Nevada County Nightingale: Emma Nevada | TheUnion.com
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Nevada County Nightingale: Emma Nevada

I88t is a lovely but unpretentious house located on East Broad Street atop Nabob Hill in Nevada City. It has an expansive porch, with white filigree trim, and is painted yellow – canary yellow, one might say. It is entirely appropriate that the residence is that color – since a former occupant once sang like a bird.

Her name has passed down to us as Emma Nevada, but she was born Emma Wixom on Feb. 25, 1859, in the rough hydraulic mining camp of Alpha, about 20 miles east of Nevada City along the Yuba River. From these humble beginnings, she rose to become one of the most celebrated opera stars of her day.

In 1861, Emma’s father, Dr. William Wixom, a physician at the Alpha Diggins, moved his family to Nevada City where they took up residence at 528 E. Broad St. Little Emma loved to sing, and often broke into song while at play. She was but 3 years old when she gave her first performance at the Nevada City Baptist Church. The tiny child was lifted onto a table and sang the “Star Spangled Banner” while wrapped in an American flag. She was a sensation and, from all accounts, fearless on stage. The family lived only a short time in Nevada City, but Emma never forgot her roots.



In 1863, Wixom followed gold fever and moved his family to Austin, Nev., as part of the Reese River Rush in Nevada’s interior. Soon, the townsfolk of Austin were commenting on the remarkable, precocious child who sang in the local church and for civic celebrations. Even Native Americans came for miles to hear her sing. One Shoshone chief called her “Songbird of the Mountains.” Emma returned the admiration by learning to speak the Indian languages of the Washoe, Paiute, and Shoshone.

In 1873, as a young teenager, Emma Wixom enrolled in Mills Seminary (now Mills College) in Oakland. There she trained her voice and learned German, Spanish, French, and Italian. At Mills, the 5-foot-tall Emma – fondly referred to as “Little Wixie” – performed concerts that received enthusiastic response. At one recital, a future First Lady, Caroline Harrison, the wife of President Benjamin Harrison, attended and cheered with the assembled throng.




Following graduation in 1876, Emma traveled to Europe, where she studied under the stern eyes and ears of Madame Marchesi, the leading vocal coach of the era. In 1880, she changed her name to Emma Nevada in honor of both her home county and adopted state. That same year she debuted at London’s Her Majesty’s Theater as Amina in Bellini’s “La Sonnambula.” She was a hit. The Illustrated London News of May 22, 1880, reported, “Frequent applause and several recalls testified to the complete success of the young debutante.” A career was born and for the next 30 years Emma Nevada would captivate European and American audiences.

Emma became a favorite of European royalty, particularly England’s Queen Victoria. Emma sang many command performances for the Queen and once received from Victoria a diamond necklace valued at $100,000 as a token of admiration. Early in her career, the renowned opera composer Giuseppe Verdi heard Emma sing and rhapsodized about the young performer he nicknamed “La Nevada” in a letter to a friend. He wrote: “She really has exceptional qualities of voice and sentiment … she has remarkable dramatic presence and will go very far!”

Emma Nevada did not restrict her performances to opera, but also gave concerts that mixed the classical with the popular. Audiences loved her renditions of well-known songs, most notably such favorites as “The Last Rose of Summer” and “Listen to the Mockingbird.”

Emma became a celebrity, and when, in October 1885, she married Dr. Raymond Palmer in England, it was headline news. The New York Times even “reviewed” her wedding. As part of her honeymoon, she returned to the United States in 1885- 1886 and gave a series of 83 concerts. At one concert in Arizona Territory, Emma received what she considered her greatest compliment. At the engagement, an old miner asked the box office attendant, “How much?” “Three dollars,” was the answer. Three dollars represented about a week’s salary for the average worker in those days. “Three dollars?” the miner asked. “Yes,” replied the attendant, “Is that too much for you?” “Oh, no,” remarked the miner as he forked over his hard-earned cash, “I would gladly pay $6 just to see her again.”

Emma, her husband, and daughter Mignon, lived in Paris. Emma taught her daughter to sing and Mignon Palmer became a renowned operatic diva in her own right. Emma’s Paris home became a frequent location for glittering parties attended by the leading elements of European society. The famous cellist Pablo Casals was a frequent guest and close friend of Emma. Casals would accompany Emma on her last tour of the United States in 1901-1902. Many years later, Pablo Casals would perform for President Kennedy at the White House. It was during this tour that Emma briefly returned to Nevada City for the last time. She sang at the National Hotel and ovations … and tears … were frequent.

In 1907, Emma Nevada announced her retirement from the stage. Her announcement came on the same day that her daughter Mignon made her debut at Teatro Costanzi in Rome. She made one last concert appearance in Berlin in 1910, and then spent the rest of her life teaching singing. Emma moved to London and taught many pupils. She even wrote about her teaching techniques, including this sound advice to the aspiring performer printed in the March 1906 edition of The Ladies’ Home Journal: “An important part of singing is simplicity in dress and also in arrangement of the hair, but only part of it. The voice is the main thing … Believe me, when a singer is simply and tastefully gowned her listeners will find out more about the good qualities of her voice than if she appear in a gorgeous creation.”

In 1939, the San Francisco Exposition (the “World’s Fair”) occurred at Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay. In a deeply felt gesture of respect, E Clampus Vitus proclaimed the 80-year old Emma as “The Empress of the Fair.” Believing that her home state had forgotten her, Emma remarked in her thank-you note: “Your letters have made my heart beat with pride and joy, to know that you still have a place for me in your dear California hearts.”

The next year, on June 20, 1940, Emma Nevada died in Liverpool, England.

Today, the Emma Nevada House at 528 East Broad St. in Nevada City is a bed-and breakfast that recalls a long ago era … and legend … of Nevada County history.

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Gary Noy, director of the Center for Sierra Nevada Studies at Sierra College’s Rocklin campus, appears monthly in The Union. Contact him at gnoy@sierracollege.edu.


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