Soprano Emma Albani was born Marie-Louise-Emma-Cécile Lajeunesse in Chambly, Quebec, on November 1, 1847. She was the daughter of Joseph Lajeunesse, a professional musician, and Mélina Mignault.
Emma's musical education began when her father began to train her at the age of four. She studied rigorously with her father until 1858, when she was enrolled in a convent run by the "Dames du Sacré-Coeur" in Montreal. She remained at the convent for seven years, leaving in July 1865 to live with her father and her sister Cornélia (her mother died in 1856) in Prince Edward County, Ontario, and later in Albany, New York.
Emma quickly became one of the most sought-after singers in Albany, and by 1868 she had raised enough money to study in Europe. She studied in France with retired tenor Gilbert-Louis Duprez before leaving for Italy. Soon after her arrival, Emma (who had recently changed her last name from Lajeunesse to Albani) made her operatic debut in Messina on April 30, 1870, as Amina in Bellini's La Sonnambula. Her debut was such a success that she was invited to Malta and appeared in the winter season of 1870 in La Sonnambula, Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Meyerbeer's Roberto il Diavolo and L'Africaine, and Rossini's Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
In June 1871, Frederick Gye, the manager of London's Covent Garden, offered Emma a 5-year contract. She accepted and made her debut in London on April 2, 1872, as Amina. During Covent Garden's 1872-73 season, Emma appeared as Ophélia in Hamlet and as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, both to great acclaim.
During the winter of 1873, Emma traveled to Moscow and appeared in La Sonnambula, Hamlet, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Verdi's Rigoletto. In January 1874, she performed with other great singers (including Adelina Patti and Sophia Scalchi) at the wedding of England's Prince Alfred to the Russian Tsarina, Princess Marie. Later that year, she embarked on her first North American tour and made her first stop in New York, appearing at the Academy of Music (New York's principal opera house at that time) in La Sonnambula, Rigoletto, Lucia di Lammermoor, and Thomas' Mignon.
During the tour, Frederick Gye's son Ernest traveled with Emma, acting as his father's agent. Emma and Ernest ended up falling in love and were married on August 6, 1878, at London's Bavarian Chapel. Unfortunately, Frederick Gye passed away in December 1878. Emma was greatly saddened by the death of her father-in-law, and so when her son was born on June 4, 1879, he was christened Frederick-Ernest.
Emma began to familiarize herself with Wagner, learning the role of Elsa in Lohengrin in two weeks and performing the role in New York in 1874. At Covent Garden, she appeared as Elisabeth in Tannhäuser (in 1876) and as Senta in The Flying Dutchman (in 1877). She also became acquainted with Sir Arthur Sullivan and appeared in the world premiere of his oratorio, The Golden Legend, on October 15, 1885.
During the winter of 1889-90, Emma joined the Abbey-Graw touring company. The roster was a very impressive one, and also included Adelina Patti, Lillian Nordica, and Francesco Tamagno. After touring around the United States, the troupe opened at the recently-constructed "Metropolitan Opera House" in New York City on March 24, 1890. Emma appeared as Desdemona in Otello on opening night, and she later appeared with the troupe in New York as Amina and as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust.
On December 23, 1891, Emma Albani made her official debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Gilda in Rigoletto. During the 1891-92 season, she appeared in Faust, Don Giovanni (as Donna Elvira), Les Huguenots (as Valentine), and The Flying Dutchman.
At Covent Garden in June 1896, Emma scored her ultimate triumph in four performances of Tristan und Isolde with Jean de Reszke singing Tristan. The following month, on 24 July 1896, Emma Albani appeared in her last operatic performance, as Valentine in Les Huguenots at Covent Garden. She continued to appear in concerts around the world and toured Canada in 1901, 1903, and 1906. Her final public recital took place at Albert Hall in London on October 14, 1911. Adelina Patti and Nellie Melba were among the supporting artists.
In 1925, Emma Albani was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire. That same year, though, Emma's husband Ernest died and she began to sink into poverty. Benefit concerts were held in London (with Nellie Melba) and in Emma's hometown on Chambly. Fortunately, enough money was raised for Emma to live comfortably until her death on April 3, 1930. She was buried next to Ernest in Brompton Cemetery in London. Emma's son was in attendance when a plaque was unveiled in Chambly in 1939 to commemorate her life and career.