Dame Emma Albani was a leading soprano of the 19th century and early 20th century. She performed operas for audiences as prestigious as Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I and Tsar Alexander II.
Born Marie-Louise-Emma-Cecile Lajeunesse, in Chambly, Quebec she spent her early childhood in Plattsburgh, New York, but returned to Montreal following her mother Mélina Mignault's death in 1856. Emma, the eldest daughter in her family, studied at the Sacred Heart Convent where her father Joseph Lajeunesse, a professional musician, was Music Master, and on August 24, 1860, she partnered with Dame Adelina Patti in a performance of Charles Sabatier's "Cantata" in honour of a visit by the Prince of Wales. In her teens her family relocated again, this time to Albany, New York. In 1868 Emma travelled to France and studied at the Paris Conservatory for six months and then travelled to Italy where she took on her stage name.
On her father's side Emma 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, New York.
From 1872 until 1896, she was Covent Garden, London's reigning prima donna. She travelled throughout Europe and made her first American tour in 1874 and that same year, she gave her first private concert for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. Returning to Canada she sang three concerts at Queen's Hall, Montreal and made her Canadian operatic debut at Toronto on February 12, 1883, as Lucia. IAfter leaving Covent Garden in 1896, Emma toured Canada and Australia, sang at Queen Victoria's 1901 funeral, and finally gave her last public performance on October 14, 1911 at the Royal Albert Hall, London.
Albani married Ernest Gye, son of Frederick Gye - manager of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 6 August 1878. The couple had one child, Frederick Ernest Gye, who was born on 4 June 1879.
After retiring she and her husband settled in Kensington, but they were plagued by finacial difficulties and the once prominent singer was forced to accept teaching positions to pay the bills. She was granted a pension by England in 1920, though both Canada and the Province of Quebec refused to contribute. She was widowed in 1925.
Emma received many honours: in 1882 Kaiser Wilhelm I designated her Hofkammersangerin, in 1897 she received the Gold Medal (also known as the "Beethoven Medal") from the Royal Philharmonic Society, and in 1925 was named Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) by King George V. 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 1980 Canada honoured her with a postage stamp commemorating the 50th anniversary of her death - eleven million, seven hundred thousand copies of the stamp were printed. Two Montreal streets have been named after her - one (avenue Albani) has since been merged and the name lost but rue Albani remains. You can also find her depicted in a stained glass window at Montreal's Place-des-Arts Metro Station.
In 1955, after a distinguished diplomatic career, Albani's son Frederick Ernest Gye, who lived from 1941-52 in Montreal, died a bachelor in London. In 1934 he had established at the Royal Conservatory of Music the Albani prize, which continues to be awarded annually to a young singer.
The precise year of Albani's birth is still disputed; to date no corroborating documents have been found. The year 1847, adopted by one of her biographers, Hélène Charbonneau, is generally accepted generally. In her memoirs the singer states that she was born 1 November 1852. The stone marking her grave claims 1 November 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 September 1847 and the years 1849 and 1851.
InscriptionIn memory of Ernest Gye
30 July 1838
10 June 1925
And of his wife
Marie Louise Emma Cecile Lajunesse Albani
Dame of the British Empire
1 November 1850
3 April 1930
She died peacefully at her home on 3 April 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.