(geb. Rosa Ponzillo)
born January 22, 1897, Meriden, Connecticut
died May 25, 1981, Baltimore, Maryland
US-American singer, artistic director of Baltimore Opera Company
120th birthday January 22, 2017
“Che peccato…che peccato non ho sentito questa voce primo!” (What a pity I’ve never heard this voice before) Puccini uttered these words upon hearing soprano Rosa Ponselle sing near the end of his life in 1924. The American singer who inspired these words of praise experienced a most remarkable “rags-to-riches” career.
Born Rosa Ponzillo, the daughter of Italian immigrants, she spent her childhood in Meriden, Connecticut where her family owned a bakery and grocery. She hated school, but soon found joy in music, first by imitating her older sister Carmela’s piano playing and singing. Young Rosa’s voice soon attracted local attention and her first jobs, demonstrating sheet music at a dime store, then singing between features in local movie theaters, and finally at age 16 moving to New Haven to entertain at a popular restaurant. In 1915 Rosa joined Carmela in New York for a popular sister act in vaudeville. While on strike for more pay, Rosa auditioned for the New York Metropolitan Opera. On Nov 15, 1918, only 21 years old and with almost no formal training, Rosa made her debut at the Met to great critical acclaim singing Leonora opposite Enrico Caruso in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. “(Her’s) is a big luscious voice with a texture like a piece of velvet,” wrote one critic.
Rosa went on to sing as a dramatic soprano in 23 roles during her 19 seasons at the Met and travelled the United States in concert tours. Among her favorite and most celebrated performances were Bellini’s Norma, Spontini’s La Vestale, Verdi’s Aida, La Forza del Destino, Ernani, and La Traviata. She sang for 3 seasons at Covent Garden in London (1929-1932), where the audience interrupted her debut performance of Norma with continuous applause. Moved by her mother’s dying wish that she sing in Italy, Rosa performed in La Vestale in the first Maggio Musicale Fiorentino (Florence Music Festival) in 1933. So wild was the applause at the end of her aria “O nume tutelar” that the conductor had to break the no-encore rule.
In 1937 Ponselle bitterly but quietly retired from the Met, embroiled in disputes with the new management. Although she was never again to sing publicly, Ponselle pursued a recording career from 1918-1977 and appeared on many radio broadcasts. Ponselle had married Carle A. Jackson in 1936 only to divorce ten years later. In 1939 the couple moved to his home town near Baltimore, where Ponselle designed their large, elegant estate. Ponselle became the artistic director of the Baltimore Opera Company until 1979. Under her guidance many young singers blossomed and the Baltimore Opera Company itself grew prosperous.
Famed for her extensive range, her delicate pianissimi, her clarity of tone, and her emotional expressiveness, Ponselle worked continually during her performing career to sustain and develop her vocal gift. Her incredible musical control on stage belied the terrible stage fright that plagued her ever since her Metropolitan debut. She studied her roles carefully, often basing her interpretations not solely on the libretto, but on original stories and books. Ponselle's elder contemporary, singer Geraldine Farrar, when asked how was it possible to have a voice like Ponselle’s, replied: “Only by special arrangement with the Lord, and then you must work very, very hard.”
Author: Katherine E. Horsley
“Great voices are Nature’s gift, but so are flowers. A beautiful, well-kept garden is the result of toil and constant care. A singer is great only after she has developed her gift to the highest degree possible.” (Rosa Ponselle, quoted in her autobiography (Ponselle: A Singer’s Life, p. 238) from an interview with the New Orleans Item)
Literature & Sources
Aloi, Enrico. 1994. My Remembrances of Rosa Ponselle. New York. Vantage.
Aloi, Enrico. 1996. Rosa Ponselle: A Pictorial Hstory. New York. Vantage.
American National Biography Bd. 17. Hg. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. New York. Oxford UP 1999.
Armstrong, William. 1922. The Romantic World of Music. New York. Dutton.
Drake, James A. 1997. Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography. Portland, OR. Amadeus.
Eby, Gordon M. 1981. From the Beauty of Embers: A Musical Aftermath. Einleitg. Milton J. Cross. New York. Speller.
Kesting, Jürgen. 1986. Die großen Sänger. 3 Bde. Düsseldorf. Claassen.
Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane. 1997. Rosa Ponselle: American Diva. Foreword by Beverly Sills. Boston. Northeastern UP.
Ponselle, Rosa & James A. Drake. 1982. Ponselle: A Singer's Life. Foreword by Luciano Pavarotti. Garden City, NY. Doubleday.
The Annual Obituary 1981. Hg. Janet Podell. New York. St. Martin’s Press.
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