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MARCELLA KOCHANSKA SEMBRICH (1858-1935)

Marcella Sembrich was born as a poor girl in times when Poland did not exist on the political map of Europe, and died in NYC as a star, a millionaire and a great philanthropist. She was a good friend of Caruso, Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Schubert, Bismarck, Twain, Modrzejewska, Paderewski, and Sienkiewicz. Her talent was discovered by Franz Liszt who told her: “sing, sing for the world ‘cause you have a voice of an angel.” Over the course of her life, Sembrich conquered the world’s biggest stages, and crowned heads of Russia, Saxony, Prussia, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Denmark, Sweden and Romania admired her voice. She sang in the first season of the newly founded Metropolitan Opera and remained its star for 25 years.

Born into a near destitute family in a small village in partitioned Poland, Marcella quickly found her love for music, first from her father, an itinerant music teacher, then to the Lemberg Conservatory and finally to studying voice at the Vienna Conservatory with the encouragement of Franz Liszt.

 

At the age of 19 Marcella Kochanska made her debut in Athens on June 3, 1877, before King George I and his court. Then triumph followed triumph in most of the capitals of Europe – London, Paris, Madrid, Lisbon, Warsaw and Moscow. 

 

She sang I Puritani, Dinorah, Lucia di Lammermoor, Robert le diable and La sonnambula. In June 1880 Sembrich created a sensation in her debut at the Covent Garden as Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.  She became a great favorite in the characters of Zerlina, Don Giovanni; Susanna, The Marriage of Figaro; Konstanze, The Abduction from the Seraglio; Lady Harriet/Martha, Martha.


In 1883, Marcella Sembrich was invited to sing in the newly founded Metropolitan Opera company. She made her Met debut as Lucia in the company premiere of Lucia di Lammermoor on October 24, 1883. She was also the Met's first Elvira in I Puritani, Violetta in La Traviata, Amina in La Sonnambula, Gilda in Rigoletto, Marguerite in Les Huguenots and Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

In total, she sang more than 450 Met performances in her 11 seasons there, and remained associated with the company until 1909, when the silver jubilee of her Met debut was celebrated with a farewell gala.

Sembrich was superb not only in operatic repertoire but also as a concert vocalist. Her popularity grew enormously and she toured between Atlantic and Pacific. Sembrich was highly admired for her universal vocal abilities and throughout her career competed quite successfully with the legendary Adelina Patti. Eventually she was proclaimed Patti’s successor and the last queen of the Italian bel canto. America embraced her with love, as here she was a perfect personification of Cindarella. Sembrich had experienced real poverty in childhood but by 1904 she was considered the richest of all prima donnas in the world.

 

After her retirement, she gained preeminence as a vocal teacher at Curtis Institute and Juilliard School. Sembrich, as a faculty teacher of voice at Juilliard School of Music and Curtis Institute in Philadelphia helped build the base for the American vocal education. Sembrich was very generous with her students, many of whom she awarded scholarships.  Her students included Alma Gluck, Hulda Lashanska and Queena Mario.  Additionally, some of her students in turn became important vocal teachers around the country such as Anna Hamlin (teacher of Judith Raskin) at Smith College, Edith Piper and Florence Page Kimball (teacher of Leontyne Price) at Juilliard, Eufemia Gregory (teacher of Anna Moffo, Judith Blegen and Frank Guarrera) at the Curtis Institute.

 

Marcella Sembrich was a woman of great and generous heartwhich she frequently manifested by providing assistance to the poor and to victims of disasters. At the outbreak of the WW I, Marcella Sembrich established the American Polish Relief Committee and submerged herself into fundraising for the victims of the war. She cooperated with Ignacy Paderewski, her long time close friend. The donations of money, clothing and medicine were forwarded to teh Center in Switzerland headed by Henryk Sienkiewicz, and from there through different routes were distributed to Poland. Throughout her life she frequently manifested her deep patriotism and love for Poland. When Stephen Mizwa was establishing the Kosciuszko Foundation in 1925, Sembrich became a member of the National Advisory Board and supported his initiative financially.

Marcella Sembrich-Kochanska was and artist during the turn of the 19th and 20th Centuries. Her native land, Galicia, was in the process of being ruined and erased from the European map by the vicious first World War. Born before the January Uprising, she was a supporter of the veterans of November. She sang before the Tsars, and the programs of her concerts in Warsaw and Vilnius were subject to censorship by Tsarist officials. While her family name was Kochanska, she achieved fame under her mother's maiden name, which she took for a stage name, as Marcella Sembrich. Few believed that she was Polish, since Poland wasn't even on the map at that point. The year 1915 saw her directing her heartfelt sentiments – as well as considerable sums of money – toward her Fatherland, rising line a Phoenix from the ashes, free at last; she was later a recipient of the Order of Polonia Restituta. The daughters of Mickiewicz and Krasinski – the great Polish poets – were among those who listened to her singing; she also appeared on stage beside Johannes Brahms, and Helena Modrzejewska (Modjeska) was among the many who appreciated her artistry. She danced the Polka with her friend Ignacy Paderewski, was a favorite soloist of conductor Artur Nikisch, and consulted with Puccini himself on how to sing Mimì (...)  - from the biography book: "Marcella Sembrich-Kochanska. Artystka Swiata" by Malgorzata Komorowska and Juliusz Multarzynski, translated by Karol White.