Friday, November 8, 2019

The Wild Woman Opera Composer and Alaskan Prospector

By Jacqui Nelson

Last month my Wild Women of the West blog post was about opera singer Dame Emma Albani. This month my ongoing research into 19th-century musicians for my Songbird Junction Series led me to an opera composer and conductor whose name was also Emma.

Meet Emma Roberto Steiner who, despite many hardships, earned a living from composing and conducting but also took a decade-long break from her New York career to become an Alaskan prospector.

Emma Roberto Steiner  

born 1856 in Baltimore, Maryland ) 

Emma's father, Colonel Frederick Steiner, was a Mexican-War hero and her mother was an accomplished pianist. Emma composed her first songs at age 7, a piano duet at age 9, and an opera at age 11.

In the 1870s, she struck out on her own, moving to Chicago to become the assistant music director at a small opera company and then a conductor for several touring "light opera" companies that performed Gilbert and Sullivan and other comic operas.

In 1889 and 1891, her opera Fleurette was performed and received good reviews. In 1893, another of her compositions was performed at the Chicago World's Columbian Exhibition. The following year, she conducted a performance of her own works with the esteemed Anton Seidl Orchestra in New York City. Despite having pneumonia in 1896, she continued to conduct, compose, and perform.

However, at the turn of the century, Emma was challenged by a series of setbacks that changed the direction of her life.

In 1902, a New York warehouse fire destroyed many of her works, including the only remaining copy of her first opera. Then she suffered a severe illness that affected her eyesight. In 1909, she had to file a lawsuit after the death of her father who had remarried after her mother's death and written Emma out of his will in preference to his stepdaughter.

Emma decided to leave her music career and move to Nome, Alaska to become a prospector in the tin mining fields. She was one of the first white women to arrive and spent a decade in Alaska prospecting, traveling, and becoming an advocate for the state.

Nome, Alaska - 1900

When she finally left, it was to go back to music. She composed and performed throughout the 1920s. In 1925, the Metropolitan Opera held a special performance of her works. This was the last time a woman would conduct there until 1976.

She helped found a home for elderly and infirm musicians and dedicated the proceeds of some of her later concerts to the charity. When she died in 1929, the New York Times wrote in her obituary that the stress of running the home brought on the collapse that ended her life.

Emma was one of the first women in the United States to earn a living from conducting. She conducted more than 6,000 performances of operas, operettas, and other works including many of her own. She wrote seven operas and hundreds of musical pieces.

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Want to read about another 19th-century Wild Women singer/musician – a fictional one inspired and shaped by the real-life Emma Roberto Steiner and Emma Albani? 

Click here to meet Lark, my singer/musician heroine in A Bride for Brynmor, book 1 in my Songbird Junction Series.

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Don't forget to download my FREE story Rescuing Raven (Raven & Charlie's story in Deadwood 1876) 


Celia Lewis said...

Wow,what an incredible story, Jacqui! The courage and determination this Emma had!! Thanks for inspiring us all... :)

GiniRifkin said...

Wonderful post, thank you.
In awe of this lady's fortitude and determination. And fearless groundbreaking for women.

Renaissance Women said...

I love when researchers bring to life the pioneering women in so many fields. I am especially fond of the stories of actors and musicians. Thank you. Doris