Artist Profile: Rosa Ponselle, One Of the Great American Sopranos Of The Early 20th Centuries

By David Salazar

Rosa Ponselle, born on Jan. 22, 1897, is widely considered one of the greatest American sopranos of all time.

The Meriden, Connecticut native was born Rosa Ponzillo and showed natural music gifts from her earliest years. She seemed more inclined toward a career in instrumental music, but eventually shifted toward a career in cabaret. She started off as a silent-movie accompanist and by 1914, she had a strong reputation as a singer.

She sang in the 1912 Broadway music “The Girl From Brighten” and was subsequently hired to engage with her sister in a “sister act” between 1915 and 1918. She would eventually manage to audition for both Victor Maurel and Enrico Caruso, who would get her an audition with Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the Met’s General Manager. He was so taken by her singing that she was offered a contract for 1918-19.

Her Met debut came on Nov. 15, 1918 as Leonora in “La Forza del Destino,” alongside Caruso. It was also her first performance on any opera stage. She would go on to a career a leading lady at the Metropolitan Opera.

Outside the U.S. she only sang in London at the Royal Opera House and Italy.

She retired after 1937 and reportedly continued performing for friends at home. She also worked at the Baltimore Civic Opera Company, giving coaching and voice lessons to young singers; among those that worked with her were Sherrill Milnes, Beverly Sills, and Plácido Domingo, among others.

She died on May 25, 1981 at age 84 after losing a long battle with bone marrow cancer.

Signature Roles

For many, the soprano’s greatest role was that of Bellini’s “Norma,” a role she performed prominently (she appeared in the role 29 times at the Met). Interestingly, the roles she most performed at the Metropolitan Opera were those of Sélika in “L’Africaine,” which she sang it a whopping 35 times starting in 1923 through 1934 and the title role in “La Gioconda;” she performed the latter 36 times.

Watch and Listen

Here is a recording of “La Traviata.”

And here are a few albums.


Opera Wiki