Emmy Destinn (original surname Kittlová) was born into an affluent, music-loving family: her mother had sung at the Paris Opéra-Comique, and her father was a well-known philanthropist. She studied violin when very young with Ferdinand Lachner and gave her first public concert at the age of eight. Her voice began to show great promise when she was twelve: she studied singing with Marie Loewe-Destinn, who had sung at the Vienna State Opera, and took acting lessons with the celebrated Czech actress Otýlie Sklenářová-Malá, who considered her to be exceptionally gifted. Destinn had the ability to learn music very quickly and acquired a solid vocal technique so fast that Loewe-Destinn, whose name she took in tribute, considered her to be ready for her debut when she was twenty.
Having been rejected by the opera houses of Prague and Dresden, she successfully auditioned for the Berlin Court Opera and made her debut at its annex, the Kroll Opera, in 1898 as Santuzza / Cavalleria rusticana. She then appeared with success in several other operas, including Tannhäuser (Elisabeth), L’Africaine (Selika), Faust (Marguerite) and Mignon (title role), often with minimal rehearsal. Destinn remained with the Berlin Court Opera until 1907. Later roles included Eva / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Lisa / The Queen of Spades and the title role in the Berlin premiere of Salome (1906). On the recommendation of Karl Muck she made her debut at the Bayreuth Festival in 1901 (as Senta / Der fliegende Holländer), returning the following year. It was in 1904 that Destinn first sang at Covent Garden, London, as Donna Anna / Don Giovanni. She quickly became a favourite, appearing annually until 1914 and singing the title role of Madama Butterfly in 1905 at its London premiere with Caruso and Scotti.
Destinn was already a very successful guest at most of the major European opera houses (including Dresden, Hamburg, Leipzig, Paris, Prague and Vienna) before her 1908 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York in the title role of Aida. At the Met she rapidly established herself as one of its leading artists, singing under both Toscanini and Mahler in roles such as Butterfly, Elisabeth, Eva, Lisa, Santuzza, Amelia / Un ballo in maschera, Alice / Falstaff, Leonora / Il trovatore, Mařenka / The Bartered Bride, Pamina / Die Zauberflöte, Valentine / Les Huguenots and the title parts of La Gioconda, La Wally and Tosca. In 1910, with Toscanini conducting, she created the role of Minnie / La fanciulla del West opposite Caruso (who asked her to marry him).
On her return to her home country in 1916 Destinn was interned by the Austrian authorities because of her links with the Czech resistance; and by the end of World War I her career had begun to decline. She did appear at Covent Garden in 1919 and at the Met between 1919 and 1921, but retired from the operatic stage in 1926 while continuing to sing in concert, in Berlin, London and Warsaw, until 1928. She died unexpectedly of a stroke.
A woman of many talents and great vitality, Destinn was an accomplished author, composer and painter and as an actress appeared in several early silent films. She was a passionate Czech nationalist and became a key figure in the struggle for national liberation. Her voice possessed warmth and flexibility as well as a unique timbre; for contemporaries the intensity and beauty of her singing were unrivalled. She recorded extensively both in Europe and America, her complete Carmen of 1908 being considered especially outstanding.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).