then moved on to Venice, then Malta, and finally Covent Garden in London. She was under contract there for the rest of her career and eventually married the owner's son, Ernest Gye.

Emma Albani, 1889

Emma Albani, 1889
© LAC / C-026481

Tours of Russia, Europe, and the United States followed, as well as a royal command performance for Queen Victoria, where she was presented with a pearl cross. The Queen was so impressed that thereafter she regularly invited Albani to sing oratorio at private concerts at Balmoral Castle. Composers like Franz Liszt, Johannes Brahms and Sir Arthur Sullivan also held her in high regard.

Though less well-known in North America (where some believed that the press exaggerated her overseas successes!), she received rave reviews and resounding applause during a tour of the continent in 1889. She performed in many Canadian cities, some for the first time, including Ottawa, Toronto, Hamilton, and Montréal.

After singing at Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901, Albani considered retiring, but continued singing for another decade. She embarked on a farewell tour in 1906, crossing Canada from coast to coast by train.

Made a Dame in 1925, Emma Lajeunesse Gye Albani died in London in 1930. Designated as a person of national historic significance in 1937, she is commemorated with a plaque in Chambly, Quebec.

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