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Prominent Poles

Photo of Marcelina Sembrich-Kochanska, singer

Marcelina Sembrich-Kochanska (aka Marcella Sembrich) Polish-American operatic singer (soprano)

Born:  February 15, 1858, Wisniowczyk, Austro-Hungarian partition of Poland (presently Vishnevchik, Ukraine))

Died:   January 11, 1935, New York City, New York, USA

Summary. “Her singing became the measure of vocal mastery. The way she sang must have been the way that the great Italian virtuosos of the 17th century did, about whom history writes that princes knelt at their feet in admiration, and cities fought, arms in hand, to win the right of listening to their singing”. This is what Józef Reiss, a well-known musicologist, wrote in 1948 in a now-forgotten brochure called “Polish Singers”, describing the truly extraordinary figure of Marcelina Sembrich-Kochańska.

Early days. Her father, Kazimierz Kochanski, was a provincial music teacher, she assumed her mother's maiden name – Sembrich – in the course of her artistic career, as being easier for foreigners to pronounce. She revealed an outstanding musical talent very early. She studied under her father's guidance from when she was four years old, and as a 12-year-old girl was already able to perform in public, expertly playing both the violin and the piano. At this time, she started attending the Lwow Conservatory (lwow was then called Lemberg, presently- Lviv), where her teacher was Wilhelm Stengel; 12 years older than his student, he became her husband some time later.

She did not have an easy childhood. The little Marcelina's duties included copying music scores (there wasn't enough money to buy them), which were needed for learning and for family concerts. The little girl copied them in the evenings and at night, her only light a candle, which seriously impaired her sight; this problem haunted her throughout her life (from the stage, she could barely see the conductor's baton). Those years of poverty and hard work left lasting and painful memories.
When the possibilities of studying locally became insufficient for Marcelina Kochańska's talent, she left for Vienna to continue her education. It was there, in 1875, purely by accident, that the unusual qualities of her voice were discovered (allegedly by Franz Liszt himself). The young student therefore decided to devote herself to a vocal career. First she studied in Vienna with Victor Rokitansky; then, in Milan, her teacher was Giovanni Battista Lamperti.

Career. In 1877, after just two years of vocal training, Kochańska debuted at the Athens Opera in the part of Elvira in Bellini's “I Puritani”. The 19-year-old artist was a success. However, she did not consider her education to be complete, and for a year continued repertoire studies in Berlin. After the great success of “Lucia di Lammermoor” at the Dresden Opera, she studied for some time longer under the guidance of Francesco Lamperti (Giovanni’s father) himself. However, her great international career had begun with that Dresden performance. The Dresden Court Opera signed a several-year contract with her. In 1879, the 21-year-old prima donna was applauded by the audience of Milan's Teatro dal Verme, and a year later London's Covent Garden signed her up for four successive seasons. In the spring of 1880 Kochańska gave a concert in Warsaw, and appeared in St. Petersburg in the next season (subsequently returning there several times). In 1880, she was Ophelia in Thomas' “Hamlet” at Madrid's Teatro Real, and on 24 October 1883 she debuted at New York's Metropolitan Opera, singing the part of Lucia. This is what the great critic W. J. Henderson wrote about that performance:
“No other female singer has won the New York audience's respect as easily as Marcella Sembrich. It seemed that the first note she sang took the audience by storm, and even before the curtain had fallen properly after act one, the prima donna's triumph was complete. The voice of our new darling has an extraordinarily pure and full sound; she attains the highest notes of her part wonderfully, as if effortlessly…”.

In the same season at the Met, Sembrich-Kochańska also sang the part of Zerlina in “Don Giovanni” and Rosina in “The Barber of Seville”. After that, she returned to Europe. On 8 March 1886, enthusiastically welcomed by her Polish audience, she sang the part of Lucia at Warsaw's Teatr Wielki. By that time, her gorgeous voice, with its wide range and crystal purity, her refined technique, extraordinary intelligence and musicality, had won her the reputation of one of the best singers in the world.

From the 1898/99 season, Sembrich-Kochańska was a resident soloist of the Metropolitan Opera for ten years, many times the stage partner of Caruso and other great artists. She was also Ulana in Paderewski's “Manru”, produced there in 1902, with Aleksander Bandrowski as her partner in the title role. Polish tenor Jan Reszke was among her other partners. She performed at numerous concerts as well. Kochańska had an extensive repertoire of songs: she performed the songs of Schumann, Brahms (with the composer's heartfelt approval), Wolf, Reynaldo Hahn as well as many Polish songs, especially those of Chopin, Paderewski and Zarzycki.

She parted with the Metropolitan Opera in 1909. She stopped giving concerts in 1917 after her husband's death, and became keenly involved in teaching, first at New York's Juilliard School of Music, then at the famous Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, and finally in her own studio built in Bolton Landing, where a museum to her memory was subsequently set up.

Marcelina Sembrich-Kochańska died in New York on 11 January 1935. In accordance with her will, her son Willy took her remains to Dresden, where she was buried in her husband’s family vault at the Johannis Friedhof Cemetery. Though the rapid pace of her brilliant career largely kept her away from her home country (for a long time, she considered her European refuge to be Dresden, where she had the beautiful Villa Marcella; later, she also built a magnificent residence in Nice), she always said it was “nicest to sing for one's own”. She kept her contacts with Poland alive, writing articles for the periodical “Muzyka” which was published in Poland before World War II. She emphasized her Polishness all the time. Performing in Vilnius at the turn of the century, after finishing her program she sat down at the piano and accompanied herself in a number of songs in Polish, against the distinct ban imposed by the Russian authorities, but to the indescribable enthusiasm of her audience. Appearing in “The Barber of Seville”, she would often include Chopin's song “The Wish” in the lesson scene. Quite a large number of Kochańska's recordings were re-released on 33 rpm records. In 1983, the British company Sunday Opera Records released the entirety of the great artist's preserved recordings in a six-album series called the Marcella Sembrich Collection.

Copied and shortened from the biography appearing in the website of Teatr Wielki-Opera Narodowa in Warsaw:

Teatr Wielki-Opera Narodowa
with the permission of Mr.Jacek Gnoinski

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