Destinn, Emmy (1878–1930)

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Destinn, Emmy (1878–1930)

Czech novelist, composer, and singer, who was one of the 20th century's greatest sopranos. Name variations: Destinnova. Born Ema Pavliná Kittlová or Kittl on February 26, 1878, in Prague; died on January 28, 1930, in Ceske Budjeovice; married Joseph Halsbach, in 1923.

Emmy Destinn ranks as one of the 20th century's greatest sopranos. A prodigious worker, she made over 1,500 appearances on the operatic stage. At the age of 20, she appeared in the Berlin Opera in 1898, debuting in the role of Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana. Though she had been rejected by both the Prague and Dresden operas, her debut in Berlin was a success. Destinn, who took her stage name in tribute to her teacher, Marie Loewe-Destinn, soon moved from the Berlin Opera to the Hofoper where she remained for a decade.

In 1901, she was chosen by Cosima Wagner to sing Senta at Bayreuth in Der Fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). In 1904, she debuted in Covent Garden as Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni. Critic Herbert Klein wrote: "An artist capable of success at the outset in this most exacting of roles will one day stand in the royal line of dramatic sopranos." The Bohemian star then sang the leading role in Giacomo Puccini's opera Madame Butterfly at its first performance in London (1905). "Hers was one of the greatest voices and she was one of the greatest singers. … [N]obody ever sang Butter fly as Destinn did," wrote Frances Alda . "Her manner of singing was so perfect, her voice so divine … all these made her unforgettable." In 1907, Destinn created the leading role of Richard Strauss' Salomé in Paris and Berlin.

Destinn's nationality would prove problematic both in her career and personal life. It is likely that she adopted her stage name to disguise her Czech origins and secure more roles in the German-speaking world. Despite this concession to Germanic culture, she remained a fierce and out-spoken nationalist. A passionate patriot, she had been frustrated in London, where she could not work up interest in compositions by compatriots

Smetana and Dvorák. She was interned by the Austro-Hungarian government for a time because of her undisguised sentiments.

In 1908, Destinn left the Berlin Hofoper which refused to give her leave to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. However, her career had soared in Prague and, with contacts in the United States, Great Britain, and her own country, she had a busy life until World War I intervened. While at the Met, she performed 339 times between 1908 and 1920. She retired to a castle in southern Bohemia in 1921, where she wrote a play, a novel, and some poetry. In poor health for some time, she had a stroke in the room of a specialist she was consulting on January 27, 1930, and died the following day.

Destinn had an unmistakable voice, a warm throb in the middle range that was combined with a dramatic intensity. Lotte Lehmann was "nearly distracted" as she "listened to that angelic voice." Destinn made over 250 recordings, which document her ability to move from the rare lyric beauty exhibited in Und ob die Wolke from Der Freischütz to the verve and bite she displays in Milanda's aria from Dalibor.


Rketorys, A., and Dennis, J. "Emma Destinn," in Record Collector. Vol. 20, 1971, p. 5.

Sadie, Stanley, ed. New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. 20 vols. NY: Macmillan, 1980.

John Haag , Associate Professor of History, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia