Emma Howson

Emma Howson (28 March 1844 28 May 1928) was an Australian opera singer and actress primarily known as the creator of the principal soprano role of Josephine in the Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore.

Life and career

Howson, the niece of diva Emma Albertazzi (also born Emma Howson), was born in Hobart Town, Tasmania, and performed as a child in concerts with her father, Frank (a baritone and conductor) and her brothers. Her father, with his tenor brother, John, moved to Sydney in 1845 and remained based there until the mid-1860s when, at the suggestion of American actor Joseph Jefferson, the family travelled to America. Emma's early musical education and training therefore took place in Sydney, where one of her early mentors and teachers was the renowned English contralto Sara Flower.[1]

In America, Howson began to perform in English opera as Amina in La Sonnambula (1866) as well as in comedy, drama, farce and burlesque. She achieved success in engagements in California, and the family troupe worked its way east, through Salt Lake City, where the Howsons were the first opera troupe seen by the Mormons. Her father died during that tour in 1869. The family eventually arrived in New York, where Emma performed in Wallace's Maritana. In other North American cities, she played roles in Auber's Fra Diavolo, The Bohemian Girl, Martha, Oberon, The Marriage of Figaro, Der Freischütz and Il Trovatore, among others. In 1873, she travelled to Europe with her brother Frank and studied in Milan, Italy for two years. She debuted in Malta in 1875 as Amina. In 1876, she arrived in England and toured in Italian operas in the English provinces with the Royal Italian Opera.

She joined Richard D'Oyly Carte's Comedy Opera Company at the Opera Comique in May 1878, creating the role of Josephine in Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera H.M.S. Pinafore, which became a sensation. She earned excellent notices from the critics and was popular with audiences. The Era noted after the opening night, "Miss Emma Howson is one of the brightest, liveliest little ladies imaginable. She has a voice of charming quality, pure, sweet, and admirably in tune. Her singing at once established her in the good graces of the audience, and her acting was full of intelligence and comic talent."

Howson left the Opera Comique and D'Oyly Carte in April 1879. When she returned to the stage it was as leading lady in The Beggar's Opera. In the early 1880s, she returned to America where she toured for about a dozen years in light opera and concert work, often with her brother as conductor. Her roles in America included Josephine in Pinafore and the title role in Patience. Her brother John played Bunthorne in that opera, impersonating Oscar Wilde to the delight of the crowd at a train stop during Wilde's American tour.[2] She retired from the stage in the early 1890s, and settled in Brooklyn, New York, where she taught music.[3] Her brother John Howson performed Gilbert and Sullivan frequently in America.

Howson died in New York at the age of 84 and was buried in Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn. Her nephew was actor Albert Howson.


  1. Orchard, W. Arundel. Music in Australia. More than 150 years of Development, 1952, p. 149
  2. Stedman (1996), p. 161
  3. "Theatrical Gossip", The Era, 24 June 1899, p. 12


  • Ayre, Leslie (1972). The Gilbert & Sullivan Companion. London: W.H. Allen & Co Ltd. Introduction by Martyn Green.
  • Stedman, Jane W. (1996). W. S. Gilbert, A Classic Victorian & His Theatre. Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-816174-3.
  • Stedman, Jane and Hartley, Mildred H. "The First Josephine", in The Gilbert & Sullivan Journal Vol. IX, No. 14 (1970).
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