After two years of study, Donalda had an opportunity to audition for her first opera role. It was the title role for Jules Massenet's opera Chérubin. Those present at the audition, including Massenet, were greatly impressed by Donalda's performance, but they were reluctant to cast an unknown singer in a lead role. Accordingly, they offered her 7000 francs to be the understudy. Determined to accept only leading roles, Donalda rejected their offer. Soon after, she was approached by the same group and offered the title role in Manon. Massenet, himself, coached Donalda for this production. At the age of 22, Pauline Donalda made her operatic debut as Manon at the Casino Municipal in Nice. A review in Le Phare du littoral described Donalda's first professional endeavour on the operatic stage. "Pauline Donalda dared to appear for the first time before the public in the role of Manon. On a stage where so many Manons have been applauded and feted. On a stage where mediocrity is unknown and where good enough is considered not enough. Only Pauline Donalda could have had that boldness and succeed. She possesses an unusually exquisite physique; a strong, brilliant, flexible and wide-ranged voice; a finesse and intelligence underlined by remarkable acting and sparkling eyes that open to life or are full of love."8
After her successful debut, Donalda's contract in Nice increased from 8 to 17 performances.9 She appeared as Marguerite in Faust, Micaëla in Carmen and Mimi in La Bohème. Under the direction of the composer Ruggiero Leoncavallo, she also sang the roles of Nedda in Pagliacci and Jenny in the French premiere of Chatterton. She continued to receive excellent press reviews and before long, she became known as one of the newest rising stars on the European opera scene.
Donalda next set her sights on Covent Garden. Her confidence strengthened by her success in Nice, Donalda approached the opera house's artistic director, Andre Messager, sending copies of her Nice reviews and a request for a role. Messager responded positively, offering Donalda a three-year contract that paid her $26 for each performance.10 On May 23, 1905, she debuted at Covent Garden as Micaëla in Bizet's Carmen, with Emmy Destinn in the title role. During her first season at Covent Garden, Donalda also had the opportunity to work with Antonio Scotti and Australian diva Dame Nellie Melba, who became a role model for the young Canadian singer. Her other roles that season included Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, Zerlina in Don Giovanni and Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. On June 28, 1905, she sang the leading role of Ah-Joe in the world premiere of Franco Leoni's one-act opera L'Oracolo.
After only a few performances, critics and reviewers began to notice similarities between the vocal style of Donalda and Nellie Melba. A reviewer from The Observer commented that". . . [Donalda's] voice has that peculiar quality of roundness which has ever been noticeable in that of Mme. Melba. In fact, in many other respects the voices are curiously alike as Mme. Melba has been the first to recognise."11
Perhaps it was this similarity with Melba that provided Donalda with one of the most memorable challenges of her career. In June of 1905, Melba was scheduled to perform the role of Mimi with the legendary Neapolitan tenor Enrico Caruso in La Bohème. When Melba suddenly took ill, Donalda was chosen to take her place. Appearing opposite the formidable Caruso was not the only pressure that Donalda faced. She had performed Mimi on previous occasions, but only in French, and she had only four days to learn the part in Italian.
Donalda worked diligently in preparation for the performance and sang so well that during the applause, Caruso ". . . kept pushing her forward to take most of the curtain calls and bows."12 Thereafter, Donalda had the opportunity to sing with Caruso at Covent Garden on numerous occasions, in operas such as Don Giovanni and Rigoletto.
During her first season at Covent Garden, Donalda met another male opera singer who became an important figure in her life -- baritone Paul Seveilhac. He debuted at Covent Garden in 1901 and first performed opposite Donalda in Covent Garden's 1905 production of Gounod's Faust. In an interview with Ruth Brotman, Donalda described her first encounters with the young baritone. "I was introduced to Paul by my good friends the Salignacs. We would often all meet at a French family's home to play poker for a little relaxation. After a few weeks of sitting by and watching, I decided to learn to play the game since I was in love with Seveilhac and wanted to be good company. Actually I had no card sense at all and had little time to learn."13
Seveilhac was of a different faith than Donalda and her parents strongly discouraged their ensuing relationship. Eventually, her troubled personal life coupled with an increasingly hectic performing schedule, began to take its toll. She lost a lot of weight, developed a bad cough and was ordered by her doctor to go to a retreat in the mountains and avoid singing and talking for six months. Donalda followed his instructions, but suffered immensely during this time. Happily, she made a full recovery and never experienced severe chest trouble again. She returned to Covent Garden in April of 1906 and one month later, despite her families' reservations, married Paul Seveilhac.
Donalda was in high demand and over the years, secured many engagements at venues like the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Opéra Comique in Paris and the Manhattan Opera Theater. She toured Hungary, Holland, Germany, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, Russia, the United States and Canada, and her repertoire expanded to include roles from Lohengrin, Martha and Pagliacci.
On the advice of Canadian soprano Emma Albani, Donalda also included oratorio and concert appearances in her busy schedule, appearing in oratorios such as Haydn's The Creation and Handel's Messiah, and as a soloist with the Hallé Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra and the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra.
In addition to her many public performances, Donalda also participated in numerous private concerts that often took place in the homes of London's elite society. Along with musicians like Enrico Caruso, pianist and composer Ignaz Jan Paderewski and violinist Mischa Elman, Donalda performed in the homes of distinguished patrons such as Lady de Gray, Lord Astor and Baron Alfred de Rothschild.14
Donalda also made several recordings between 1907 and 1916, but unfortunately, some of them have been lost or never issued. Donalda destroyed a few of the masters herself, as she generally found the sound of her reproduced voice unsatisfactory. In 1967, Rococo Records of Toronto released a set of recordings that contains seven selections performed by Donalda, including excerpts from Don Giovanni, Faust and La Bohème. Preceding the music is a short introduction in which Donalda says, "I was disillusioned when I heard my records because I did not think they were faithful reproductions of my voice. But I couldn't do anything about it. For the Bohème record, it was the eighth time that I was recording it. I told them 'this is the last time I shall do it'. That's why I did not finish the final phrase."15
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Donalda was visiting Montréal. She did not return to Europe until 1917. These years were difficult for Donalda, as her husband, three brothers and nephew were at the front. In an interview with The American Hebrew, she described how difficult it was for her to continue performing. "I have tried again and again to forget that at any moment, yes, this very moment, one or all of my dear ones may be stricken. I have told myself that my career is at stake, that I must sing. But it has only been now and then, mainly at concerts for the relief of our brave 'Tommies' that I have been able to appear at public performances."16
Thus, Donalda busied herself with charitable activities, namely fundraising through benefit concerts for organizations such as the War Relief Fund, the Patriotic Fund and the Red Cross. She also organized a concert series called the Donalda Sunday Afternoon Concerts, contributing all proceeds to war charities.17
By the time Donalda returned to Europe in 1917, her marriage to Seveilhac was falling apart. They separated, divorced and shortly afterwards, Donalda married Danish tenor Mischa Leon. This marriage also ended some years later. Donalda commented on the difficulties of balancing a singing career and marriage saying, "From my own personal experience, I most certainly do not think a singing career and marriage mix well at all. If a career is to be successful . . . one must be ready to simply give everything, sacrifice everything to it, everything."18
Donalda would sing in the great European opera houses for only five more years after her return to Europe. Her final operatic role was Concepcion in Maurice Ravel's one-act opera L'Heure espagnole. When she retired at the age of forty, she was in her prime, but tired of the hectic schedule and the travel that public performance entailed.