Pauline Lightstone was born in Montréal on March 5, 1882, the third of eleven children. She later changed her last name to Donalda, in honour of Canadian arts patron Sir Donald A. Smith (Lord Strathcona), who provided generous support throughout her career. Her parents, Michael and Fanny Lightstone, immigrated to Canada around 1868 and were married in Montréal. Michael Lightstone was an amateur singer and he instructed his children in music from an early age. Apparently, Pauline demonstrated musical talent even before she learned to talk -- her mother claimed that she heard her daughter "'cooing' two notes at the age of six months when the organ grinder played outside the family house".1 Her first encounter with the live stage took place at the age of seven, when she played the Queen in a children's production of Cinderella. At the age of ten, she won her first singing prize at the Royal Arthur School in Montréal.2
Donalda's first real "break" occurred in 1901 when, at the age of 19, she was a soloist in a choir that performed at the first Jewish Zion Congress in Montréal. The choir director recognised the young singer's potential and arranged an audition with distinguished pianist and music director of the Royal Victoria College, Clara Lichtenstein. Upon hearing Donalda sing, Lichtenstein remarked, "I think the diamond has been found".3
Thereafter, things progressed very quickly for the young singer. She enrolled in the Royal Victoria College, which awarded her a full scholarship in music and free tuition for general arts courses. Thus, in addition to her studies in vocal repertoire and technique, Donalda studied music history, languages and literature. She was an exemplary and hard-working student, and before long it was evident that she would have to go abroad in order to continue her studies.
Donalda's father, however, was reluctant to allow her to go to Europe without another professional opinion on whether or not she really had a future in opera. Thus, in February of 1902, Donalda headed to New York City, to no less than the Metropolitan Opera (the Met), to seek out another professional opinion. Armed with a card of introduction from Lichtenstein, she first approached Walter Damrosch, conductor for the Metropolitan Opera. She attended one of the maestro's rehearsals and during the break she introduced herself. Donalda later described this disastrous meeting, "What do you think he did? He took the card, looked at it -- then tore it up into pieces and said: 'I have no time to waste on you young girls who think they have voices!' Well, after that rebuff, you can just imagine how I felt. I just sat down and began to cry."4
She regained her spirits, however, and went on to meet the Metropolitan's leading French tenor, Thomas Salignac. He responded enthusiastically to her singing and commented, "Your voice is beautiful and naturally placed, and there isn't any reason why you shouldn't start studying operatic roles right away".5 In addition to Salignac, a jury of experts from the Met also evaluated her voice favourably and reassured by their response, Donalda began to prepare for her journey to Europe.
To help cover her tuition and living expenses in Europe, Lord Strathcona (Sir Donald A. Smith) awarded Donalda a scholarship of $50 per month. Before she left Montréal, Donalda organised a farewell concert at the Royal Victoria College on March 26, 1902. Accompanied by Clara Lichtenstein, she performed songs by Schumann and Brahms, and arias from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Wagner's Tannhäuser and Gounod's Faust. A review of the recital in the Gazette predicted an optimistic future for Donalda: ". . . [T]he lady has a remarkable voice and the careful training that is certain to be obtained in Europe will surely develop it to such an extent that another Canadian prima donna will be, no doubt, the result."6
Donalda arrived in Paris and immediately began studying with Edmond Duverney, a teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. Pierre Breton tutored her in French and she received instruction in Italian from Babette Rosen, who, like Canadian diva Emma Albani, had been a pupil of the famous teacher Francesco Lamperti.7