Sembrich, Marcella (1858–1935)

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Sembrich, Marcella (1858–1935)

Polish-born American lyric soprano. Name variations: Marcella Sembrich-Kochanska. Born Praxede Marcelline Kochanska (also seen as Prakseda Marcelina Kochanska, while some sources cite Kadanska) in Wisniewczyk, Galicia (part of Austrian Poland), on February 15, 1858; died in New York on January 11, 1935; one of 13 children of Casimir Kochanski (a teacher and instrumentalist) and Juliana (Sembrich) Kochanska; studied with Wilhelm Stengel at the Lemberg (Lvov) Conservatory, with Viktor Rokitansky in Vienna, and with G.B. Lamperti in Milan; married Wilhelm Stengel (a piano teacher and later her manager), on May 5, 1877 (died 1917); children: sons Marcel (died in infancy) and William Marcel, and two stepsons.

Debuted in Athens as Elvira in Bellini's I puritani (1877), Covent Garden as Lucia (1880), Metropolitan Opera as Lucia (1883); was department head at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and at the Juilliard School in New York.

Ranked with operatic sopranos Adelina Patti, Nellie Melba , and Christine Nilsson , Marcella Sembrich was not only a brilliant singer, but excelled at the piano and violin as well. At a benefit concert in New York in 1884, she amazed the audience by singing a selection from Giovanni Paisiello's Il barbiere di Siviglia, playing a movement from a concerto by Charles-Auguste de Bériot on the violin, and, as an encore, performing a mazurka by Frédéric Chopin on the piano. Following her retirement from the stage in 1924, she taught in the vocal departments of the Juilliard School in New York and the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, teaching several of her successors, including Sophie Braslau, Alma Gluck , and Maria Jeritza .

Sembrich, one of 13 children, was born Praxede Marcelline Kochanska in 1858, in a part of Austrian Poland then known as Wisniewczyk, Galicia, the daughter of Casimir Kochanski and Juliana Sembrich Kochanska . Casimir, a talented musician in his own right, provided for his large family by giving music lessons and occasionally performing. He instructed Marcella on the piano when she was four, and she added violin lessons at six. She also played in the family quartet and copied music for long hours, which caused her to develop vision problems later in life. When Casimir took the position of village organist in Bolechów and moved the family there, Sembrich, under the patronage of one of the townspeople, began studying piano with Wilhelm Stengel at the conservatory at Lemberg. She also began working on harmony with Charles Mikuli and sang in the conservatory chorus.

At age 16, Sembrich was recommended to Julius Epstein in Vienna, for whom she auditioned on the violin and also sang. Recognizing that Marcella had a beautiful voice, Epstein sent her to the great singer Mathilde Marchesi for further evaluation. Marchesi confirmed his observations and Sembrich began voice lessons with Victor Rokitansky at the Vienna Conservatory. While in Vienna, she had the opportunity to play and sing for Franz Liszt who encouraged her by telling her that her voice was her greatest gift. She was further inspired by a performance of Adelina Patti, to whom she would later be compared.

In 1875, Sembrich went to Milan to study with Giovanni Lamperti and his father Francesco. On May 5, 1877, she married her former teacher, Wilhelm Stengel, a widower with two sons, who also became her manager. After a honeymoon in Athens, she made her operatic debut there in June, singing Elvira in I puritani. At the end of her engagement, which included performances in Lucia di Lammermoor and Dinorah, she returned to Vienna to work on her German repertoire with Richard Lewy and to study dramatic interpretation with the actress Marie Seebach .

Marcella adopted the professional name of Sembrich (her mother's maiden name) for her German debut at the Saxon Royal Opera in Dresden in 1878, singing the role of Lucia. Her success was such that she stayed in Dresden for two years, after which she signed a five-year contract with the Royal Italian Opera in London, making her debut at Covent Garden on June 12, 1880, again as Lucia. Sembrich subsequently performed in Scandinavia, France, Spain, Austria, and Russia, where she appeared at the Winter Palace of Tsar Alexander II in St. Petersburg. In 1881, she shared a command performance at Bucking ham Palace with her idol Adelina Patti.

Sembrich made her American debut singing Lucia di Lammermoor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York during its premiere season in October 1883. That year, she appeared in 55 performances there, singing 11 different roles. The Metropolitan, however, failed to make money during that first season and brought in Leopold Damrosch, who ushered in a long stretch of Wagnerian operas. Sembrich's florid Italian style did not lend itself to the German master, and she returned to Europe, performing in Austria, Germany, France, Russia and Scandinavia. During these years, she and her husband made their home in Dresden, where Sembrich gave birth to two sons: Marcel, who died in infancy, and William Marcel.

Sembrich returned to New York in 1897, reappearing with the Metropolitan on November 30, 1898, as Rosina in The Barber of Seville. She remained at the Met for the next ten years, until her retirement in 1908. During that time, she became known for her temperament as well as for her bel canto style of beautiful sustained tones. During one widely publicized incident, she stormed offstage during a Chicago performance when she was upstaged by Fritzi Scheff in The Magic Flute; in another, she refused to continue with a performance of La Traviata when she was informed that special guest Prince Henry of Prussia had left the premises with his entourage. Despite her occasional outbursts, the singer received $1,000 per performance at the height of her career. To keep her voice in peak condition, she adhered to a strict regimen that included five-mile walks and long periods of silence. She was said to be so sensitive about a cast in one of her eyes that all of her portraits were done in profile.

Sembrich chose her roles carefully. She undertook few Wagnerian roles, realizing that hers was not the voice for Wagner. Instead, she sang Susanna, Zerlina, Lucia, and Rosina, Queen of the Night, Gilda, Violetta, and Mimi. She was a favorite not only with audiences but also with fellow singers: Patti, Nilsson, Melba, Emma Albani, Etelka Gerster , and Emma Calvé were devoted friends on stage and off. Sembrich sang in Columbia's Grand Opera Series of recordings made in 1903, a historic enterprise. She later recorded extensively for Victor Talking Machine, a popular and profitable series.

Following her retirement from the Metropolitan, Sembrich embarked on a concert career which lasted until 1917. Appearing on stage in Paris gowns and paste copies of her famous jewels, she performed a broad repertoire that included Brahms, Schumann, and the French and Italian composers, as well as the moderns Debussy and Ravel. After her husband's death in 1917, Sembrich stopped performing, devoting herself instead to teaching. Although she spent much of her time in New York, and built a summer retreat on Lake George at Bolton, New York, she never became an American citizen. She died from emphysema and heart disease in 1935 and was buried in the Stengel family mausoleum in Dresden.


Arnim, G. Marcella Sembrich und Herr Prof. Julius Hey. Leipzig, 1898.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

Owen, H.G. A Recollection of Marcella Sembrich. New York, 1950.

Warrack, John, and Ewan West. Oxford Dictionary of Opera. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts