Marcelina Sembrich-Kochańska – Star of the Met
portrait, Marcella Sembrich, 1928, photo: ullstein bild/Getty Images, center, marcella_sembrich_getty_images-1.jpg
The most famous Polish singer, known abroad as Marcella Sembrich. First star of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Her voice captivated music lovers from both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Marcelina Kochańska begins to play the piano when she is four years old. One year later, she picks up the violin. Her father is her first teacher but everyone in the family plays on something. In her household quartet, everyone has their role: Marcelina plays the piano, her younger brother and her mother play the violin and her father plays the cello.
It quickly becomes evident that the girl has outstanding musical talent. As an 11-year-old, she enrols in a music conservatory in Lviv. However, the Kochański family is quite poor. The adolescent girl moonlights by playing the piano during rhythm lessons and at dancing parties.
Four years later, she moves to Vienna. Marcelina starts taking singing lessons and decides on her voice, and not the piano or violin, as her instrument of choice. This decision will shape her future career.
With her mother, Marcelina goes to Milan, commonly known as the ‘capital of opera’. She makes her début in 1877 at the age of 19, performing with an Italian group in an opera in Athens.
On the stage, the young singer uses her mother’s last name and the Italian version of her first name. Marcelina Kochańska becomes Marcella Sembrich. From time to time another last name – her husband’s – appears on the billing. The future star marries Wilhelm Stengel: a music teacher she had met in Lviv.
Polish nightingale in Europe
After the début in Athens, she returns to Vienna and her proper career kicks off. Supposedly, Franz Liszt admires her voice. A standing ovation from Archduke Rudolf – son of Emperor Franz Joseph and Elisabeth (Sissi) – compels the Polish singer to sing a double encore. At the Dresden Opera, she sings under the direction of the famous composer Johannes Brahms.
She also performs in Warsaw, accompanied on piano by world-renowned pianist Ignacy Jan Paderewski. The Polish press immediately classifies her as one of Europe’s most excellent singers. All that when Marcelina had just turned 20!
However, this is just the beginning. Sembrich-Kochańska decides to try her hand in Great Britain. A performance at the Royal Opera House in London’s Covent Garden turns out to be another success. Englishmen are amazed by the Polish singer in the titular role of Gaetano Donizetti’s Italian opera Lucia di Lammermoor. A Swedish opera star present in the audience casts a bouquet at her rival’s feet.
Sembrich-Kochańska’s concerts are fully booked. Thrilled music lovers throw hundreds of flowers onto the stage. The critics are amazed with the Polish singer’s pure and resonant coloratura soprano.
This scenario repeats itself in London, Moscow, Warsaw: everywhere where the ‘Polish Nightingale’ performs. Sembrich-Kochańska receives 6,400 roubles just for three concerts in Warsaw: more than the annual salary of the opera’s director.
Marcelina is 25 and it seems that she is at the peak of her career. Is there anything else she can add to her collection of successes? Turns out there is.
Queen of New York opera
On 23rd October 1883, she performs at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. Soon, ‘The Met’ will become the most famous opera in the United States. However, at that time, it had opened just the day before Sembrich’s performance.
The Polish diva once again becomes Lucia di Lammermoor and wins over the audience with her very first performance. The Americans go crazy over Marcella Sembrich: the name, simplified for the foreign ear, benefits the singer’s career once more.
Immediately, she receives a contract with the Metropolitan Opera and becomes the unquestionable star of the inaugural season. She also performs in other American cities: Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago and Washington. Sometimes she shows off her other musical talents and plays the piano or the violin.
She could remain in the USA forever and frequently receives artistic honours and lucrative offers. However, Sembrich-Kochańska does not abandon her career in Europe. She returns to the Old Continent and triumphs in more cities: Lisbon, Madrid, Paris, Berlin and Saint Petersburg among others.
She also does not forget her Polish audience. She sings in Kraków, Lviv, Warsaw and Vilnius. She also eagerly performs Chopin’s music despite the fact that for such performances in the Russian partition of Poland she could face a fine.
She returns to the United States 13 years later. New York still remembers her. She becomes the Metropolitan Opera’s first soprano. Sembrich sings in seven languages, performs in dozens of operas and takes to the stage over 200 times.
In 1902, she takes part in an historical event: for the first time, The Met stages a Polish Opera, Manru, composed by Paderewski (Sembrich-Kochańska’s associate).
The diva leaves the New York scene after 11 seasons at the age of 51. She openly declares that she prefers to leave in her prime, at her physical peak, acclaimed, than to hear ‘Finally!’ behind her back when she will retire.
On 6th February 1909, she performs at the Metropolitan Opera for the last time as she is paid homage by the most prominent musicians. At the same time, it is a farewell and an anniversary: just a few months earlier, Sembrich-Kochańska celebrated the 25th anniversary of her first performance at The Met.
Translated by Patryk Grabowski