Epilogue: Prima Donna Donalda

Epilogue: Prima Donna Donalda McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2005 > Spring 2005 > Epilogue: Prima Donna Donalda

Epilogue: Prima Donna Donalda

Caption follows
Pauline Donalda in Covent Garden's 1905 production of Gounod's Roméo et Juliette.
Courtesy National Library of Canada

In November 1906, in a quiet house on the corner of Sherbrooke and McTavish named "Dilcoosha" but better known as the "Joseph House," a young matron was writing a letter to the Montreal Gazette. Her missive concerned the emerging opera star Pauline Donalda, back in Montreal for the first time since leaving for training in Paris four years earlier. After triumphant roles at the Opéra Comique, at London's Covent Garden (with Caruso), in Leningrad and Moscow, Donalda had just made her Canadian debut to critical acclaim, and the Montreal newspapers told her story with great enthusiasm, but not always with accuracy. So Mrs. Catherine de Sola, daughter-in-law of Abraham de Sola, McGill's first professor of Hebrew, was writing to the Gazette to set the record straight.

She informed the editor that she had organized a children's choir some years earlier at the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue (where her father-in-law was also the rabbi), and during the rehearsals, she was struck by the purity of one voice, that of 15-year-old Pauline Lightstone. The girl came of a musical tradition, for her father was semi-officially the cantor of the congregation. Catherine took Pauline across the McGill campus from Dilcoosha to the Royal Victoria College (RVC) to meet Miss Clara Lichtenstein, the lady whom Lord Strathcona had lured from Edinburgh to supervise the musical education of young ladies at RVC.

"Licky," as the girls called her, was a musician of repute, a pupil of Liszt. She listened to Pauline and she, too, was impressed. She enlisted the aid of Principal William Peterson to persuade the Board of Governors to allow Pauline a free place at RVC so that she might receive the rudiments of a musical education. A year later Licky went further: she appealed directly to Lord Strathcona to assist the ladies of Montreal, who were seeking to raise funds to send the young aspirant to Paris for a fully rounded musical education. Lord Strathcona characteristically and generously undertook to meet the major part of the girl's expenses for three years. Her studies brought her to the point where a promising career in concert and opera was in happy prospect. Clearly, she was going to make a name for herself - but what name?

Fifteen years earlier, the young women of RVC had also looked for a name - a name they could use to honourably distinguish themselves from the much larger crowd of male students. They, too, were beneficiaries of the generosity of Lord Strathcona - he had financed their courses, built and endowed their college. His first benefaction had been called simply "the Donald Smith Endowment" (that being his birth name), but the second benefaction, making use of his middle initial, was named "the Donalda Endowment." The girls took the hint and proudly called themselves "the Donaldas."

In Paris, Pauline Lightstone followed their lead: she appeared on stage as Pauline Donalda, in graceful compliment to her college and her benefactor, and in that name she went on to enjoy a highly successful career. As Catherine de Sola phrased it in her letter to the Gazette, "she shed lustre upon the Dominion of Canada, upon Montreal and above all, upon old McGill." And why not? It was McGill that had created her opportunity.

Pauline Donalda (1882-1970) delighted audiences worldwide until she retired in 1922 to concentrate on teaching. She returned in 1937 to Montreal where, bringing her talents and her culture to repay her native city for those all-important first beginnings, she founded in 1942 the Opera Guild.

In 1955 two young members of McGill's Faculty of Music, Luciano and Edith Della Pergola, fervent lovers of opera, took advantage of the local interest Pauline Donalda had created and founded McGill's Opera Workshop. When, in 1970, the Faculty of Music moved into the older portion of RVC and it became the Strathcona Music Building, the exercises and music which the prima donna had first encountered under the instruction of Clara Lichtenstein were heard again in the rooms where her young voice had so often surprised and delighted the passersby.

Dilcoosha, alas, no longer graces the corner of Sherbrooke and McTavish; instead there looms the vast bulk of the McLennan Library. But the link with Catherine de Sola and Pauline Donalda is not lost. Across the campus, in the quiet hours after the McGill Symphony Orchestra has finished its rehearsal, and the jazz ensembles have tooted their last toot, along the familiar corridors there glides the shade of a young girl. She passes quietly into the practice room in which Licky used to offer her gentle instructions, and if you listen carefully you can catch the distant sound of a young girl's voice, which was to prove the spring which became a river and is now a veritable cascade of voices, instruments, tears and laughter, deep emotions and undying beauty, all the magic we call opera - of which McGill is proud to have its own splendid version.

Dr. Frost, a former Dean of McGill's School of Divinity and Vice-Principal (Administration), is the author of a two-volume history of the University, as well as biographies of James McGill and Principal Cyril James.

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