Sembrich, Marcella

Polish-American soprano, 1858 - 1935

(Philip H. Ward Collection of Theatrical Images, 1856 - 1910)

Biographical notes:

Thoroughly musical almost from day one, she was born Prakseda Marcelina Kochanska in Wisniewczyk, Galicia, and as a child studied violin and piano with her father. She continued her studies at the Lvov Conservatory and later in Vienna, and with Wilhelm Stengel, who eventually became her husband. When she pursued her vocal training, Sembrich headed for Milan and the Lampertis, and made her operatic début as Elvira in Bellini’s I Puritani at Athens in 1877. Her success was rapid, followed by engagements at Dresden, Milan and London in a repertoire including Gilda, Violetta, Dinorah and Cathérine in Etoile du Nord. She sang with great success in Russia (from 1880 – 1898), Paris, Berlin and in Spain before making her début at the Met as Lucia on October 24, 1883 – the second night of the company’s very existence! By the time of that first Met season, the amiable, "un-diva-like" prima donna was able to command a king’s ransom in compensation for singing Donna Elvira, Juliette, Ophélie in Hamlet, Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots, Zerlina, the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro and other roles. Sembrich returned to the Met in 1898 and stayed there for the remainder of her career in opera, adding the Queen of the Night, Elvira in Ernani, Nedda, Lakmé, Susanna and Eva in Die Meistersinger, as examples, to her already vast repertoire. Her retirement in 1909 was a gala affair at the house, but she continued to give recitals until 1917. Sembrich then taught privately and at the Julliard and Curtis schools for as long as her health permitted. She died in New York.


(courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)


What set Marcella Sembrich aside from a number of her contemporaries, and elevated her to a plateau many aspired to but could not reach, was her remarkable musical intelligence. It is somewhat disheartening when discussing professional singers of any era that this should have been an unusual trait, but in Sembrich’s day, like our own, it was a fairly unique attribute. In matters of technique and style she had no equals, and had at her disposal an assured command of a florid coloratura which ranged most comfortably from middle C to high F.


( Philip H. Ward Collection of Theatrical Images, 1856 - 1910)


Marcella Sembrich left behind a sizeable number of recordings, but unfortunately many are prime examples of how difficult it was to do justice to voices (particularly soprano voices) in the acoustical era. Her first commercial recordings were a part of Columbia’s ill-fated "Grand Opera Series" of 1903. Sembrich was paid the sizeable sum of $3,000 for recording "Ernani involami" from Ernani, Strauss’ "Voce di primavera" and "Ah, fors e lui" from La Traviata. [Alternate takes have been uncovered, and the entire "Grand Opera Series," including the voices of Suzanne Adams, Edouard de Reszke, Antonio Scotti, Ernestine Schumann-Heink, Giuseppe Campanari and Charles Gilibert has been issued on CDs by Sony’s Masterworks Heritage label. The recordings are far from perfect, but valuable historical documents.]


Marguerite de Valois in Meyerbeer's
(courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)



Columbia never did learn how to cope with operatic voices in those early years, and the first of the company’s efforts were especially inadequate. When Columbia immediately bailed out of the opera business and let Victor snap up the best the Met had to offer, Sembrich was amongst the artists to join the famous "Red Seal" series. Too many times on her numerous Victor recordings, especially the later ones, Sembrich’s voice was stripped of its brilliance. The resulting sound is rather "wooden" and flat, with the especially noticeable "boxed-in" quality that can make early records troublesome at times. Frequently, her top is almost painfully "squeezed" out, or, at least that’s what it sounds like. Still, with so many selections to choose from, it is not difficult to find excellent examples of Sembrich’s voice, preserved for posterity, ringing out with a rather admirable brilliance.


As Lakmé
(courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)


In a Polish costume
(courtesy of Charles B. Mintzer)


There are examples from her operatic repertoire, notably "Una voce poco fa" and the "Letter duet" (sung with Emma Eames), that are attractive to the ear, but probably her finest recordings are of songs. Usually with her accompanist Frank La Forge, she recorded pieces otherwise left pretty much untouched by American labels at the time; fine examples of lieder by Chopin, Loewe and Brahms, and more familiar titles by Schubert and Schumann. Her bravura rendition of Arditi’s "Parla" is thoroughly enjoyable. But in a wider array of operatic selections, too many times there is a stiffness, with too forceful an attack on the staccati that shows none of the assuredness of Tetrazzini’s recordings of the same arias. Fortunately, as in the case of Lillian Nordica, we can turn to the "in-house" cylinder recordings of Lionel Mapleson for an exciting peek at Marcella Sembrich in action, away from the confines of the studios of nearly a century ago. As is always the case with these cylinders, a horrendous racket of surface noise must be ignored, but it is worth the effort to hear her soar quite easily to high Ds as if there was nothing to it, and create thrilling effects that were never quite matched on her commercial discs.

 O luce di quest’anima (Title role in Linda di Chamounix / Donizetti / Victor 1908)


As Rosina


“Io sono docile, son rispettosa, sono obbediente, dolce, amorosa. Mi  lascio reggere, mi fo guidar. Ma se mi toccano dov’è il mio debole, sarò una vipera, sarò, e cento trappole prima di cedere farò giocar...”



The Victor Recordings (1904 - 1908)


The Victor Recordings (1908 - 1919)


The 1903 Grand Opera Series

Sony Heritage

Covent Garden on Record Vol. 1


20 Great Sopranos in Great Arias Vol. 2


Enrico Caruso: The Complete Caruso (Duets)

Pearl and RCA

Antonio Scotti: Recital (Duets)

Preiser - LV

Mike Richter’s Opera Page: The Record of Singing Vol. 1




My warmest thanks to George Parous and Charles B. Mintzer