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Abbott English Opera Company

Emma Almira Abbott (1849-1891)

Emma Almira Abbott is a seventh generation descendant of George Abbott and Hannah Chandler (Seth6, Dyer5, Jabez4, Thomas3, Thomas2, George1). Emma was the second oldest of five children of Seth and Almira (Palmer) Abbott. Seth was born into a farming family (that also ran a tavern) in Henniker, New Hampshire. Seth’s father, Dyer Abbott, had musical talent and was the choir master at the church in Henniker. He also served as Fife Major in the war of 1812. Seth was a sickly child and it was thought that he might not survive childhood, and when he was just a few months old his family prepared themselves for his death. However, he did make it through his early childhood illness although physically he was not robust. But young Seth had musical talent and skill in mathematics. He attended singing school in Lowell, and he played violin and several other instruments. He taught voice lessons for a time in Lowell and was a member of a 12-piece band. In 1839, he was a member of Captain Cheshire’s brass band in Rochester, New York. By 1842, Seth made his way to Vermont where he married Almira Palmer. Almira was the daughter of physician Dr. Galen Palmer. Almira was also known for her musical skill. The young couple relocated to Chicago where Seth attempted to support his family as a musician. He did find work as a vocal instructor and led church choirs but struggled financially.

The two oldest children of Seth and Almira, George and Emma, inherited their parents’ musical talent. George was known for his skill with the violin and Emma was early noted for her vocal talent. It was Emma who went on to both popular and financial success as an opera soprano.

Emma was classically trained in Italian opera studying in Milan. She performed in Paris and with the Royal Opera in London. However, the bulk of her career was in the United States where she was known for bringing opera to the middle-class. She sang English translations of operas. She also, along with her husband, Eugene Wetherell, started the Abbott English Opera Company which was one of the more successful touring opera companies of the late 19th century. She was at times criticized by opera purists, not only because her opera company sang translated operas but also sang shortened versions. She also, at times, added popular songs to the operas. However, she and her opera company were hugely popular among the masses. With the expansion of the railroad, her troupe toured to the Western states. It was on one of these tours in Utah that she died rather suddenly of pneumonia in 1891.


Photo Credit: NYPL Digital Gallery, Public Domain

Cogswell, Leander Winslow. 1880. History of the Town of Henniker, Merrimack County, New Hampshire, from the Date of the Canada Grant by the Province of Massachusetts, in 1735, to 1880; with a Genealogical Register of the Families of Henniker. Concord, NH: Republican Press Association.

Martin, Sadie E. 1891. The Life and Professional Career of Emma Abbott. Minneapolis, MN: L. Kimball Printing Company.

Preston, Katherine. 2017. Opera for the People: English-Language Opera and Women Managers in Late 19th-Century America. Oxford Scholarship Online.

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