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Rosa d'Erina (1848 - 1915):

Rosa d'Erina

Rosa d’Erina was a widely talented musician who made a successful career playing piano and organ, and most especially as a singer of Irish songs. 

Rose Anna O’Toole was born in County Armagh and while still young was organist in St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the city. She studied in Paris with Duprez and made her London debut in 1869 as one of the five cast in a play with songs, “No Cards”, with words by WS Gilbert who was then about to form the dominant operetta duo with Arthur Sullivan. She was the lead female in this production which ran for most of the year at the Royal Gallery of Illustration, Regent Street. The play was favourably reviewed in The Times, who singled out d’Erina’s singing of the Irish ballad, “Thady O’Flinn”, along with the fact she accompanied herself on the pianoforte. 

In 1870 she emigrated to North America, settling initially in Ottawa and toured in Canada, the United States, and Australia, also back in Ireland. Her repertoire was steeped in Irish song, and she acquired noms de guerre such as “Rose of the Songs” and “Rose of Erin”, hence her stage name. As well as her frequent tours she became the organist at the Church of the Holy Innocents, in New York City, where she met George R. Vontrom, Vicomte de Ste Croix. Vontrom was born in the Isle of Jersey and was a New York City Professor at St Louis College. He came from a prominent French family, gaining his title from his grandfather. They married in May 1884. D’Erina continued touring and singing, after getting married, touring both the United States, Australia and Canada with her husband. Vontrom would not only accompany her on these tours, he would also assist her during her various recitals and concerts. 

Cheboygan is a small city on the shores of Lake Michigan. An excerpt from the history of its opera house describes something of the impact of Rosa d’Erina: 

Every now and then, Cheboygan got lucky, or what we now call a “routing alert.”

A big name, someone famous, would be in the area and have a night open on their route. Just to put on a show, or to make some money rather than none at all, performers will lower their prices and come to more out of the way places along their route. In this way, sometimes stars who performed before kings and queens delighted the Cheboygan audiences at the Opera House.

Once such singer was Rosa D’Erina, a world-class soprano and pianist who performed at the Cheboygan Opera House in August of 1894. This was big news. The Cheboygan Democrat announced, “Remember Rosa D’Erina comes here, because she has a day to spare at the Island. She may never come again, so do not miss the opportunity that chance gives us of hearing the greatest voice in the world….”

The St. Ignace News wrote; “Rosa D’Erina has a world-wide reputation as Ireland’s prima donna. Born in Ireland, as her name indicates, she began giving recitals before she was ten years of age and before she was 12 she was appointed organist of the cathedral of her native city.

“She is the only lady who gave recitals at the Centennial in Philadelphia, at the great expositions in Paris, London, Dublin, and at our own World’s Fair in Chicago. On the Fourth of July she gave a recital on the big Pilcher organ in Chicago to over 10,000 people and in the afternoon she gave another recital in the Woman’s building. In Washington she created a decided sensation. She possesses a voice of extraordinary strength and remarkable sweetness.’’

She was called the Rose of Erin, the Rose of the Songs, the Irish Prima Donna, the Irish Nightingale, the Irish Songbird and the Queen of Song. D’Erina was “Vocalist by Command to the Prince and Princess of Wales and the Irish court”. She toured on three continents. She entertained thousands of people at the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893.

She played before President of the United States Ulysses S. Grant and Mrs. Grant said, “Your magnificent voice is capable of inspiring the noblest feelings of heart whilst your majestic organ performances we have never heard equaled.” 

She continued performing into the new century. She and her husband lie interred together in their beloved church.


Born: 22 February 1848
Died: 13 April 1915
Richard Froggatt