Early Illinois Women

Emma Abbott, Peoria's Most Famous Singer

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Emma Abbott, Peoria's Most Famous Singer

Click below on page 1 for a typescript biography of Emma Abbott. (or jump to a specific page).

from Oakford, Aaron Wilson, Peoria Story, v.6, p.449
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Emma Abbott, Peoria's Foster Daughter

Abbott as Violetta in Traviata

Emma Abbott in 1873, 74, 75

Abbott and Castle as Paul and Virginia

Emma Abbott Libretto and Parlor Pianist Mignon

Emma Abbott Libretto and Parlor Pianist Mikado

A. W. Oakford's History of Peoria contains a lengthy biographical sketch of Emma Abbott. The following excerpts relate details of her life in Peoria.

Seth Abbott, a singing teacher and violinist, brought his family to Peoria from Chicago in 1853. He came to Peoria to direct the choir of the early First Baptist Church. He also taught singing to others in the community. A news item in a Peoria paper of May 2, 1853 read: "Seth Abbott, a successful teacher of music to juveniles, staged a floral concert at Court House square."

The Abbott family at that time consisted of Seth Abbott, his wife, Almira Palmer Abbott, and three children; two sons and a small daughter. The latter, Emma Abbott, of whom this sketch concerns, was born in Chicago, December 9th, 1850. She was les s than three years of age when the family moved to Peoria.

During their residence of some sixteen years in Peoria the Abbotts moved several times. In the directory of 1859 their address was listed as "Adams St. river side, ninth door above Spring." A very humble dwelling, now in lamentable condition, occup ies the spot and give mute evidence of the modest surroundings of Emma Abbott.

Seth Abbott, it is true, was not a well-to-do man when he brought his family to Peoria. His means were quite limited, and it was necessary for his family to live frugally. The story, too often told, of their impoverished days in Peoria was greatly exagg erated. To supplement his earnings as a singing teacher, Seth attempted to sell real estate, and later insurance, but with only small success. Business was not his forte. He loved music and it was his life. He taught his daughter Emma, as a child, to play the guitar, and under his early tutelage supplemented by more finished teachers in later years, she developed a beautiful soprano voice.

Her father often played his violin for dances and at other times, with members of his family, staged concerts of various kinds in the vicinity.

An early newspaper states that Emma made her stage debut in 1859, playing her guitar and singing before an audience of coal miners in a small school house at Edwards, Illinois. The little building was crowded, but windows and doors were left open so that many listening from the outside could hear her sweet voice as she sang heart stirring tunes of the day. No admission was charged, but appreciative miners took up a substantial collection. Little did they know that the young girl, then only nine ye ars of age, was destined to become one of America's outstanding sopranos.

As a child Emma was kind-hearted but impulsive. She had a fervent love for music and seemed to know intuitively that singing was to be her life work. She had the utmost faith in herself, plus the will to succeed.

Emma's father was quick to perceive certain qualities in his little daughter's voice. He knew that with proper training that voice had great possibilities. On several occasions when he went to Chicago he took Emma with him. While there his persona l friend, the manager of Sherman Hotel, invited her to sing for his guests in the hotel parlor, and her singing never failed to give pleasure.

About 1862 Seth Abbott's pupils rendered the cantata "Queen Esther" in Peoria. The composer, William B. Bradbury, noted for his sacred music, drilled the singers personally. Emma was the youngest in the cast. Upon hearing her voice, he said of he r, "She sings as a lark does because she can't help it." After the performance he requested that she sing selections of her own choice for him. She sang a few simple songs like "Old Folks at Home", and then the soprano part of "Hear Me Norma". Sadie E. Martin, a personal friend of Emma's, and later her biographer, referred to this occasion and said, "Bradbury himself was silent through her singing and then said to her 'My dear, fortune and fame are sure to be yours.' "

A little later, perhaps when Madam Parepa Rosa made an appearance n Peoria, she also heard Emma sing and assured her family that she had promise of becoming a great artiste.

One of the numerous concerts given by Seth Abbott and his family occurred about 1864 in a country school house at Farmdale, Illinois, between East Peoria and Washington. Emma, who appeared with her father and her brother George, was then only thirte en years of age. The accompanying photograph shows her as she then appeared. Her voice at that time was not strong but had a sweetness about it that appealed to her listeners. Her singing of popular tunes captivated those who heard her, old and young.

Having his confidence in Emma's voice confirmed by the opinions of William Bradbury, Madam Rosa and others, Mr. Abbott arranged for her to enter a singing class conducted by a capable instructor in Chicago who went by the name of Mozart.

.....and so Emma left Peoria, but returned in later years, as Mr. Oakford goes on to report:

On March 21st, 1868, Frank Lumbard and his troup appeared at Rouse's Hall in Peoria. Emma was one of the featured singers. It was one of those occasions, the memory of which was dear to those who were present.

The last Peoria directory, in which Seth Abbott's name appears, was 1867-68. It is quite probably it was in the latter year that Mr. Abbott went with his daughter to New York. There Emma became a pupil of the famous Errani. Her father, Seth Abbott , through his saving and his confidence in her voice had made this possible.

.....several years later, Mr. Oakford recounts:

In 1880 The Abbott Opera Company appeared in Peoria at the historic Rouse's Hall, where the First National Bank Building now stands. It was most unfortunate that the company at that particular time was confronted with some temporary financial proble m. Emma, for some reason, was unable to appear in person at one matinee, and one of her loyal stand-bys took her place and gave a marvelous performance.

At that time Col. W. T. Dowdall, publisher of the Peoria National Democrat and Evening Review, extended some particular courtesy, which Emma never failed to remember on subsequent visits to Peoria.

On September 7th, 1882, at the dedication of Peoria's memorable Grand Opera House on Hamilton Street, Emma Abbott was the leading attraction. That historic theatre was destroyed by fire on December 14, 1909.

In Peoria a milling company popularized its flour by using the brand name, "Pride of Peoria", in compliment to her.

On April 20th, 1884, Emma Abbott, sometime spoken of as "Peoria's foster daughter", made perhaps her initial appearance as an opera star, at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. On that occasion, it was reported, she received bouquets represent ing 'two tons' of gorgeous flowers sent her by friends and admirers - a tribute to one who had risen from modest surroundings to a recognized place in the world of music.

Contributing Library:

Peoria Public Library, Peoria, Illinois

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