Emmy Destinn was one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of the twentieth century and one of the most sought-after singers before WWI thanks to a voice of exceptional richness, power, and control. She sang with Enrico Caruso and many other stars in the most prestigeous opera houses, such as Bayreuth, Berlin's Hofoper, London's Covent Garden and New York's Metropolitan. Destinn's passion for music led to many remarkable achievements in her career and was a great inspiration to her colleagues. She holds a prominent place in the history of opera.
"Mme. Destinn, the new dramatic soprano from Berlin ... has a voice of great power, body, and vibrant quality, dramatic in expression, flexible and wholly subservient to her intentions which are those of a singer of keen musical feeling and intelligence."
Mit Emmy Destinn verließ und eine der größten Sängerinnen und der schönsten Stimmen dieses Jahrhunderts.
Destinn's greatest triumph however came as Cio-cio-san in the first performance of Madama Butterfly on 10 July (1905), which became a public favourite right from very beginning. Queen Alexandra attended the first three performances. "The weight of the evening was upon Miss Destinn's shoulders, and hers was the chief triumph. Puccini might have written this music for this artist, so aptly did it suit her voice and so brilliantly did she deliver it," wrote the Telegraph.
Ich habe die Salome innerlich nie anders gehört, als von ihrer freundlichsten, farbigen Stimme, ich habe in allen ihren Rollen längst die Salome versteckt gesehn. Nun ist sie heraus, nun ist das Wunder geschehen. Was sind alle Edelsteine, die ihr Herodes anbietet, gegen diese Topase und Opale, Chrysopase und Achats, gegen diese Pflanzengärten und Königreiche in einem solchen Organ. Technisch nimmt sie es spielend, ihr Instinkt gibt ihr im Augenblick den Vortrag, die Dynamik, den Akzent. Und Störme farbiger Gluten fließen rot in ihr Forte, blaßblau in ihr Piano, tiefviolett in die Register des dunklen Geheimnisses ihrer Liebe.
Mlle Destinn achieved a veritable triumph through her superb impersonation of Aida. The beauty of her singing and the intense pathos she infused into her acting combined to make her interpretation one of quite extraordinary excellence. This wonderfully gifted artist is able to put tears into her voice and to identify herself completely with the character she is enacting. She has proved this several times during the present season by her unforgettable performances of "Madama Butterfly", Nedda in "Pagliacci" and Senta in "Der Fliegende Holländer". Aida is certainly one of her greatest parts.
The great triumph of the production was Frl. Destinn as Armide - she looked magnificent, and sang and acted as if she had never breathed any atmosphere save that of chivalric romance. Surely an artist who can be in the course of a few days an ideal Aida, an unapproachable Senta, and a regal Armide - and might justly claim to be called a great artist if she did only one of these things - is a phenomenon almost unique in operatic history.
Emmy Destinn, née Emilie Paulina Venceslava Kittlova, was born on February 26, 1878 in an old Prague family as the oldest of five children. She was a child prodigy whose early interest in music was encouraged by her parents, both enthusiastic supporters of arts.
Emmy first studied violin with Ferdinand Lachner and acting with Otylie Sklenarova-Mala. From 1892 to 1897 she studied voice with mezzosoprano Marie von Dreger-Loewe who was known under her artistic pseudonym Destinn which Emmy later adopted as a tribute to her beloved teacher.
Emmy Destinn's entrance onto the operatic stage was far from smooth, however. She was rejected by three opera houses (Prague's National Theatre, Dresden's Semper Opera and Berlin's Theater des Westens) before she finally debuted in Berlin's Hofoper in 1898. Her very first performance of Santuzza on 19.7.1898 was an immediate success.
For the next decade Destinn enjoyed success after success in Berlin. She sang in 43 roles, most often as Santuzza, Carmen a Mignon, and made 706 stage appearances at the Hofoper. The triumph of Destinn's Berlin’s engagement was her stunning performance of Richard Strauss’s Salome, first performed on 5.12.1906, with the composer conducting the orchestra.
At Bayreuth, where she was invited by Wagner’s widow Cosima, Destinn was given an enthusiastic reception as Baureth’s very first Senta. Her artistic achievements during the two guest seasons at Bayreuth opened doors to major European opera houses, including London’s Covent Garden.
For twelve spring seasons between 1904 and 1919 Destinn performed in London, making 225 appearances in 18 operas on Covent Garden’s stage. One of her most acclaimed performances at Covent Garden was the London premiere of Madama Butterfly on 18.7.1905, with Enrico Caruso as her partner. Caruso and Destinn performed together at 47 occasions in London, in a succession of operas including Cavalleria Rusticana, Aida, Les Huguenots, Don Giovanni, Madama Butterfly, Andrea Chenier, Tosca, and Un Ballo in Maschera.
1908-1916 New York
Destinn debuted at the Metropolitan Opera on 16.11.1908 in Aida. Enrico Carusso was her partner and Arturo Toscannini conducted the Metropolitan's orchestra. Destinn performed eight full seasons at the Met where she made 249 stage appearances in 21 roles. Her most acclaimed role at the Metropolitan was Minnie, with Carusso and Toscanini, in the world premiere of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West.
Her return from the midst of the New York season of 1915-1916 to war-torn Europe had a fateful consequences for Destinn's career. Her links with the patriotic resistance movement at home resulted in her confinement by the authorities to her summer residence at Straz nad Nezarkou in South Bohemia. Her unvoluntary two-year absence from the Met had meanwhile opened doors for a new generation of singers.
As the war drew to its end, Destinn was allowed to sing at least at Prague's National Theatre. She made 82 appearances on its stage, most frequently as Milada (13 times), Marenka (12) and Libuse (9). She also performed in theatres in Pilsen, Brno, and several other venues. The audiences everywhere greeted her with enthusiastic manifestations of support for her patriotism which was central to Destinn's character.
1919-1923 European Tours
During her entire career Emmy Destinn promoted Czech Opera. She was instrumental in staging The Bartered Bride in New York on February 19, 1909, where it was performed under the baton of Gustav Mahler. She also made possible a performance of Dalibor in Berlin on October 10, 1909. She had popularised arias and scenes from Libuse, The Devil's Wall, The Secret, The Kiss, Rusalka, The Jacobin, and Jenufa. She also presented an exclusively Czech repertoire during her first post-war tour with the Czech Quartet, violinist Jaroslav Kocian and a choral ensemble, touring London, Paris, Geneva, Berne and Zürich.
Twenty-five years after her début, in the 1922/1923 season, she bid farewell to regular artistic activity with her concert tour to Copenhagen, Stockholm and Oslo and guest appearances on home stages in Pilsen, Bratislava, Ostrava, Brno, and at Sarka and Vysehrad in Prague, where she sang to thousands in Madama Butterfly and in Coronation of Libuse, composed by Rudolf Zamrzla to her own libretto.
She died unexpectedly of a stroke, while visiting her doctor in Ceske Budejovice, on January 28, 1930.
Dennis, James: Emmy Destinn Discography. In: The Record Collector, XX/1 & 2, July 1971, pp. 29-45.
Krouzek ceskych zen [comedy in verses] 1896
Bajerova, Marie: O Eme Destinnove. Vysehrad: Praha 1979 (2nd ed. 1980).
Film Documents and Documentaries, Movies
Collections and permanent expositions:
Text © Jan Kralik, 1999. English version © The Kapralova Society, 1999. Website design and hosting: The Kapralova Society. This page is part of the society's internet project dedicated to women in music.