Emma Abbott was perhaps the closest thing that nineteenth-century America had to an operatic superhero. Her biography boasts an O. Henry-esque rags-to-riches trajectory. She ran her own grand opera company alongside her beloved husband, spending the modern equivalent of millions of dollars per season on costumes alone. She knew how to fence, how to row, how to ride horses, and even how to drum. She visited the poor, the sick, the hospitalized, and the imprisoned. She also reportedly saved two people from dying: one a girl who fell through thin ice while skating, the other a woman struggling while swimming.
And yet despite her dazzling accomplishments both professional and personal, Emma Abbott remains an enigma. Critics often derided her work or her approach to the art. Little modern research has been done on her. And yet her persistence and her personality altered the American operatic scene forever.
Emma Abbott was born on 9 December 1849 to a musical family in Chicago. Her mother, singer Almira, reportedly gave birth while her father Seth was out performing at his own concert. In 1853 the Abbotts moved to Peoria, Illinois, where Seth made his living directing a church choir and teaching music.
It soon became clear that Emma had inherited her parents’ musical abilities. She gave her first concert in Peoria at the age of eight. By 1859 she, her father, and her brother had formed a touring trio, with Emma providing accompaniment on the guitar. (To older performers’ chagrin, on shared billings, the audience would often call out again and again for “the little girl with the guitar.”)
At sixteen she left school to sing with the Lumbard concert company, which toured the Midwest and granted her some valuable performing experience. But not long after, she parted ways with the company, opting instead to give self-produced concerts wherever she could, including in half-empty churches and hotel lobbies.
An 1869 chance encounter in Toledo, Ohio, changed everything. While Emma was in town, Clara Louise Kellogg, an up-and-coming singer a few years older than Emma, was scheduled to perform. Emma, always in search of opportunities for professional advancement, introduced herself to Kellogg after her performance. Kellogg agreed to listen to Emma sing. Apparently she was impressed enough to send Emma to New York with a letter of introduction and an appropriately fashionable dress. Emma told her biographer Sadie E. Martin in 1891:
Were I decked in a gown of diamonds set in gold, with mantle of brilliants, I would not feel as gorgeously attired as I did then… But I didn’t give away the fact that it was anything new to me, after once outside my door. Instead I fancy my airs said plainly, ‘This is nothing extraordinary. I am very much at home.’
Once in New York, Emma immediately set to work making a name for herself. (It certainly helped that she appeared in her gown in Clara Louise Kellogg’s box at the opera.) Always deeply religious, instead of auditioning at opera companies, she first sought work at churches. She quickly secured a position in the choir at the Universalist Church of the Divine Paternity in Manhattan. The move was a coup; the congregation included a variety of wealthy and well-known people, including P.T. Barnum, Horace Greeley, and the Carnegies. Emma became so beloved there so rapidly that the fabulously wealthy retired merchant George Graham Lake and his wife actually invited Emma to come live with them in their Fifth Avenue home.
Although she was beloved in church, her reception elsewhere in New York was decidedly cool. Her 1891 biography reads:
The ridiculous part of the affair was, that while the critics through the press declared that “Abbott cannot sing,” she was appearing nightly to crowded houses. Indeed the New York engagement was a great financial success. Abbott laughingly used to say, “Either the New Yorkers possessed horrid taste, and were unable to distinguish between good work and poor, or else the critics were unduly harsh and injust in their reviews of my singing. Now, which was it?”
Despite her confidence, she recognized that she’d benefit from some training. (After all, up until this time, she’d been almost entirely self-taught.) While in New York she studied under Italian singer Achille Errani, but soon she realized that a sojourn in Europe was necessary to fulfill her true potential.
She was in no position to fund such a venture, so she turned to her congregation for help. The Lakes and others raised an eye-popping ten thousand dollars, the rough modern-day equivalent to $200,000. She also had a new benefactor: a handsome twentysomething druggist named Eugene Wetherell, who later claimed that he fell in love with Emma before he even saw her, due solely to the sound of her voice. Thanks to her benefactors’ generosity, she set sail on the Ville de Paris in the spring of 1872.
Her studies began inauspiciously. Within a few months, perhaps due to overwork, she became seriously ill. Eugene Wetherell, deeply in love, set sail for Italy and insisted that Emma return to America and marry him. She refused to give up her studies or return to the States, but she did agree to the marriage, which occurred in secret in February 1874 in London.
After several years of study in Milan and Paris, it was finally decided that she was ready for her debut. This occurred with Gye’s Royal Italian Opera Company in London in 1876, when she played the lead role of Marie in Donizetti’s La fille du régiment. In what was becoming a familiar pattern, the audiences loved her; critics, not so much. When Gye’s didn’t immediately give her a contract, the press began to question the success of her debut. Less savvy performers would have fretted at the cool reception. But Emma and Eugene used those negative reviews to craft a narrative that Emma was being treated unfairly by the press. This made her fans love her all the more.
Gye’s never did offer Emma Abbott a contract, but she was signed with a rival troupe, Her Majesty’s Opera Company. On one hand, the affirmation of her talent was exciting; on the other, Emma and Eugene both had started dreaming of something more. After that contract ran out, Emma joined musician C.D. Hess’s company as performer, with Eugene signing on as assistant manager. Their American tour garnered mixed reviews, although, impressively, it was financially successful. But for a variety of reasons, at the end of the season, Eugene spent $10,000 (the rough modern equivalent of $250,000) buying out Hess’s share, resulting in the creation of the Emma Abbott English Opera Company.
Together, the savvy couple built up their new business, drawing on their deeply felt ideas about what American opera could – and should – be. Eugene especially had very particular beliefs about how an opera company should be run, declaiming in 1880 that “the same principles of common sense should enter into the management of an opera company as in the dry goods business.” From the start, every decision was made with the aim of expanding the audience for opera. They invested in advertising. They cut operas to manageable lengths so working-class people wouldn’t have to be out all night. They performed in English so Americans could follow the plots. They even interpolated other popular arias and hymns into the operas.
And, crucially, they kept their ticket prices low. As Eugene explained, “Miss Abbott would rather sing to a full house at $1.50 a ticket than the same house half filled at $3 a ticket.”
Some purists balked at these practices, but Emma and Eugene certainly achieved their aim of encouraging the American middle class to attend the opera. When the Emma Abbott English Opera Company visited San Francisco, it pulled $10,000 in profit in its first week alone.
Emma Abbott and her company rapidly became the troupe of choice to christen the new concert halls and opera houses that were springing up across the country. Over thirteen years, the company performed at the openings of no less than thirty-five facilities.
Originally it appears that the company employed local musicians, as most troupes of the era did, but by 1889 they were actually touring with their own orchestra. In fact, a Chicago critic called it “that rare thing, indeed, a really competent and skillful orchestra.” Between instrumentalists and singers, the company consisted of about seventy performers.
Their repertoire gravitated around the genre’s most popular works: Donizetti’s La fille du régiment, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, Verdi’s La Traviata, Bellini’s La Sonnambula. But they also presented operas that were more popular in the nineteenth century than they are today, like Victor Massé’s Paul and Virginia, Robert Planquette’s Les cloches de Corneville, and Michael William Balfe’s The Bohemian Girl. Every season the company learned a new opera while also keeping the already-mastered repertoire in their throats and fingers. If a city requested a particular opera in their repertoire, they prided themselves on being able to present it with only a week’s notice.
When it came to running the company, Emma did much more than just sing and leave the business to her husband. Her 1891 biography describes her offstage workload:
As soon as one season’s work ended, Miss Abbott was off for Europe; consulting authorities regarding additions to her repertoire, and making selections therefore. This question decided, she turned her attention to staging and costuming the same, perfecting arrangements for properties, and consulting Worth and Felix regarding suitable styles, materials, etc., not only for her own attire but for that of every member of her company, so that when she returned to this country she knew every detail connected with the presentation of her newly selected operas…
Thus while others of her profession were recreating at Long Branch, Saratoga, and Newport, or making a pleasure tour of the continent, Emma Abbott might always have been found absorbed in planning for her next season’s appearance, or engaged in the most enthusiastic and earnest study…
Miss Abbott had an eye on every department of her business. While she employed business and stage managers, she placed rather than left her affairs in their hands, and she knew at all times exactly how her business stood. She personally superintended all rehearsals, dictated the costumes, properties, etc, and yet never seemed to interfere with the duties she assigned to others, nor did she without excellent reasons release any one from the responsibilities laid upon him.
The design of the company’s costumes was especially high-stakes. By the end of her career, she was spending over a hundred thousand dollars per season on them…the modern equivalent to $2 million. Deeply religious, and troubled by her era’s economic inequality, she said, “It seems almost wicked to spend so much on a wardrobe.” But she also understood the necessity of spending money to make money in opera: “The public patronize me liberally. They pay good prices to hear my operas, and expect something in return that is worth their money. Hence I consider it my duty to stage and costume my operas handsomely.”
It was deeply important to Emma to live a moral life (or at least to tell the world that she did). Her 1891 biography reads:
In religious belief Miss Abbott was decidedly liberal in the best sense of the word. She was a member in good standing of the Congregational church, but when on the road usually attended service wherever she could most conveniently do so. If a church were within easy walking distance of her hotel, that was usually her choice; if, however, she called a cab or carriage, she frequently instructed the driver to ‘Go straight up or down the street, and when you reach a church, stop.”
After her death, various far-flung congregations were surprised to receive $5000 checks. She sent them to congregations around the country whose Sunday services had especially moved her.
She also wasn’t shy about expressing controversial political opinions. For instance, she was fiercely anti-death penalty, going so far as to claim that “capital punishment is a stain on the name of every state or government which practices it.” She also freely argued with the ministers or priests who dared suggest to her that women who made their living on the stage were immoral.
Interestingly, her 1891 biography mentions racial issues twice. It recounts how, when Emma was once in Montgomery, Alabama, she went on a walk and came to a black neighborhood, where she stumbled upon a crowd of mourners. A “curiosity regarding their funeral ceremonies” led her inside. Those already gathered were no doubt confused by her presence, but “a chair was given her, and other possible courtesies extended before the sermon began.”
She soon realized that the deceased was a former slave whose husband was inconsolable at the loss of his wife. The two had spent years together enslaved and then years together free. After the sermon, the congregation performed “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Emma was stunned at the power of what she heard, later writing:
Oh! that music! I never heard such soulful singing before, and I never expect to again until I pass through the pearly gates. Talk about the negro having no soul! Do I believe God would put such melody into the voice of creatures who have no souls? No! I only hope that such music may attend my body on its last earthly journey.
A similar encounter occurs later in the biography:
An old apple woman (colored) in Baltimore has enjoyed an Abbott matinee during every engagement of the company in that city for five years, the ticket of admission being furnished by Abbott herself.
It’s unclear whether either of these meetings actually took place. If they did, there’s no word on what it felt like for the “old apple woman” to attend an opera in a segregated theater, or what broader moves Emma took (or didn’t take) to ensure that non-white audiences had regular access to first-rate musical performances. But it’s striking that she and her biographer made such a point to include these stories, as deeply problematic as they may be from a modern perspective.
By the late 1880s, Emma and Eugene were riding high professionally. After New Year’s Day 1889, the company traveled from California to Kansas via train. Eugene detoured to Denver to take care of some real estate issues; they decided he would rejoin the group once they’d reached Missouri.
So Emma was alone with her employees on the train when, on January 5th, she received news that would change her life forever. Her biographer writes:
On January 5th, 1889, as the train pulled into Garden City, Kansas, a messenger boarded the sleeper, saying, “Where is Miss Abbott? Emma Abbott? I have a message for her.” He was told by Mr. Consadine that the lady occupied the drawing-room, and that the message if given him (Consadine) would be delivered to her. The messenger hesitated, saying he was told to deliver it in person, but finally yielded and gave it to the secretary, who going to Miss Abbott’s door, knocked, and as was his custom, handed in the message. For a moment all within was still; then the door opened and Miss Abbott, pale as if death had chilled her vitals, changed as if a whole decade had passed over her in those ten minutes, with eyes glaring like those of a maniac, appeared. “Who has dared to bring such tidings to me? Who has dared to do this dreadful deed? I say, who dares to bring me such news?” gasped she, looking from one to another, and pointing to the fatal yellow paper.
Eugene had died suddenly of pneumonia in Denver. He was only in his late forties. Suddenly, Emma Abbott was the sole leader of the opera company bearing her name.
She appears to have been so shocked that she was unable to function for days. Finally the company’s business manager, a man named Charles Pratt, gently told her that she had to make decisions about continuing the tour and paying her staff. The solution they finally hit upon was to offer a two-week furlough at half-pay. Five performances would be canceled, but they’d regroup and start performing again on January 21st.
Not surprisingly, Emma’s decision to keep working was criticized by certain segments of the press. She found the accusations agonizing. “How could I have done otherwise?” she asked a reporter. “I could not be so selfish as to strand [my company] in midwinter… No, I must, I will, set my own feelings aside, and do all I can for them.”
She tried desperately to glue the pieces of her shattered life back together, with limited success. She continued performing, coming backstage and wailing afterward. She fantasized about an elaborate memorial headstone. She threw herself into planning the premiere of a commissioned opera by Edmond Audran, to be finished in the summer of 1891. She floated the idea of building a mansion for herself in Chicago, using the money that she had inherited from her husband and earned from her own performances. But these distractions didn’t always numb her pain. She wrote to her father Seth in January 1890: “Tomorrow will be the anniversary of my precious husband’s death, and it seems almost cruel that I must sing. Oh, my darling father, words cannot tell you how lonely I am. It is just as hard to keep back the tears now, as it was the week he died.”
On 29 December 1890 she found herself scheduled to open the opera house at Odgen, Utah: a great honor that she took extremely seriously. As her biographer wrote:
The house was just completed, and the walls were not thoroughly dry, but the star’s dressing room was made comfortable by sufficient heat, and blanketing walls and windows. By accident, however, a window became lowered while Miss Abbott was disrobed, and she was at once thrown into a terrible chill, from which it seemed impossible to recall her. She had been indisposed for several days, and had taken immense doses of quinine as a bracer, to carry her through a series of colds, each one of which seemed to settle more deeply upon her…
On returning to her hotel at the close of the performance, she found herself in a raging fever, and to allay her thirst drank large draughts of iced milk. To this Rosa, her attendant, objected, but she would not be denied, because, as she said, “I seem to be on fire, and this is all that cools my blood.”
The following morning she felt even worse, but she dragged herself to her next engagement in Salt Lake City anyway. Her colleagues were horrified at her condition and begged her to cancel. “But I must not disappoint these people,” she insisted. “I was in bad voice when here before, and tonight I must redeem myself.”
Business manager Pratt, sensing something was terribly wrong, summoned a doctor, who came at the close of the first act. She had a terrible pain in her left side, her pulse was racing, and her temperature was almost 105. The doctor told Pratt to tell the audience she was too sick to continue. She fought back. Despite her short stature (she wasn’t even five feet tall), she must have cut an intimidating figure. She won the argument and finished the show, although it became increasingly obvious to the audience that something was wrong.
After the performance, doctors made the diagnosis of late-stage pneumonia. Tragically, they couldn’t do much else. Finally realizing there was nothing left to do, and that they could only make her comfortable, they injected her with morphine. (Rumors later surfaced that she’d died of an overdose.) Again and again she made reference to the fact that tomorrow was Sunday, meaning the anniversary of Eugene’s death.
Then, at the last minute, a sudden miracle. Reportedly she told those present at her bedside that “a wonderful change has taken place. What it is I cannot tell, but it is a wonderful change.” She claimed that all of her pain had vanished. Shortly after this she died, one day short of the second anniversary of her husband’s death of the same disease.
Her biographer wrote that the effect of Emma Abbott’s unexpected death was profound: “Since the assassination of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield no death has occurred in the United States which has been the subject of newspaper comment so general and grief so fervent, as that of Emma Abbott.”
Her funeral was held soon after at Chicago Central Music Hall. Hundreds, if not thousands, were turned away at the door. “It was a crowd of women chiefly,” her biographer reported, “and with grim determination they held their ground, hoping against hope for admission.”
Emma Abbott is almost entirely forgotten today, but as historian Katherine K. Preston points out, her career is an incredibly valuable one to study, for many reasons. Hers is a textbook rags-to-riches Gilded Age story, but from a female perspective. She increased the respectability of women pursuing stage careers, in large part by living such a morally unimpeachable life. And last but certainly not least, she and her husband helped to prove the artistic and economic value of democratizing classical music. It’s tempting to imagine what American opera would have become if she had lived.
As always, a huge shout-out to the patrons who make this series of articles on forgotten musical women possible! It wouldn’t happen without you. These articles come out every other Wednesday. (The schedule for this one got postponed a week because of my allergies!) If you want to support the series for as little as a dollar a month, click here.
If you want to learn more about Emma Abbott, here is a list of sources:
“Emma Abbott, The ‘People’s Prima Donna'” from Opera for the People: English-Language Opera and Women Managers in Late 19th-Century America, by Katherine K. Preston; published 2017