Albani [married name Gye], Dame Emma [née Marie Louise Cécile Emma Lajeunesse]
- John Rosselli
Dame Emma Albani (1847–1930)
Albani [married name Gye], Dame Emma [née Marie Louise Cécile Emma Lajeunesse] (1847–1930), singer, was born on 1 November 1847 at Chambly, Quebec, Canada, one of three surviving children of Joseph Lajeunesse, organist, and his wife, Mélina Mignault (d. 1856), from a better-off, half-Scottish family. (Albani later gave her date of birth as 1852.) Her father, whose own career was modest, had high ambitions for Emma. He trained her in singing, piano, and harp from the age of five, made her practise five hours a day, and showed her off in music shops; this led to her giving a public concert in Montreal at the age of eight, the first of several. According to H. Charbonneau, a biographer with local sources, Lajeunesse overworked Emma and beat her if she fell asleep or played badly, and she feared him; she herself recorded that she 'never had a doll'.
After working in upper New York state, her father returned to the Montreal area and entered Emma in 1858 as a pupil in the Sacré-Coeur Convent, where she played the organ, composed, sang solos, and was encouraged by the Italian mother superior to think of a singing career. Following successful Montreal concerts in 1862, she was taken by her father to perform at Saratoga Springs and then Albany, New York; this led to her appointment at the age of sixteen as soloist, organist, and choirmaster of St Joseph's Roman Catholic Church, Albany. Four successful years there in turn resulted in her departure—subsidized by well-wishers—for Paris and then Milan. Here she studied (1868–70) first with Gilbert-Louis Duprez, later with Francesco Lamperti, both leading teachers of would-be opera singers. On Lamperti's advice she made her opera début in 1870 at Messina as Amina in Bellini's La sonnambula; this and later engagements at Acireale, Cento, Malta, and Florence were highly successful.
Aspiring young singers, especially British and American women, at that time might win prestige by appearing in Italy—the homeland of opera—without a fee; some took a stage name Italianized from their home town. Emma, however, promised so well that she was paid something from the start, and she maintained that the name she adopted, Albani, had nothing to do with Albany but was taken from the noble papal family, then nearly extinct. She always thought her early Italian experience had been well worth while, in part because 'the British do not understand Italian music' (letter to Eva Gauthier, 30 Oct 1905). It led to her engagement by Frederick Gye to sing for five seasons, starting in 1872, at Covent Garden. She was to appear there nearly every spring until her retirement from opera in 1896, taking, for the rest of the year, engagements in Paris, Brussels, Berlin, St Petersburg, and North America. On 6 August 1878 she married Gye's son Ernest (1839–1926), who then took over Covent Garden from his father and ran it in adverse economic circumstances until 1884. The couple had one son.
At first Albani sang mainly the coloratura soprano repertory (Amina, Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix, Gilda in Rigoletto), but also the dramatic part of Mignon in its soprano version. She was so successful as to alternate with the reigning ‘queen’ Adelina Patti. The Italian works, however, were losing esteem; from 1875 (1874 in New York) Albani started to sing Wagner's lighter parts, in Lohengrin, Tannhäuser, The Flying Dutchman, and ultimately (1889) Die Meistersinger. By London custom, she sang them in Italian—just as she did her roles in French works, even in Brussels, and notwithstanding the fact that she was a native French speaker; all she sang in German were a Lohengrin in Berlin, and Tristan und Isolde in her last Covent Garden season. According to Bernard Shaw, in Wagner she was 'always at her sincerest—that is, her best'. The shining high notes her Italian technique secured were what the composer had wanted; Shaw, however, scoffed at her lingering on these notes ('like a woman who will not come downstairs sensibly because she wants to show off her diamonds') and at her phlegmatic acting in Italian works.
In Britain Albani appeared regularly in oratorio at the Norwich, Crystal Palace, Birmingham, Leeds, and Three Choirs festivals, singing the staple Handel and Mendelssohn works, Gounod's Redemption and Mors et vita (on which she worked with the composer), Liszt's St Elisabeth, and other new works. Until her retirement in 1911 she went on lengthy concert tours to empire countries. Though highly paid in her best years, she was in financial trouble in 1908 and again in 1925, the year in which she was made DBE, and was helped in London and Canada with a benefit matinée, a subscription, and a civil-list pension of £100. She died at 61 Tregunter Road, Kensington, London, on 3 April 1930 and was buried in Brompton cemetery. As a leading singer with an irreproachable private life she had been a favourite of royalty, much decorated; in her last years she received visitors in 1890s dress and wearing her medals.
- H. Charbonneau, L'Albani (1938)
- E. Albani, Forty years of song (1911)
- H. Rosenthal, Two centuries of opera at Covent Garden (1958)
- G. B. Shaw, Music in London, 1890–94, 3 vols. (1932)
- G. B. Shaw, London music as heard in 1888–89 by Corno di Bassetto (1937)
- The Times (4 April 1930)
- m. cert.
- d. cert.
- NYPL, Library for the Performing Arts, Eva Gauthier MSS
- Royal Opera House, London, archives
- Walery, photograph, pubd 1889, NPG [see illus.]
- P. Pinsonneault, photograph, 1897, NPG
- Lafayette, postcard, 1905, NPG
- J. Russell & Sons, photograph, NPG
- photograph, repro. in J. W. Davison, From Mendelssohn to Wagner: memoirs of J. W. Davison (1912)
- photographs, repro. in Albani, Forty years of song
- photographs, repro. in Charbonneau, L'Albani
- woodburytype carte-de-visite, NPG
Wealth at Death
£1410 16s. 6d.: resworn probate, 21 Feb 1931, CGPLA Eng. & Wales