Sunday, January 23, 2011

Heroine of the Weekend

Welcome to the weekend, everyone! Sorry it's been so quiet this week--I've been scrambling to finish a project and get back to the WIP, but I'm glad to take a break and celebrate this weekend's Heroine, opera singer Rosa Ponselle, who was born on January 22, 1897. (When I was a kid, I got hooked on opera, and my grandparents had a vast collection of old records! One of them was of Ponselle, and had a glamorous photo of her on the cover. I loved it).

Ponselle was born Rosa Ponzillo, the youngest of 3 children of Italian immigrants, in Connecticut. Her gorgeous voice was obvious at a very young age, and she sang on any possible occasion despite very little training. Her sister was a cabaret singer, and through her Rosa found work as a silent movie accompanist. She would sing ballads to entertain the audience while the reels were changed, and by 1914 she had a job at the San Carlino theater which led her to vaudeville along with her sister. "Those Tailored Italian Girls" as they were known were a big hit on the vaudeville circuit. After leaving the act, she met with an agent/voice teacher who persuaded the famous tenor Enrico Caruso to hear her sing. He was so deeply impressed with her talent, he arranged for her to audition at the Metropolitan Opera, which led to a contract for the 1918-19 season. From vaudeville to grand opera in a few short years!

She made her debut on Nov. 15, 1918 as Leonora in La forza del destino opposite Caruso, her very first opera performance of any sort. The stage fright that would plague her for her whole career almost derailed her at first, but she rallied to an enormous success. The New York Times declared "she possesses a voice of natural beauty that may prove a gold mine...with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich, and ductile, brilliant in the upper register." She went on that season to perform in Cavalleria rusticana, Oberon, and premier of Breil's The Legend (an opera she said would "stink up a cat box").

She was put under a long-term contract at the Met and scored triumphs in La Juive, William Tell, Aida, Don Carlos, and many others. In 1927 she debuted in what many considered her greatest role in Bellini's Norma. She also had a busy concert career, traveling from coast to coast, but she rarely performed at other opera houses aside from a few appearances at Covent Garden, where she made her debut as Violetta, and once in Florence (she declined to appear at La Scala, after seeing the harsh treatment the uber-picky audiences there doled out!). In 1935, she sang her first Carmen (by this time her upper register had started to fade, and she did better in the mezzo roles). She sang for the last time on an opera as Carmen in Cleveland on April 22, 1937. She had already parted with the Met over contract disagreements.

In 1936 she married a wealthy man from Baltimore, Carle Jackson, with whom she built a luxurious home in Maryland called Villa Pace, where she retired. The marriage didn't last, and the rocky breakup caused a nervous breakdown. Once she recovered she never sang in public again, though she would perform for her friends, and in 1954 RCA Victor made recordings of her at her home. She helped found the Baltimore Civic Opera Company and taught promising singers, including Beverly Sills and Placido Domingo. She died of bone marrow cancer at Villa Pace on May 25, 1981.

A few sources on her life:
James A. Drake, Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography (1997)
Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Rosa Ponselle: American Diva (1997)
Rosa Ponselle with James A. Drake, Rosa Ponselle: A Singer's Life (1982)

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