America's Greatest Home Grown Diva -- Rosa Ponselle
James C. Mancuso
Rosa Ponselle set among the great singers of her day. From the lower left-hand corner, clockwise: Amelita Galli-Curci, Rise Stevens, Lily Pons, Rosa Ponselle, Inge Borkh. In the center: Frances Alda
(From the Charles Jahant Collection, via U. S. A. Library of Congress.)
On January 22, 1997 the nation -- particularly those who follow the musical arts --began the celebration of one of the most outstanding examples of the successes of those who participated in the great Italy-to-The-United-States avventura. That day marked the 100th anniversary of th birth of Rosa Melba Ponzilla, who became the most outstanding female opera singer born and trained in The United States. She achieved that status under the name of Rosa Ponselle. Rosa was born in Meridan, Connecticut -- into an immigrant family which operated a bakery/grocery store. The family name was Ponzilla,
Very early in life she and her sister, Carmela, showed unusual singing talent. After some training to sing soprano roles in the church choir, she and her sister sang in the local five-and-ten-cent store to demonstrate sheet music. From that position they moved into singing songs to accompany still slides shown in the early movie theaters. She then was given roles in stage shows in New Haven.
Carmela, who was eight years older than Rosa, moved to New York City, with the aim of singing her way into operatic roles. After making a name for herself, Carmela -- "Sister," to Rosa -- convinced the family that "Babe" should join her in New York. In 1915, a decline in the family's fortunes were such that Rosa did go to New York to join her sister in creating a sister act in the vaudeville theaters. When Rosa arrived in New York, Carmela was shocked at the extent to which Rosa had become overweight. Carmela's agent, a well-known impresario, refused to take her as a client. Under Carmela's stern hand, Rosa began a diet and beautification program that eventually turned her into one of the most beauteous singers to sing on the opera stage. Carmela's discipline was backed by their living situation. Their parents were more assured that the girls were living in a proper situation knowing that they were Rosa was rooming with an Italian-born, working class couple who even spoke the Neapolitan dialect that had been spoken in the Ponzilla home in Meridan.
Their early engagements as a pair took Rosa and Carmela to all the Italian-American centers of theater and entertainment. Their act, in which they performed a range of music from Home, Sweet Home, through the ever popular O Sole Mio, and the immediately recognizable barcarole from Offenbach's opera, Tales of Hoffman. They frequently shared the stage with the star of Italian-American comedy, Eduardo Migliaccio, known to Italian-American audiences as Farfariello -- "The Little Butterfly." They would be billed as "Those Italian Girls with Operatic Voices." Singing the New York City circuit, they first appeared on the stage together at the Star Theater, located on the edge of Italian Harlem -- the Italian section of New York City which Robert Orsi describes in his 1985 book, The Madonna of 115th Street. When they began to travel about the country, they pushed their Italian heritage to the limit, and were able to convince media people and audiences that they had been born in Italy. As their acts improved and their fame spread, they played the more illustrious theaters in New York City. Their singing was praised by reporters and critics, who wrote of them as beautiful, accomplished performers.
Throughout this period of their success, they regularly sent check to their parents, so that eventually the family was clear of debt and comfortably settled.
Gradually Rosa and Carmela, particularly Carmela, began to think of
an operatic career. Carmela began to study with a well known teacher, William
Thorner, who also agreed to take Rosa as a pupil. These were the first
lessons which Rosa had as a professional.
Rosa reached a level of skill such that they came to the attention of the manager of The Metropolitan Opera, Giulio Gatti-Casazza. Gatti introduced her to the audiences without great publicity, fearing that she would not be positively reviewed by the critics. The confidence of himself and of Enrico Caruso, however, was clear in that she made her debut at The Metropolitan Opera -- at the top, singing with Caruso, in Verdi's La Forza del Destino. On the day of Ponselle's debut, November 15, 1918, one of New York's most prominent critics, Olin Downes, missed a train and decided to attend the performance to fill in time until the next train. Ponselle's performance and Downes' exuberant review set off an acclaimed career that was to span 18 years (1918-1936) . At the Metropolitan Opera, Rosa Ponselle sang the heroine roles in 22 different operas, singing the repertory of the greatest of the Italian composers -- Verdi, Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Mascagni -- as well as roles written by the other noted composers. It is notable that, despite the range of her roles, she never sang a Puccini heroine role!
Carmela, the sister who had most fervently aspired to an operatic career, also sang mezzo-soprano roles at the Metropolitan opera; singing there during the period of Rosa's greatest fame, from 1925 through 1935.
After her too-early retirement from the stage, Rosa rarely performed professionally. As late as 1954, however, she made recordings which revealed that she still could produce a lovely, full sound, though limited in range. Ponselle maintained her renown in the opera world by teaching in Baltimore, Maryland, up until her death in 1981.
The most knowledgeable critics have judged La diva Ponselle to have been not only the finest singer to have been nurtured and promoted in The United States, but also to have possessed one of the most gorgeous soprano voices to appear in this century. Her singing was invariably praised for the quality of its tone, its wide range, its evenness, and it effectiveness in communicating the intense emotionality of the dramatic action, particularly in the demanding roles of Giuseppe Verdi.
To celebrate the hundredth anniversary of her birth, The United States Postal Service will issue a stamp bearing a likeness of Rosa Ponselle. Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, who recently published a biography of G. Verdi, will bring out her biography of Ponselle during this year. More quietly, hundreds of thousands of people will purchase the special releases of Rosa Ponselle's recordings and will luxuriate in the sounds of a voice that developed in a Connecticut home in which her parents spoke the musical Neapolitan language.