Ponselle, Rosa (1897–1981)

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Ponselle, Rosa (1897–1981)

American operatic soprano who was the first fully American-trained singer to appear at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Name variations: Rosa Melba Ponzillo. Born Rosa Melba Ponzillo in Meriden, Connecticut, on January 22, 1897; died in Baltimore, Maryland, on May 25, 1981; younger of two daughters of Beniamino (Benjamin) Ponzillo (a baker and grocery store owner) and Madalana (Conti) Ponzillo; sister of Carmela Ponselle (1892–1977); educated at public schools in Meriden, Connecticut; briefly studied voice with William Thorner; studied opera with Romano Romani; married Carle A. Jackson, in 1936 (divorced 1946 or 1950).

Rosa Ponselle was the first American-born singer to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City without having first performed in Europe. Throughout her career, critics struggled to find words to describe her phenomenal voice. Allen Hughes of The New York Times described it as "a dramatic soprano that seemed to move seamlessly from the low notes of a contralto to a dazzling high C. She had coloratura flexibility, a splendid trill, powerful fortes, delicate pianissimos, and precise intonation." Ponselle was so dominant as a singer that future divas were compared with her for decades; the first time music critic Ernest Newman heard Maria Callas sing at Covent Garden, he remarked, "She's wonderful, but she is not a Ponselle." On her 75th birthday, Harold C. Schonberg recalled how Ponselle's "big, pure, colorful golden voice would rise effortlessly, hitting the stunned listener in the face, rolling over the body, sliding down the shoulder blades, making one wiggle with sheer physiological pleasure."

Ponselle, Carmela (1892–1977)

American mezzo-soprano. Born Carmela Ponzillo on June 7, 1892, in Schenectady; died in 1977; daughter of Beniamino (Benjamin) Ponzillo (a baker and grocery store owner) and Madalana (Conti) Ponzillo; sister of Rosa Ponselle (1897–1981); educated as the Convent School in New Haven, and public schools in Meriden, Connecticut; studied music under private tutors.

Carmela Ponselle made her debut as Amneris in Aïda at the Metropolitan Opera on December 5, 1925. Her principle roles were Amneris, Aldalgisa in Norma, and Laura in La Gioconda. Ponselle also concertized throughout the United States and was often heard on radio.

She was born Rosa Melba Ponzillo, the daughter of Italian immigrants, on January 22, 1897, in Meriden, Connecticut. Blessed with the gift of a perfect voice, Ponselle had very little formal training. Her first music lessons were on the piano, and while still in her teens she played in motion picture houses for silent films. For three years, she and her older sister Carmela Ponselle performed at the Café Malone in nearby New Haven, where they became favorites of Yale students. In 1915, Carmela, who by then was performing in vaudeville, brought her producer home for spaghetti and persuaded him to listen to Rosa sing. He initially thought her too overweight for show business, but her voice won him over, and four days later the sisters opened at the Star Theater in the Bronx, New York City, as the Ponzillo Sisters. They subsequently obtained a contract with the B.F. Keith Vaudeville Circuit (which billed them as a cultural act), and, after touring for three seasons, arrived at the Palace Theater in Manhattan when Rosa was just 21 and Carmela 26. William Thorner, an influential vocal coach, came to see them there, his interest piqued by the wild praise he had heard, and was captivated both by Rosa's voice and by her beauty.

Rosa and Carmela studied with Thorner, and he soon introduced them to Metropolitan tenor Enrico Caruso. Caruso, in turn, suggested to Giulio Gatti-Casazza, general manager of the Met, that Rosa should sing in the new production about to be cast of Verdi's La Forza del Destino. For her audition she studied the aria "Pace, pace mio dio" from Forza and the difficult "Casta diva" from Norma. Gatti-Casazza said of that audition, "She sang perfectly, with a beauty of voice and style that was truly amazing in a young and inexperienced singer." Not only did he reward her with a contract, he also cast her in a leading role. Ponselle spent the next five months working with Romano Romani, who remained her vocal coach throughout her career, and on November 15, 1918, never having sung an opera before, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as Leonora in La Forza del Destino opposite Caruso. This was especially impressive

since the role, for a dramatic soprano, is generally sung only by mature singers whose voices have gained strength and size through experience. In a story that may be apocryphal, before the performance Ponselle supposedly cried so violently from nervousness that her throat became inflamed, and for a time it seemed that her debut would have to be postponed. Caruso saved the day by offering her an apparently miraculous throat remedy, and Ponselle's debut was a brilliant success. James Gibbons Huneker wrote of that performance, "She possesses a voice of natural beauty…. It is vocal gold, with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich, and ductile; brilliant and flexible in the upper registers."

In December 1918, during her first season with the Met, Ponselle appeared in a revival of Weber's Oberon, performed at the Met for the first time. Later that season, in March 1919, she performed in the world premiere of Breil's The Legend. Subsequent seasons brought her accolades and packed houses for, among others, Il Trovatore, Andrea Chenier, Ernani, La Traviata, L'Africaine, Cavalleria Rusticana, La Gioconda, Luisa Miller, and Don Giovanni (as Donna Ana). She also sang the role of Giulia in the Met's first production of Spontini's La Vestale in November 1925, a role she repeated for her Italian debut at the Florence May Festival in 1933.

Considered by many to be one of the greatest prima donnas of all time, Ponselle remained at the Met through 19 seasons, giving 465 performances and singing an astonishingly varied repertory of at least 22 different roles. She delighted opera fans by singing both new and obscure operas as well as popular ones. She learned difficult roles quickly, and was a fine actress. What is more, she had sex appeal, an unusual quality for a soprano at that time. Ponselle was hideously nervous before every performance, torturing herself for hours before curtain time. She insisted that the stage be unheated, and although other singers complained that it was both bad for their throats and unpleasant, the Met complied with her wishes.

Although Ponselle had never sung a Puccini opera, in 1924 she was invited to visit the composer, who was dying, at his villa in Viareggio. While there she sang the aria "Vissi d'arte" from his opera Tosca. It is reported that while she was singing Puccini sat with his head in his hands, murmuring, "How sad I didn't hear her before!"

In 1927, Ponselle studied the title role of Norma for the Met's first production of the opera in 36 years. She had demurred, saying that it should be a Lilli Lehmann part, but conductor Tullio Serafin persuaded her to try it, and she fell in love with the role. Norma was to become her most celebrated interpretation, with some critics commenting that in it she had achieved her highest flights as a singer. Ponselle, however, chose as her favorite the title role of Carmen, which she performed on December 27, 1935. Oddly enough, it was the only performance which garnered her lukewarm reviews, with some critics describing her interpretation as "vulgar."

Ponselle's sister Carmela also became an opera singer with the Met. They sang together at a Sunday evening concert in January 1925, but did not appear in an opera together until April 23, 1932, when they performed in a presentation of La Gioconda in Cleveland, Ohio, with Rosa in the title role and Carmela as Laura. They repeated that collaboration on the Metropolitan stage on December 21 of that year.

During the summer of 1936, Ponselle asked the Met to produce for her Adriana Lecouvreur (concerning the life of the tragic French actress Adrienne Lecouvreur ) in the coming season. When her request was refused, she vowed to leave the Metropolitan Opera and never set foot in it again. Her final performance with the Met was as Carmen on February 15, 1937; then, after fulfilling a commitment to sing an aria from Romani's Fedra for an operatic concert, she left the company. Twice her friends begged her to come back, once to honor her old friend, the tenor Giovanni Martinelli, in a gala given for him a few years before his death, and again when director Rudolph Bing pleaded with her to attend the closing of the old house and the opening of the new one; both times she refused.

Ponselle moved to Baltimore, Maryland, with her husband Carle Jackson, whom she had married in December 1936, and lived there in a palatial hilltop mansion she had built and named Villa Pace. She stayed in retirement for 13 years, refusing even to make recordings, something she had done consistently for the Victor label during her time with the Met. (In fact, her one regret was that her career had come too early for the long-playing record.) Even so, the hundreds of recordings she had made for Victor left a legacy that continued to draw many young fans. Several of her early recordings were rerecorded as LPs, but it was not until 1954, 17 years after her retirement, that she made one final recording of songs and arias, backed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Though she was no longer in her prime, this last performance demonstrated the enduring beauty of her voice.

After divorcing her husband, in 1950 Ponselle resumed her career by becoming artistic director of the Baltimore Civic Opera Company. Her association with the Baltimore Opera revitalized the company, reversing it from financial instability to consistently sold-out houses in the 2,600-seat Lyric Theater. She also taught and encouraged many young singers (among them William Warfield, Sherrill Milnes, and James Morris), holding coaching sessions on a terrace of the Villa Pace and then going for a swim in her pool.

In her final years Ponselle suffered several strokes, and these, combined with severe arthritis, confined her to a wheelchair. Before she died, she set up a foundation to turn her house into a museum. She died in 1981 and was buried beside her sister, who had died in 1977, at Druid Ridge Cemetery near Baltimore. A critic wrote in tribute, "Her voice disclosed a tonal beauty such [as] has not been surpassed by another soprano within memory."


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

Hughes, Allen. "Rosa Ponselle, Dramatic Soprano, Dies" in The New York Times Biographical Service, 1981, pp. 708–709.

Lamparski, Richard. Whatever Became of …? 4th series. NY: Crown, 1973.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Podell, Janet, ed. The Annual Obituary 1981. NY: St. Martin's Press, 1982.

suggested reading:

Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane. Rosa Ponselle: American Diva. Northeastern University Press, 1997.

Ponselle, Rosa, and James A. Drake. Ponselle: A Singer's Life. New York, 1982.

Thompson, O. The American Singer. New York, 1937.

Malinda Mayer , writer and editor, Falmouth, Massachusetts

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Ponselle, Rosa (1897–1981)

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