Emma Wixom was born February 7, 1859 in the Alpha mining camp a few miles from Nevada City, California, on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Her father was William Wallace Wixom, a physician who set out from Argentine, Michigan (Genesee County, southwest of Flint) on April 9, 1851 for the gold fields of California. Her grandfather was Isaac Wixom, also a physician, of Argentine and Fenton, Michigan. About 1861 Emma's mother, née Maria O'boy, and daughter moved into Nevada City, into a house on Broad street that was recently completely renovated and is now a bed and breakfast inn known as the "Emma Nevada House." She manifested musical talent at an early age, her first performance being a rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" in the Baptist Church of Nevada City. She was so short that she stood on a chair wrapped in an American flag.

In the spring of 1864 Dr. Wixom moved his family overland to the recently opened silver mining camp of Austin, Nevada, in the center of the state. There Emma attended school and, because of her readily apparent musical abilities, participated in many of the musical events of the town. Her mother died in Fenton, Michigan in 1872, and Dr. Wixom sent Emma to Mills Seminary (now Mills College) in Oakland, California, where she graduated in 1876. She was a major attraction in the school's musical productions, which drew an enthusiastic audience from around the Bay area. After a final year of study, she embarked on a study tour of Europe in April, 1877 with a group of young women from all over the country, led by Dr. Adrian Ebell. Unfortunately Dr. Ebell died of heart trouble just before the ship reached Hamburg. Rather than return home with the others, Emma went to Berlin, and then to Vienna, to study with Mathilde Marchesi, a voice teacher who already had a good reputation in Europe. Nearly three years of hard work produced the desired result, and Emma Wixom, having adopted the name of the city near which she was born and the state where she grew up, debuted under the name "Emma Nevada" at Her Majesty's Theatre in London, May 17, 1880, in the role of Amina in Bellini's "La Sonnambula." Audience response was enthusiastic, and the reviews predicted a brilliant career.

After a dispute with the impresario Col. James H. Mapleson in London, Emma Nevada sang on the Continent : Trieste, Florence, and Genoa, where Verdi heard her at the end of April 1881. Verdi was so impressed he engaged her for La Scala in Milan, where she sang in twenty-one performances. After tours in Prague and Berlin, she made her Paris debut at the Opéra Comique as Zora in Félicien David's La Perle du Brésil in 1883. She also played Mignon in the eponymous opera during the fall season at the same theater. In 1884, after a dispute over costumes with M. Carvalho, director of the Opéra Comique, she moved to the Théâtre Italien where she sang the role of Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor. In March of 1884 Emma Nevada converted to catholicism, most likely under the influence of Mrs. John Mackay, her godmother, the wife of the "Bonanza King" who had made a fortune in Virginia City. Mrs. Mackay preferred to live in Paris, and took an interest in the rising star when Emma sang in Paris, lavishing expensive gifts upon her. It should be noted, however, that Mrs. Mackay, contrary to rumor, did not pay for Emma's education at Mills Seminary or for her singing lessons in Vienna. Emma's father Dr. Wixom, although not rich, did earn enough from his ranch in Austin, Nevada, to pay for her education, and newspaper accounts state that people who knew her in Austin and other mining towns also helped out.

In the fall of 1884 Col. Mapleson organized a company to tour the United States, and Emma Nevada was engaged to be one of the star singers, along with Adelina Patti, the two sopranos generally singing on alternate nights. The tour traveled in a sumptuously appointed train, stopping in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Saint Joseph, Topeka, Cheyenne, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco. Emma Nevada scored many successes, the greatest being in San Francisco. Touring the American West was a grand adventure for the mainly European company, and Col. Mapleson's memoirs supply many amusing anecdotes. Back in Paris, Emma was engaged to Dr. Raymond Palmer and a spectacular wedding took place October 1, 1885. After a short honeymoon in Switzerland, she toured the United States again during the season of 1885-1886, visiting Michigan for the first time since her teen-age years, singing in Detroit, East Saginaw and Jackson, but unfortunately not having the time to visit her former Fenton residence.

Emma Nevada and her husband Raymond Palmer established their residence in Paris, where their daughter Mignon was born in 1886. They lived at 121 Avenue de Wagram, one of the grand avenues radiating out from the Arc de Triomphe, only a few blocks from the school that Emma's former voice teacher, Mathilde Marchesi had set up at 88 rue Jouffroy. They also had a country home near Compiègne, north of Paris. This was a splendid era for the arts in Paris, the so-called “banquet years,” with poets like Stéphane Mallarmé and Paul Verlaine, novelists like Emile Zola, painters like Edgar Degas and Auguste Renoir, composers like Jules Massenet and Charles Gounod, actors and actresses like Sarah Bernhardt. Both the Palmers and Mathilde Marchesi had salons and musical gatherings. Pablo Casals was a frequent guest of the Palmers, who introduced him into English society.

Although Emma Nevada sang mostly in European opera houses, she had two tours to the United States after her tour with Col. Mapleson, in 1899 and again in 1901-1902. On the latter tour Pablo Casals was one of the performers on his first trip to the United States. Emma Nevada announced her retirement from the stage in 1907, on the same night that her daughter Mignon made her debut at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome, but appeared again in Berlin in 1910; she spent the rest of her life teaching singing in London, and her views sometimes appeared in print. She died June 20, 1940 in Liverpool, England.

Copyright© 1999 by Eugene F. Gray

Last update: July 28, 2003

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