‘The Queen of Queens in All of Singing’ – A Deep Dive into the Genius of Soprano Rosa Ponselle

By Paul Thomason
(Credit: Metropolitan Opera)

“It was the most glorious voice that ever came from any woman’s throat in the Italian repertory, with a precocious sense of line, style, and emotional honesty,” declared the legendary record producer Walter Legge, whose wife happened to be soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. “Ponselle began and ended prima donna assoluta.”

Rosa Ponselle’s story really is the plot of a rather over-the-top TV movie: When she made her Metropolitan Opera debut on November 15, 1918—as Leonora in the Met’s first-ever performance of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” opposite Enrico Caruso—she was just 21 years old and had never appeared on the operatic stage. Until then her entire professional life had consisted of playing the piano and singing in cafes and movie theaters around her home town of Meriden, Connecticut, and then as one-half of a vaudeville act with her older sister, Carmella, who was a mezzo. As “Those Tailored Girls, the Ponzillo Sisters” they had risen through the ranks of the Keith Circuit until they were performing at the Palace Theater in New York.

But the sisters wanted to sing opera, so Carmella and Rosa began working with a fashionable singing teacher who was well-connected with the Met, William Thorner (Rosa later claimed that though Thorner was Carmella’s teacher, she had only used him as a manager). One day in the spring of 1918 who should show up at the studio but the great Enrico Caruso himself. After listening to her sing, Rosa would later recall: “He sat down next to me—I was nervous as a kitten—and said, pointing to his throat, ‘You have it here.’ Then he pointed to his heart and said, ‘And you have it here.’ Then he raised his hand to his head and tapped his temple with his finger. ‘And whether you have it up here, only time will tell.’”

Caruso arranged an audition with the Met’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who listened and then told the young singer to go learn two arias, “Pace, Pace” from “Forza” andCasta Diva” from Bellini’s “Norma”, and to return in two weeks. Today most operatic professionals would claim it is insane to expect such a young singer to learn and perform those two arias in such a short amount of time, and probably suicide to then sing them at such an important audition.

But Ponselle did, and was so nervous she promptly fainted partway through Casta Diva. Gatti-Casazza, however, had heard enough and hired her. She was given only a beginner’s contract, being paid by the week ($150) and not the performance, but the roles she was required to know were all star parts: the lead soprano roles in “Aida,” “Trovatore,” “Ballo in Maschera,” and the Verdi “Requiem;” the title roles in “La Gioconda” and “Tosca;” Santuzza in “Cavalleria;” and Leonora in “La Forza del Destino.” All had to be learned over the summer.

The idea that someone who has only sung in cabaret and musicals could successfully transition to singing such enormous roles at a major opera house is unthinkable today. But a hundred years ago there were no microphones in theaters, so all performers had to be able to project their voice to the back of the theater and to the top balcony. It did not matter if they were singing “Danny Boy” or Brünnhilde’s Immolation Scene: if they wanted a career on stage, they had to be able to project their voice unaided. Rosa already had this skill. The “Ponzillo Sisters” had sung the usual popular songs that were expected, but they sometimes added a few extra operatic flourishes to them. For example, their 1919 recording of “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye: includes a delightfully exuberant cadenza toward the end that would be right at home in operas by Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti.

Whether she was singing popular songs or Bellini’s “Norma,” Rosa Ponselle’s voice was one of the miracles of the 20th Century. It was enormous—it was said she had a closed-mouth hum that could fill Constitution Hall in Washington, DC—it was as dark and rich as a sumptuous port wine, it was utterly seamless, perfect from the very top to the very bottom and her technique was flawless. When she sang coloratura every note was exactly on pitch, there was no sliding into a tone. Her runs were like a string of perfectly matched pearls, there was no aspirated “ha, ha, ha” to separate the notes yet each note was distinct.

Her November 1919 recording of “Merce, dilette amiche” from Verdi’s “I Vespri Siciliani” captures some of the excitement of her Met debut since it was made only a year later. Of course, this acoustic recording does not even begin to convey the enormous size of Ponselle’s voice or its opulent sound, but her prodigious technique is evident.

The reviews for her astonishing debut were much like the reviews for the next several years. The audience went wild, but the critics wanted more from her. “It is vocal gold, with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich and ductile,” wrote James Huneker in the New York Times, and then he added that she occasionally forced her voice, turning the tone steely and faulted her for occasional “monotony in the tone color…nuance, nuance, nuance. That must be mastered.”

Or as W. J. Henderson, who had heard every major singer in New York since the 1880s, put it in the Sun, “She is the possessor of one of the most voluptuous dramatic soprano voices that present-day opera goers have heard. Some day doubtless Miss Ponselle will learn to sing and then she will be an artist.”

Ponselle worked and worked and worked. There was a lot riding on her shoulders. There had been American stars at the Met before her, sopranos like Geraldine Farrar and Emma Eames, for instance. But they had arrived at the Met after making big careers in Europe. Ponselle was a 100 percent product of the U. S. of A., homegrown, home-trained. Her enormous success opened the door for other American singers to star at the Met without first going to Europe. It pays to note that Farrar, who was as big a star in her day as a singer could be, once remarked, “When discussing singers, there are two you must first put aside: Rosa Ponselle and Enrico Caruso, then you may begin.” Ponselle was the first soprano to sing Verdi’s “Luisa Miller” and “Don Carlo” at the Met. Her Aida, Leonora in “Il Trovatore” and Elvira in “Ernani” are legendary. Her 1928 recording of “Forza’s” “La vergine degli angeli” with Ezio Pinza is a marvelous example of the magical combination of Ponselle and Verdi.

It was in 1927—the year before that recording—that Ponselle moved from being a stupendous singer to becoming a legendary artist. It was the year she sang her first “Norma”, the Mount Everest of the dramatic soprano repertoire. For many people, it was considered the high point of her career.  She spent two years preparing the role.

“I would lie in bed very late at night—maybe three or four in the morning—and I would sight-read the score. I would sing it to myself—sing it in my head, in other words,” she once explained in an interview that took place decades after her retirement. “It was a great challenge. I still get butterflies when I think of it. I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about how I was going to do in “Norma.”

But as stupendous as many of Ponselle’s recordings are, they often give little indication of how she sang the music on stage because of the technical limitations of the recordings. Everything had to fit onto a side of a 78 r.p.m. record which played for about four minutes. Tempos had to be speeded up to finish the aria in that time, phrases she slowed down in the theater had to be sung in strict time, held notes and trills often had to be cut short.

Fortunately, some of her Saturday afternoon broadcasts from the Met have survived and so we can hear what she was like in actual performance. The earliest broadcast of a complete opera with her is the January 5, 1935 “La Traviata.” It is one of the greatest performances of a Verdi opera extant. In October 1985 the New York Times’ brilliant music critic Will Crutchfield reviewed a recording of the Act two scene between Violetta and Germont: “And finally there is the big “Traviata” scene from 1935, with Rosa Ponselle and Lawrence Tibbett. Words fail this one, simply because if the right words were reserved only for such performance, then daily criticism would be a drab thing while waiting for them. Let me put it in this unpoetic way: If all the recordings of the scene were ranked from 1 to 10, with this one being a 10, the very best of the others would be clustered somewhere between 4 and 7.”

One would think that the Met would do all that it could to keep such a singer on its roster, but they did not. Ponselle added “Carmen” to her repertoire in December 1935. The reviews were savage.

“We have never heard Miss Ponselle sing so badly, and we have seldom seen the part enacted in such an artificial and generally unconvincing manner,” was how Olin Downes began his New York Times review. Much of the public disagreed, including a number of famous sopranos. “Mary Garden phoned me and told me I just have to see your next performance,” Grace Moore told Ponselle. “She says you’re the greatest Carmen since Emma Calvé!”

At the end of the following season Ponselle agreed to sing seven different operas at the Met for the upcoming 1937-38 season, but she also wanted Cilea’s “Adriana Lecouvreur” revived for her.

“This was the first and only revival I ever requested and it seemed entirely reasonable,” she remembered. The Met said no. Ponselle offered to sing the first 12 performances at no pay. The Met still refused. Her last operatic performance was as Carmen on April 17, 1937 when the Met was on tour in Cleveland, Ohio. Fortunately, it was a broadcast and has survived.

Ponselle’s career was almost entirely at the Metropolitan Opera. She sang three seasons at London’s Covent Garden (1929-31) and gave three performances of “La Vestale” in Florence in 1933. La Scala was very interested in hiring her, but before she left Florence, she attended a performance of “I Puritani” with the great tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. He cracked on a high note and the audience turned vicious.

“The incident had a shattering effect on me,” she later recalled. “For the first time, I saw what an Italian audience could do to one of its favorite tenors.” She promptly sent a telegram to her agent: “Forget Milan. Only in America. Rosa.”

After she left the Met, Ponselle sang a few concerts and in 1939 recorded eight songs for Victor Talking Machine Company. In 1954 she made a number of recordings from her home near Baltimore, known as the “Villa Pace” recordings, that show her voice was still in remarkable shape. Fortunately, we also have several CDs of her appearances on radio programs like The Chesterfield Hour and the General Motors Hour. Her singing of arias on these programs give a much better idea of how she sounded in the theater than do her commercial aria recordings.

This September 27, 1936 broadcast of “Aida’s” “Ritorna vincito” is a window into a legendary time when opera was a living, vibrant art form and its audience expected to be profoundly moved by what happened on stage. Ponselle is not “performing” Aida. She IS Aida, desperately torn by the situation she finds herself in. It is impossible not to feel her anguish.

Singing like this is what prompted Maria Callas to say, “Ponselle was the greatest singer of us all.” And Luciano Pavarotti to call her “The Queen of Queens in all of singing.”

(Recording from General Motors Hour, September 27, 1936. Originally broadcast in New York City)


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