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Ponselle (real name Rose Ponzillo: her parents had emigrated from Naples to America) displayed a superb natural voice at a very early age. Initially she studied the piano with Anna Ryan, the organist of the local Catholic church, and accompanied silent films in local cinemas; but influenced by her elder sister Carmela, who was successfully pursuing a career as a cabaret singer, she began to sing songs while the projectionists changed reels and by 1914 had secured a long-term engagement as a singer at the San Carlino Theater, one of the largest cinemas in New Haven.

The following year Carmela, who by now was an established vaudeville singer, having enjoyed success in 1912 on Broadway in the musical The Girl from Brighton, arranged for Ponselle to audition for her agent. As a result both were hired as a headlining sister-act on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, earning a considerable income from 1915 to 1918, when they were dropped after requesting an increase in pay. Carmela then introduced Rosa to her voice teacher William Thorner, who arranged for them to be heard firstly by Victor Maurel and then by Enrico Caruso. Caruso, impressed by Rosa’s singing, arranged for her to be auditioned by Gatti-Casazza, who immediately offered her a contract with the Metropolitan Opera.

Ponselle made her debut as Leonora / La forza del destino, opposite Caruso in November 1918—her first performance on an operatic stage. The critic James Huneker, writing in the New York Times, described her voice as ‘vocal gold… with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich and ductile, brilliant in the upper register’. During the same season she sang Santuzza / Cavalleria rusticana, Reiza / Oberon and Carmelita in the first performance of Breil’s The Legend. Later roles included the title parts in Aida (1921) and La Gioconda (1924), Rachel / La Juive (1919), Elisabetta / Don Carlo (1920), Elvira / Ernani (1921), Margared / Le Roi d’Ys (1922), Maddalena / Andrea Chénier, Selika / L’Africaine and Mathilde / William Tell (all 1923), Leonora / Il trovatore (1924) and Giulia / La vestale (1925), which firmly established her as the Met’s prima donna assoluta. This was followed by the title part in Norma in 1927, with Ponselle rightfully claiming this role in succession to the Met’s last great Norma, Lilli Lehmann, who had sung it in 1892. Norma was followed by Fiora / L’amore dei tre re (1928), Donna Anna / Don Giovanni (1930), Luisa / Luisa Miller (1930), and Violetta / La traviata and Zoraima in Montemezzi’s La notte di Zoraima (both 1931). Concerned about the weakness at the top of her voice, she sang the title role in Carmen in 1935; but though popular with the public this was not a critical success. She gave her last performance with the Met in this role in Cleveland in 1937, disillusoned both by the company’s refusal to mount Cilea’s Adriana Lecouvreur for her and a failed attempt at a Hollywood career.

When not singing at the Met Ponselle enjoyed a lucrative concert career throughout America. Her European appearances were very few: she sang at the Royal Opera House, London annually between 1929 and 1931 in roles that included Norma and Gioconda (1929), Violetta (her first performances in this part) and Fiora (1930), and Leonora (Forza) and the title role in Fedra, composed by her long-term coach Romano Romani (1931). She gave her only performances in Italy as Giulia (La vestale) at the Maggio Musicale Florence in 1933.

Always nervous when performing, Ponselle retired to Baltimore after her marriage to the industrialist Carl Jackson in 1936. Here they built the Villa Pace, her home for the rest of her life. The marriage ended in 1950 after which Ponselle suffered a nervous breakdown; but her voice remained as magnificent as ever, as domestic recordings made by RCA in the 1950s demonstrate. From the late 1940s she supported the Baltimore Civic Opera Company and taught. Her pupils included Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo and James Morris.

Technically Ponselle was in a class of her own, with all the registers perfectly joined, superb agility and excellent control of dynamics, and an innate musical understanding. She was a true dramatic coloratura soprano, with a voice both voluptuous and very beautiful; only its top presented problems, as she got older. She recorded extensively: for Columbia-USA from 1918 to 1923 and then for Victor from 1923 to 1939. Her live recordings from the Met of La traviata and Carmen are extraordinarily valuable documents, displaying a level of vocal and dramatic virtuosity rarely encountered. Geraldine Farrar commented about her: ‘When discussing singers, there are two you must first set aside: Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso. Then you may begin.’

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
A TO Z OF SINGERS Naxos Educational
AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL - Great Voices in Patriotic Song (1905-50) Romophone
BELLINI: Norma (Callas, Filippeschi) (1953) Naxos Historical
Christmas from a Golden Age (1925-1950) Naxos Historical
GREAT SINGERS (1904-1952) Naxos Historical
MARTINELLI, Giovanni: Complete Acoustic Recordings 1912 -1924 Romophone
PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings (1939, 1954) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Nostalgia, Vocal, Orchestral, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Interview
PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings, Vol. 1 (1923-1929) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera
PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings, Vol. 2 (1923-1929) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera
PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings, Vol. 3 (1923-1929) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal
PONSELLE, Rosa: American Recordings, Vol. 4 (1923-1929) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera
PONSELLE, Rosa: Rosa Ponselle Sings Verdi (1918-1928) Naxos Historical

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