Marie-Louise-Emma-Cécile Lajeunesse was born on November 1, 1847 2 in Chambly, Quebec, where she lived until 1851. She was the first child of Mélina and Joseph Lajeunesse. Emma received her first music lessons from her mother, but began studying music with her father when she turned five. Joseph Lajeunesse was a professional musician who was proficient on the violin, harp, piano and organ. He taught Emma to play the harp and piano, insisting that she practice up to four hours each day.
In 1856, Mélina Lajeunesse died while giving birth to her third child and Joseph was left to raise the children on his own. Eventually, he secured the position of music master at a prestigious convent in Montréal, which was run by the Dames des Sacré-Coeur. Emma and her sister Cornelia were allowed to attend the convent and were able to obtain a relatively high level of education free of charge. Emma's talent for music was instantly apparent to the nuns -- to the extent that she was soon barred from participating in the convent's music competitions because she won so often. She continued to receive musical instruction from her father and also to perform publicly, improvising on the harp and piano, and singing songs like "Robert, Robert, toi que j'aime". 3
When the time came for Emma to decide on a future career, she was encouraged by the convent's Mother Superior to pursue music. However, other French Canadians were less willing to support her. At the time, a career on the stage was considered an unsavoury occupation for a woman; actresses and singers were seen as no better than prostitutes. 4 As a result, Emma was unable to secure any financial support for a musical career from the French-Canadian community. So in 1865, she and her family moved to Albany, New York.
Emma was eighteen years old when she and her family arrived in Albany, and she was an accomplished musician, playing several instruments as well as composing and arranging music. She joined the choir at St. Joseph's Church and obtained the position of first soprano, as well as church organist and choir director. The citizens of Albany were more tolerant in their views on women and stage performance, and they held a number of benefit concerts to raise money for Emma's musical education. In 1868, they presented the young musician with the proceeds of these concerts and soon afterward, Emma made her way to the city of Paris.
In Paris, Emma studied with Gilbert-Louis Duprez, a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire and principal tenor of the Paris Opera. Six months later, she moved to Italy to study with Francesco Lamperti, a teacher renowned for his mastery of the Italian method of singing. It was at this time that Emma's elocution teacher, Signor Delorenzi, convinced her to change her last name from Lajeunesse to the more European-sounding Albani. Emma was particularly pleased with her new last name because it so closely resembled the name of the city of Albany, where she had received such generous support. 5
Before her education was complete however, Albani's funds began to run out and she started to look for paid singing opportunities. Eventually, she secured an engagement in Messina, Sicily that paid her 20 pounds, or 500 francs per month. 6 Thus in April of 1870, at the age of 22, Albani debuted in the city of Messina in Vincenzo Bellini's La Sonnambula. As she recalled in her autobiography, the Sicilian audience responded to her debut performance with wild enthusiasm. She wrote, "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." 7
After fulfilling her contract at Messina, Albani returned to Milan to resume her studies with Lamperti. It was not long before she accepted another engagement in Cento, where she appeared in Rigoletto for the first time. Albani next performed in Florence and then in Malta, singing in La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Robert il Diavolo, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine.
While in Malta, Albani made the acquaintance of a number of British soldiers who were stationed there, and they persuaded her to go to London to pursue an engagement at Covent Garden. In June of 1871, one year after her debut in Messina, Albani arrived in London to audition at Covent Garden. After hearing her sing, Frederick Gye, the manager of the prestigious opera company, offered the young singer a five-year contract and scheduled her Covent Garden debut for the following spring.
While waiting for her debut, Albani attended Covent Garden performances and heard some of the singers (among them opera legend Adelina Patti) with whom she would share the stage in the following season. She remained in London for a short time before returning to Italy to continue her studies with Lamperti. Together they studied Ambroise Thomas' Mignon and Rossini's Conte d'Ory in preparation for another engagement at the Pergola Theatre in Florence. Whenever she could find a spare moment in her busy schedule of performance and studies, Albani endeavoured to experience other aspects of the rich culture of Milan, Sicily and London by visiting their art galleries and museums. The Pergola Theatre engagement, which included performances of La Sonnambula and Lucia di Lammermoor, was a resounding success and Albani made her way back to London for her first Covent Garden season.