Montréal’s original Prima Donna

By Ronald T. Harvie   Tourisme Montréal

A century or so ago, it wasn't romantic tenors like Pavarotti, Domingo and Bocelli who were all the rage. It was the ladies who starred-on stage and in the media. Singers like Nellie Melba, Lucia Tetrazzini, Mary Garden-and a formidable little talent from Montréal, Pauline Lightstone-ruled. Grown men swooned over them. Newspapers were filled with tales of their lives and loves, faults and foibles. Great hostesses clamored for them to sing at house parties (although if you've seen the movie "Gosford Park", you'll recall that the invited stars were ranked only one notch above the household servants!)

Our Pauline...

The future star was born in 1882 in Montréal to immigrant Jewish parents. She was the eldest daughter in a family of eleven children. Her father made hats for a living but was a proud amateur singer and encouraged his kids to be musical. Pauline's mother claimed that her daughter started cooing two notes along with an organ grinder at the age of six months. Pauline liked to quip, "Believe me, I think that was a young enough age to start singing!"

But she was always very good at it, winning prizes at school and standing out in her synagogue's children's choir. In fact, the director of this choir took the 15-year-old Pauline to meet the famous Clara Lichtenstein, a pupil of Franz Liszt, who had been lured to Montréal to teach music to the young ladies at McGill University. "Licky", as she was known, was duly impressed and wangled a place for Pauline at Royal Victoria College-as the separate women's faculty at McGill was then called.

This grand greystone college on Sherbrooke Street, fronted by an even grander statue of Queen Victoria done by her daughter, Princess Louise, was endowed and built by Lord Strathcona (1820-1914), one of the greatest tycoons of the era and one of those amazing Scots who, along with the French, built Montréal-and Canada, for that matter. Strathcona was born Donald Alexander Smith, and his financial gifts to McGill were named "the Donalda Endowment." The girls who benefited from Smith's largesse took the hint and called themselves "Donaldas".

So, when Pauline Lightstone decided to set her heart on a musical career, she simply turned a nickname into a marquee name: "Pauline Donalda". It sounded more musical. It had a European ring to it. And, presumably, it endeared her to the old Lord himself, now Canada's High Commissioner in London. Not a bad choice all round! In fact, in 1902, he granted her a three-year scholarship to study in France, while dear Licky arranged a farewell recital at Royal Victoria College.

(Quick sidebar: in an almost spooky coincidence, the Royal Victoria College building became, in 1970, the year Pauline Donalda died, the "Strathcona Music Building" and home to McGill's renowned school of music.)

Donalda dazzles...

In Paris, she studied with Edmond Duvernoy, who, after two years, thought her ready for the world. He arranged an audition in front of a panel which included the composer, Jules Massenet. She wowed them. Duvernoy was thrilled: "You've made it, my child!" "Not until I sign the contract!" retorted Pauline.

Contracts were signed, of course, and on December 30, 1904, at the Casino Municipal in Nice, Pauline Donalda made her formal stage debut in the lead role in Massenet's "Manon". She got rave reviews-and an invitation to a party at the Riviera home of the Duke and Duchess of Connaught.

A star was born, and Donalda's Nice engagement was extended. She sang several other major roles, among them ones that were to become her signature pieces: Marguerite in "Faust,"' Mimi in "La Bohème" and Micaela in "Carmen".

As I said, at the time, young female singers were hot properties, and Donalda was quickly offered a contract by the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London-for 26 pounds a performance!-which would become her home base for the next nine years. On May, 24, 1905, she made her debut as Micaela. Her singing was lauded; less so, her acting. Still, Pauline was the sensation of the season-even more so when she stood in for the legendary Nellie Melba as Mimi opposite Enrico Caruso in "La Bohème". This time, the grand invitation came from Lady de Grey, who invited Donalda to sing at her dinner for the King and Queen. But late in 1905, disaster-Pauline contracted tuberculosis, just like her stage persona, Mimi! A career-ender for lesser mortals, but Pauline fought it off in six months and returned to the stage as triumphant as ever-and with a new husband, baritone Paul Séveilhac!

Career Diva...

In the Edwardian era, as in our own, the Mecca of the opera world was the Metropolitan in New York. And Donalda got an offer from the Met for the 1906-07 season at $2,000 a month. However, a rival company was just then being formed-the Manhattan Opera-which offered her $5,000 a month. Guess what? Pauline made her New York debut as Marguerite in "Faust" for the Manhattan Opera. She sang her other favourite roles there, too, but the New York scene was not for her-maybe it was the lack of dinners with royalty!-and when an offer from the Opéra-Comique in Paris arrived, Pauline Donalda returned to Europe.

During the next few years she divided her time between Europe and North America and during World War I, she spent two years here, starring in countless benefit events and concert performances. In 1917, she returned to Paris-and to Covent Garden, which reopened after the war in May, 1919. During the war, she had divorced her first husband and married a second-Danish tenor Mischa Léon.

In 1922, at the age of 40, Donalda retired from the stage. "Be a singer and see the world, they say. What I chiefly saw were railway stations, hotels and concert halls. I'd had enough," she said. Although later in life she admitted, "I ended my singing career early, perhaps too early." She opened a teaching studio in Paris, at 5, rue de Ribéra, Paris XVI. For fifteen years, she devoted herself to training talented singers. In 1937, after a dinner conversation with Canada's ambassador to France, she decided to return to Montréal. She had found a new mission in life: to revive the city's operatic life, then at its lowest ebb. While she supported herself with teaching from her studio on Lincoln Avenue, she laboured tirelessly to create a true, classical-style season to opera-starved Montréal.

It took a few years, but in 1941, the Opera Guild was incorporated: "To give concerts, recitals and to perform or cause to be performed operas, musicals, symphonies... and to increase the public interest in music of all kinds." The first Guild performance happened the next year and, on May 3, 1943, its first full-length grand opera production-of Mozart's "Cosi fan Tutte," conducted by Wilfrid Pelletier-opened at His Majesty's theatre.

The rest, as they say, is history. Pauline Donalda guided the Opera Guild until her death in 1970. Twenty-nine operas were staged, including ten Canadian premieres. Performers included such stars as Marilyn Horne, Maureen Forester, Clarice Carson, Léopold Simoneau and others. After 1963, the Opera Guild's performances moved to Montréal's glorious new Place des Arts-where today's Opéra de Montréal now performs.

It's fair to say that Donalda made Montréal a real internationally-recognized opera city. And everyone recognized her for that achievement. In 1954, McGill University made her a Doctor of Music; in 1966 she was named an Outstanding Citizen of Montréal; and in 1967, she was invested into the Order of Canada. And a month after her death, a production of "La Bohème" was dedicated to "Pauline Donalda, Internationally famous artist, Founder of the Opera Guild of Montréal, Honorary Patron of the Montréal Symphony Orchestra." A fitting swan song for Montréal's first and foremost Prima Donna.

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