Magazine article Opera Canada

Pauline Donalda: A Tribute

Magazine article Opera Canada

Pauline Donalda: A Tribute

Article excerpt

I was 18 and my head was full of dreams when I met Madame Pauline Donalda, who to me was something of a goddess in the opera world.

She obviously felt that I was too young to do anything with her Montreal Opera Guild Company, but she was interested in my work just as she was in the careers of so many young artists, and from that time until the day of her death, her home was always open to me.

"The higher you go, the harder and the lonelier it will be." Mine Donalda warned me at that first meeting. It was something I did not quite comprehend. It sounded terribly cliched. But with the development of my career as a director, the truth of that statement became apparent.

It is lonely and it is hard being in a position of helping to maintain vitality in the arts, but Madame Donalda set a marvellous example She never allowed anything to discourage or deter her.

When she died, on October 22, dignified and proud at 88, her life in opera had embraced two careers: that of a great singer and, later, a well-known teacher.

After early studies at Royal Victoria College in Montreal, she went to Paris. There, Pauline Lightstone changed her name to Donalda, in gratitude to Sir Donald A. Smith (who became Lord Strathcona), founder of Royal Victoria College, and made her debut in Nice in 1904 as Manon. It was such a success she was soon engaged both by the Opera-Comique in Paris and the Theatre de la Monnaie of Brussels. The following year brought her Covent Garden debut as Micaela in Carmen, and the press predicted a brilliant career for the young soprano. True to that prediction, she went on to become the first Canadian, after Dame Emma Albani, to gain international fame.


Covent Garden represented a long and happy association for Mme Donalda. In that first season she sang Zerlina in Don Giovanni in an illustrious cast that included Enrico Caruso, Antonio Scotti, Marcel Journet and Emmy Destinn. In successive seasons, she sang in Rigoletto with Caruso: in La traviata with John McCormack; with Scotti, she created L'oracalo, the Chinese period-piece opera set in San Francisco; and was acclaimed for her Mimi in La boheme and Marguerite in Faust.

Puccini, having heard her in Boheme, asked her to create the title role in the world premiere of Madama Butterfly. Unfortunately, that did not materialize. For the rest of her life, with nothing more than a polite smile, Mme Donalda passed off her great disappointment over the tact that illness prevented her from having that honor. She always cherished the Butterfly score, however, with Puccini's own instructions and comments.

The marvellous concerts, the Royal Command performances with legendary artists such as Adelina Patti and Nellie Melba, and the way Mme Donalda charmed English audiences as an oratorio singer must not be overlooked as landmarks in her brief but stellar career.

In 1906 she married the French singer Paul Seveilhac, from whom she was divorced in 1917. She later had a brief marriage with the Danish tenor, Mischa Leon.

In 1920. Pauline Donalda suddenly decided it was time to retire from the stage. It was just after she had created the role of Concepcion in the English version of Ravel's L'heure espagnole. So, with customary determination, once having made her decision, she moved to Paris, where she stayed until 1937 as a teacher.

Just before World War II. Mme Donalda returned home to Montreal, where she continued to teach. Her vision, enthusiasm, and invaluable guidance stemming from the rich experiences acquired during the golden age of singing, were major factors in her great contribution towards the development of music and young singers.

In 1941, with a scornful disregard for the war, and a consuming concern for the poverty of opera in this country, the indomitable diva enlisted the aid of a group of cultural-minded Montrealers to form the Montreal Opera Guild, as an outlet for talented young Canadians. …

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