EMMY DESTINN (b. Prague 1878 d. Ceske Budejovice 1930) –

The girl of the Golden West !





Emmy Destinn was one of the most sought-after singers before the Great War. She was a dramatic soprano with an exceptionally rich voice, power, great control and a singer with a passion for music. All these attributes led to remarkable achievements throughout her career. She sang at Bayreuth, London 's Covent Garden, Berlin 's Staatsoper, New York 's Metropolitan Opera and holds a prominent place in the history of opera.


Life and career

Emmy Destinn was born Emilie Pauline Venceslava Kittlova on 26 February 1878 in Katerinska Street, Prague, the oldest of five children. She probably inherited her voice from her mother, who studied singing in Milan, as a young and very good soprano. Since puberty, young Emmy showed a great interest for music and her parents, who were dedicated to the arts, encouraged her to pursue it.


Emmy first studied violin with Ferdinand Lachner and took on acting classes with Otylie Sklenarova-Mala. She privately studied singing with mezzo-soprano Marie Dreger-Loewe, a soloist of the Vienna Opera, whose artistic pseudonym was Destinn. Emmy later adopted this name as a tribute to her teacher. On 19 July 1898, Emmy was twenty years of age when she debuted at the Berlin 's Hofoper, partnered by another compatriot, tenor Karel Burian. The debut role was Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana followed by Valentina in Les Huguenots, Carmen and Salome. In 1901 and 1903, she was at the Prague National Theatre, singing Carmen, Mignon and Marenka (The Bartered Bride).


In November 1908, Destinn debuted at the Met as Aida with Caruso as Radames, Toscanini conducting. By 1910, she had become a popular and celebrated diva worldwide. Puccini chose her to create the role of Minnie in La Fanciulla del West for the Met world premiere. Destinn arrived in New York on opening day of the Met opera season (1910) and went to work immediately, rehearsing the role of Minnie.


During the following decade, Emmy enjoyed success after success in Berlin, especially at the Hofoper. She sang in 43 roles, including Santuzza, Carmen, Salome, Mignon among others and made 706 appearances on the stage! Wagner's widow Cosima invited her to Bayreuth, where she created the role of Senta (Der Fliegende Hollander). That success opened the door of Covent Garden, London.

She was Cio-Cio-San at the London premiere of Madama Butterfly on 18 July 1905, co-starring Enrico Caruso. In London, they sang together in many Romantic operas, including Cavalleria Rusticana, Aida, Don Giovanni, Les Huguenots, Andrea Chenier, Un ballo in Maschera and Tosca.


1919 was not a good year for Destinn. Despite that she travelled back to America as a star, the Metropolitan Opera had meantime opened the door to a new generation of singers, encouraged and took particular care of them. A very disappointed Destinn returned to Czechoslovakia .


She managed to secure a contract with the Prague National Theatre, where she sang Milada (Dalibor), Marenka and the princess of Bohemia in Smetana's opera, Libuse. Milada was her favourite role in Czech operas. She also performed in many other venues and audience greeted her as a national hero because of her patriotism, which was central to her character.


In 1923, twenty-five years after her debut, Destinn bade farewell to the regular artistic activity with many concert all over Europe. She then returned to Straz nad Nezarkou, where she lived a quiet life surrounded by her cats and antique treasures, collected throughout her career. She died unexpectedly at 52 years of age, while visiting her doctor in Ceske Budejovice, Czech Republic, on January 28 1930 .









(La fanciulla del West)

Elisabetta di Valois

(Don Carlo)



The husband of her teacher, mezzo-soprano Marie Dreger-Loewe, made a deal with Emmy's father that, ‘in case your daughter will not become famous, you can call me silly for the rest of my life'. In 1897, Emmy tried to make it to the National Theatre of Prague but the director Subert did not like her style of singing. He told her: ‘Young lady, you should sing more in the shower. At least that would have some effect' The result was ... no voice, no beauty. She was also rejected by other two opera houses – the Dresden Semper Oper and Berlin 's Theater des Westerns, ‘not beautiful enough to be an opera singer '.


In studying the role of Minnie in La Fanciulla del West, Emmy was a quick learner but the role was hard work and there were problems of communication with the conductor, Arturo Toscanini. There is a document in the form of a letter, which Destinn wrote to her lover, Jaroslav Otto, the son of a famous Prague publisher. On 17 November 1910, she wrote to him, ‘Tonight, Aida is on - I don't know what it's going to be like, Toscanini will probably make it sticky for me, as he is absolutely livid with me ... Puccini arrives tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, they will probably make it a great do...'


Almost daily she kept writing to Otto in Prague and continued on with, ' 23 November 1910 - rehearsals are in full swing, Toscanini is so angry with me again that he won't even speak to me. He is full of bile and last night he carried on like an absolute fool. He is a stuck-up man, who thinks he understands everything better than everyone else, and he even quarrelled with Puccini about tempi. I'm sure they'll soon be at each other's throats, there is no doubt about that; I myself get treated like a schoolgirl; I think that he'd really like to buy a cane and use it on me. Puccini is truly patient and I'm immensely surprised that he lets himself be lectured by the man - that is a totally private affair which has no place in a rehearsal room! '.


Despite the monumental success of the premiere on 10 December 1910, Fanciulla failed to establish itself. On December 30 of the same year, Caruso asked Emmy to marry him. As the story goes, she refused probably because she had fallen in love with another singer, Ding Gilly, a French-Algerian baritone. With Gilly, she lived back in southern Bohemia in a chateau bought shortly before. They planned to get married and Gilly even learnt to speak Czech, in order to sing with her in Czech operas.


In 1915, Destinn returned to Europe from one of her assignments in America to find the continent at war. The return played fateful consequences to her career. Officials immediately seized her passport because her name was linked to a resistance movement and she was confined to her chateau at Straz nad Nezarkou. Being a French citizen, ex soldier and enemy of Austria, Ding Gilly was interned first in the chateau and later in a concentration camp of Raab.


Vocal profile

Emmy Destinn's timbre was typical of a true dramatic soprano; the voice was rich and powerful. Apart from a perfect technique and breathing control, she mastered an impeccable phonation through years of practice. They made possible an almost perfect legato, diminuendo and crescendo. The voice had great warmth and depth. Her dedicated preparation in each role resulted in perfect phrasing combined with great sensitivity and imagination.








Comment  (ed.)

Destinn was captivating with her beauty, charm, scenic personality and singing. She is one of my favourite sopranos. The clear and excellent pronunciation of her Italian is notable (all audios). She displayed a rich middle range, a reflection of the way singers sang at the turn of XX century. Voices were trained to develop a strong, full low and middle registers as high notes were not considered appealing although acceptable. High notes were not necessarily weak but the volume we associate with them today was considered tasteless. Yet, Destinn's voice was full at the bottom, gradually lightened and very penetrating at the top. She had one of the most beautiful, limpid, round, penetrating voices in history and capable of entering the myth. The rich almost sensual sound we hear in Destinn' singing was probably the natural heart of her voice and passion for music throughout her career.



Audio files


Audio 1 Miserere di un'alma già vicina – the chorus and duet sung by Leonora (soprano Emmy Destinn) and Manrico (tenor Giovanni Martinelli) – Il Trovatore act IV scene I


Audio 2 Morrò ma prima in grazia... – the aria sung by Amelia (soprano Emmy Destinn) – Un ballo in maschera act III scene I


Audio 3 Suicidio!... –  the aria sung by Gioconda (soprano Emmy Destinn) – La Gioconda act IV scene II


Reflections archive >>




reflections archive

Opera is a spectacular art form combining music, action and words, where the drama or comedy is enhanced by the words, sung in the original or other language. Instrumental works draw great attention and delight from the sound of the music alone but opera has a triple edge advantage: Music, action and words sung by the human voice, the supreme instrument.

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