Lily Pons was one of the great opera stars of the early 20th century.
Born on April 12, 1898 in Draguignan, France, she started to study the piano at the Paris Conservatory, winning the top prize at age 15. During World War I, she played the piano and sang for soldiers. In 1925, she was encouraged to take singing lessons, ultimately making her debut in 1928. She sang in many provincial French companies until landing an audition with the Met Opera, who engaged her to be the successor to Amelita Galli-Curci.
On Jan. 3, 1931, she made her Met debut (she signed a recording contract with RCA Victor the previous year) and became a fixture with the company, performing over 300 times until 1960. She would also appear at the Opéra Garnier, Royal Opera House, La Monnaie, Teatro Colón, Chicago Opera, and Fort Worth Opera, among others.
In addition to her singing career, she appeared on three RKO films and was renowned for her ability to market her persona. Pons appeared as the face for Lockheed airplanes, Knox gelatin, and Libby’s tomato juice. She also appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Colgate Comedy Hour, and The Dave Garroway Show.
She was awarded the Croix de Lorraine and the Légion d’honneur by the Government of France.
Pons sang a number of coloratura roles throughout her career, but none were more iconic in her voice than that of “Lakmé” and “Lucia di Lammermoor.”
The former has perhaps never been surpassed by any soprano since and was the role which Pons made her opera debut proper in 1928. During her time at the Met she appeared in the a whopping 50 times; the opera has not been showcased at the Met since Pons’ retirement.
As for “Lucia,” it was the first and last opera she sang with the Met and she sang it 93 times with the company. Her final “Lucia” performance came at Fort Worth Opera in 1962; she sang alongside a 21-year-old Plácido Domingo.
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Watch and Listen
Here is a recording from the Met of Pons in “La Fille du Régiment.”
And here she is singing the Bell Song from “Lakmé” in the film “I Dream Too Much.”