Pons, Lily (1898–1976)

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Pons, Lily (1898–1976)

French soprano. Born Alice Joséphine Draguigan on April 12, 1898, near Cannes, France; died on February 13, 1976, in Dallas, Texas; daughter of Auguste Pons and Maria (Naso) Pons; studied piano at the Paris Conservatoire before beginning vocal training with Alberti di Gorostiaga; married August Mesritz, on November 16, 1923 (divorced); married André Kostelanetz (an orchestra conductor), on June 2, 1938.

Debuted in Mulhouse as Lakmé (1928); debuted at the N.Y. Metropolitan (1931), singing there until 1958; awarded Asiatic-Pacific campaign service ribbon, India-Burma Theater; made an honorary consul of France (1934); received gold medal of the City of Paris (1937); given Chevalier, Legion of Honor (France); bestowed Order of the Cross of Lorraine by Charles de Gaulle.

Selected filmography:

I Dream Too Much (1935); That Girl From Paris (1936); Hitting a New High (1938); and numerous others.

During World War II, Lily Pons braved freezing cold and blistering heat to entertain American troops in China, Burma (now Myanmar), India, Russia, Germany, Italy, Africa, and the Persian Gulf. Although many of the thousands of service personnel she entertained were not opera enthusiasts, they always remembered the tiny French singer who braved the elements to raise their spirits in some of the world's most godforsaken places. Pons did not travel with a huge entourage; often she brought only her pilot and an evening gown or two, because she visited some of the most dangerous places on the front. Her willingness to put her own life in jeopardy and endure great hardship made her a hero to many Allied soldiers.

Pons was born Alice Joséphine Draguigan near Cannes, France, in 1898, the daughter of Auguste Pons and Maria Naso Pons . When Lily was three, her father made headlines: he attempted to drive a Sizaire-Naudin automobile from Paris to Peking, got lost in the Urals, starved in Tibet, and was towed into Peking. Although her career was launched in her native France, Pons sang entirely in provincial opera houses there, making her debut in Delibes' Lakmé at Mulhouse Municipal Opera in Alsace in 1928. She became a star only after she was invited to debut at the New York Metropolitan Opera House, on the recommendation of Zenatello, in the title role of Lucia di Lammer-moor on January 3, 1931. Her performance was a sensation. Owin Downes wrote: "Her voice has range and freshness. Certain passages were sung with marked tonal beauty and emotional color. In the 'Mad Scene' some of the bravura passages were tossed off with the best of the virtuoso spirit…. Miss Pons gave the impression of sincerity, intelligence and the ability to work. She never did a cheap thing and when possible subjected technical display to musical expression." She was also the first singer in a century to hit the high note of F (instead of the customary E-flat preferred by Donizetti), while doing the Mad Scene.

Pons would remain with the Met for 27 seasons. She also became a member of the San Francisco Opera and the Chicago City Opera, and sang in guest appearances throughout the world. She had little loyalty to Europe where she felt her talent had been overlooked. Rather, she had a great affinity with her American audience. She was glamorous, which intrigued the public, and had an inborn sense of publicity. She adopted an ocelot as a pet and was frequently photographed with it. In one highly publicized event, she ate a meal with monkeys at the Bronx Zoo. Americans were fond of this exotic star, and she was fond of them. In 1938, she married orchestra conductor André Kostelanetz; her matron of honor was Geraldine Farrar . In 1940, Pons became an American citizen.

Though Pons had a small voice, she recognized this fact and never strained it or made it wiry and intractable. She knew her limitations and stayed within them. Her voice, instead, was warm and appealing, with a fluent top range. She had great success as Gilda in Rigoletto, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Amina in La sonnambula, Shemakhan in Le Coq d'Or, Marie in La fille du régiment (Daughter of the Regiment), Philine in Mignon, and above all in Lakmé. Pons was a truly great star, a legend in her lifetime. Many never forgot tiny Lily Pons standing on a balcony of the Paris Opéra before a quarter of a million people, many of them soldiers whom she had entertained, singing the "Marseillaise" when France was liberated in 1945. The "French nightingale" remained a beloved figure until her death in 1976.


Ewen, David, comp. and ed. Living Musicians. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1940.

Rasponi, I. The Last Prima Donnas. New York, 1982.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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Pons, Lily (1898–1976)

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