Pons (original names Alice Joséphine) was the child of a French father and an Italian mother who, wanting a musician in her family, provided her daughter with both a piano and a teacher. She displayed considerable musical talent, entering the Paris Conservatoire at the age of thirteen and winning the first prize in the piano class two years later; but she was too nervous to pursue a concert career as a pianist. After moving with her family to Cannes in 1914, Pons played the piano and sang for convalescing French soldiers in the hospital where her mother worked as a nurse; and realized from the reactions of her audiences that she had a voice with potential.
Although Pons married her first husband, a successful publisher, in 1921 and for the next few years was a housewife, she was encouraged to take singing lessons by the soprano Dyna Beumer. Her husband was happy to fund this pursuit of a singing career and Pons began to study singing formally in 1925 with Alberto de Gorostiaga in Paris. She made her operatic stage debut in the title role of Lakmé at Mulhouse in 1928 with Reynaldo Hahn conducting and then sang much of the coloratura soprano repertoire in French provincial opera houses: the title roles in Lakmé and Lucia di Lammermoor, Gilda / Rigoletto, Olympia / Les Contes d’Hoffmann, Philene / Mignon, Mimì / La Bohème and Cherubino / Le nozze di Figaro. She also made some recordings for the Odeon label.
At Montpelier Pons was heard singing Lucia by the tenor and impresario Giovanni Zenatello and his wife Maria Gay, who encouraged her to audition for Gatti-Casazza at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. This audition was extensive and was immediately followed by a second audition with Otto Kahn, the chairman of the Met’s board, after which Pons was offered a contract with the company, as well as a recording contract with RCA-Victor—her position being strengthened by the Met’s need for a coloratura soprano to replace Galli-Curci.
Pons made her Met debut at the beginning of January 1931 as Lucia, when her first name was changed to Lily. After the Mad Scene she was rewarded with ‘tumultuous applause and cheering’, reported Olin Downes in the New York Times. Lucia was rapidly followed by Gilda, Olympia, Philene and Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia, her most frequent roles; and later by revivals for her of Lakmé (1932), La sonnambula (1932), Linda di Chamounix (1934), Le Coq d’Or (1937) and La Fille du Régiment (1940), as well as a new production of Lucia di Lammermoor in 1942. Between 1931 and 1960 she made over 300 appearances at the Met, celebrating her twenty-fifth anniversary with a gala performance in 1956. Her final fully-staged performance at the Met was as Lucia in 1958, after which she made her final appearance in a gala at the end of 1960. In addition she took part in the farewell gala for the ‘Old Met’ in 1966.
During the 1930s Pons appeared in Europe at the Royal Opera House, London in 1935, at both the Paris Opera and Opéra-Comique, and in Brussels. In the Americas she sang at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires in 1932 and 1934, with the Chicago Opera between 1936 and 1941 and with the San Francisco Opera between 1932 and 1952. She appeared in three films for the RKO Radio studio studio, I Dream Too Much (1935), That Girl from Paris (1936) and Hitting a New High (1937); and later in the film Carnegie Hall (1947). Pons was also a popular radio, television and recording artist, with a wide repertoire, and travelled for several months every year giving recitals and concerts.
In 1940 Pons took American nationality and during World War II toured various combat areas to entertain troops, often in very difficult circumstances. She sang two performances of Violetta / La traviata in 1951 in San Francisco, but did not return to this role. Her final operatic appearance was as Lucia in Fort Worth in 1962, when her Edgardo was the young Placido Domingo. Her last public performance took place in May 1972 at a Promenade concert of the New York Philharmonic. The conductor was André Kostelanetz, to whom Pons had been married between 1938 and 1958 after divorcing her first husband at the end of 1933.
The first soprano in fifty years who could reach the high F that Delibes wrote in the ‘Bell Song’ in Lakmé, Pons had a sweet, high voice, which she used with great skill. Although always appearing very fragile, being physically small in build and only about five feet tall, in reality Pons was in total command of her life and career. She promoted herself with a high degree of awareness and made herself into a marketable cultural icon, appearing in several national advertising campaigns for consumer products and featuring frequently in women’s magazines. For many she embodied the essence of the prima donna, being perfectly made-up and dressed in fashionable gowns whenever she appeared in public. She was one of the most popular classical music singers of of her era.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).
Role: Classical Artist