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Emma Albani - Early Career

Photograph of Emma Albani for her debut in April 1870

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Emma Albani's operatic debut took place in Messina, Sicily in 1870. She sang the role of Amina in La Sonnambula

On April 2, 1872, Albani debuted at Covent Garden as Amina in La Sonnambula and her performance deeply impressed both the audience and critics. Her admirers showered her with gifts of flowers and jewellery, and one reviewer wrote, "The great event of the month has been the success of Mlle. Albani, who made her debut as Amina in 'La Sonnambula'. With a genuine soprano voice, a facile and unexaggerated execution, and a remarkable power of sostenuto in the higher part of her register, this young vocalist at once secured the good opinion of her audience . . . . there can be no doubt that future performances will fully justify the verdict so unanimously and unmistakably pronounced upon her first appearance." 8

Although only 24 years old when she debuted at Covent Garden, Albani had already performed publicly in as many as eight different operas in five European cities.

Albani became interested in oratorio (large-scale musical works on a sacred theme) through two musicians she met during her first season at Covent Garden. Composer/conductor Sir Julius Benedict and Covent Garden organist Joseph Pitman encouraged Albani to perform oratorios in order to expand her vocal repertoire. Opportunities for singing both oratorio and secular music were in abundance, due to the numerous music festivals held each year throughout the English provinces. So when she was offered a minor role at the Norwich Festival in October of 1872, Albani eagerly accepted. She sang "Angels, ever bright and fair" from Handel's Theodora, and thus began a career in oratorio performance that would endure long after the conclusion of her career in opera.

Hand-written music of the mad scene from LUCIA DI LAMMERMOOR

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The mad scene from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, possibly hand-written by Emma Albani

After singing at the Norwich Festival, Albani travelled to Paris for an engagement at the Salle Ventadour and then returned to London for her second season at Covent Garden. During this season, she sang the roles of Ophelia in Hamlet and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro for the first time. Her next engagement took her far from London -- in November of 1873, she departed for Russia, appearing first in Moscow in the operas La Sonnambula, Rigoletto, Hamlet and Lucia di Lammermoor, and then performing in St. Petersburg, where the Tsar attended the performances and personally congratulated the singers. Albani was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic response of the Russian audience who, more than once, applauded Albani through twenty curtain calls in one evening.

Photograph of Emma Albani in costume for a role

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Emma Albani in costume, likely for the role of Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor

During her third season at Covent Garden (1874-5), Albani sang much of the same repertoire as in the first two years: La Sonnambula, Lucia di Lammermoor, Linda di Chamounix and Flotow's Marta. In her biography Emma Albani: Victorian Diva, Cheryl MacDonald suggests that Albani's Covent Garden roles were limited to these operas due to "lively competition" among the singers: "Sopranos, and to a slightly lesser extent, tenors, had an extremely possessive attitude toward their roles. Certain operas 'belonged' to specific individuals, and no other singer in the company could perform those roles. To do so invited ostracization and the full brunt of a fellow artiste's temperamental wrath." 9

Photograph of Emma Albani, wearing the pearl cross given to her by Queen Victoria

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Emma Albani wearing the pearl cross given to her by Queen Victoria

Fortunately, Albani had many other engagements, both public and private, outside of Covent Garden through which she could explore other repertoire. Just after the end of her third season at Covent Garden, one such opportunity occurred that especially delighted Albani -- Queen Victoria commanded the young singer to perform at Windsor Castle. In July of 1874, Albani met the Queen for the first time and sang 'Caro Nome' from Rigoletto, 'Robin Adair', 'Ave Maria' by Gounod, and 'Home, Sweet Home'. 10

Queen Victoria was both an appreciative and well-informed patron of music. At one time, Felix Mendelssohn had been her teacher and through her studies, she had developed an interest in a wide variety of musical styles. On subsequent performances for the Queen, Albani was asked to sing French and Scottish songs, as well as works by Brahms, Grieg, Handel and Mendelssohn. 11