This month’s Canada 150 post is about Emma Lajeunesse Albani, the first Canadian international superstar.
I have to say that I had never heard of Ms. Albani before this, but she came up in a search for notable mid-19th century Canadians so I decided I would do a little research into her life. I have not had much exposure to opera but I find the story of Ms. Albani’s rise to fame to be a fascinating one.
She was born Emma Lajeunesse, in Chambly, Lower Canada (now Quebec). It is interesting to note that some sources report year of birth as 1847, 1848 and 1850; however, her autobiography begins by noting her birth date as November 1, 1852. (I am inclined to believe the latter date but a part of me does wonder if she misreported her birth date to be later so as to appear younger?) Her father was a musician and took on her musical education. Even at the age of five or six, she studied music for four hours per day. In fact, she remarks in her autobiography:
…the editor of one of our magazines which was publishing articles describing the dolls of celebrated women wrote to ask me to tell then “about my dolls.” I was obliged to reply that “I never had a doll.” (Forty Years of Song, p. 13).
Emma’s first performances were in the Montreal area at the age of 8 years old and she was instantly recognized as a child prodigy. At this early age, Emma sang, composed, and played the piano and harp. At the age of 14, her voice was described as being “sent from heaven.”
In 1868, Emma went to Paris to study with Gilbert-Louis Duprez (a famous French tenor). Duprez reportedly said, “She has a beautiful voice and ardour. She is of the kind of wood from which fine flutes are made.” Soon, it was suggested that her last name (Lajeunesse) was not suitable for the stage and she adopted the stage name, Albani. She made her debut in Europe in 1869 and was received with great enthusiasm.
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 theatre. (Emma Albani, on her debut performance,
In 1878, she married Ernest Gye in London, England. She took a year off from performing in operas the year that her son was born, 1879, but by the spring of the following year was back on the stage.
Throughout her forty year career, she had many fans and became a personal friend to Queen Victoria.
It was always one of my greatest pleasures to sing for the Queen. She was so appreciative and in the little conversations I had with her ever showed herself so interested, not only in the music, but in many of my private affairs. It was always said of Queen Victoria that she know all about everything and everybody; and, from my experience, I believe she did. (Forty Years of Song, p. 250).
When Queen Victoria passed away, Emma sang at her funeral.
Unfortunately, when Emma retired from the stage, she and her husband had financial difficulties due to poor investments. She began teaching and wrote her autobiography but by the mid-1920s was in a desperate financial situation. Benefit concerts raised enough money to allow her to live in comfort until her death in 1930.