From The Metropolitan Opera Archives:

Rosa Ponselle

1897 - 1981

Born in Meriden, Connecticut, on January 22, 1897, Rosa Ponselle began very near the top of her profession. Her operatic debut on November 15, 1918 as Leonora in the first Metropolitan Opera performance of La Forza del Destino established her as one of the leading voices of the time. Ponselle benefited from General Manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza's willingness to trust young American singers with important responsibilities. Gatti provided the opportunities, while paying very small salaries, and leaving the singer to rise to the occasion.

For her first season, Rosa Ponselle was signed to a beginner's contract which gave her $150 a week. With her sister Carmela, she had been appearing in vaudeville for several years around the East Coast. Now with Enrico Caruso as her leading tenor in her first operatic appearance anywhere, Ponselle was an instant success. "...what a promising debut," raved James Huneker in The New York Times. "Added to her personal attractiveness, she possesses a voice of natural beauty that may prove a gold mine; it is vocal gold, anyhow, with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich and ductile. Brilliant and flexible in the upper register...." She sang twenty-three times that season and only leading roles, Leonora, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, and two other premieres, Rezia in Weber's Oberon and Carmelita in Briel's Legend. Looking back, one is reminded that Ponselle's success was not instantaneous. Although she signed a contract to record for Columbia Records within days of her debut and soon began to make lucrative concert tours, there was a long period of critical restraint. Considering her again in 1920 when she was Elisabetta in the Met premiere of Verdi's Don Carlo, Huneker still had reservations: "Rosa Ponselle, on whose big shoulders rested ugly robes, sang with power and a lovely, floating tone. Disappointing as she often is, you feel that the future is hers if she so wills it. The native richness of her vocal and dramatic endowments - for there is plenty of temperament, latent as yet - ought to bear wonderful fruit sometime." When Ernani was revived the next year, her Elvira was declared "nothing short of glorious" although one critic suggested that some of her music had been transposed downwards. With the 1925 Met premiere of Spontini's Vestale she had arrived: "In singing Giulia, Rosa Ponselle has taken that big step forward which it has always been in her power to take, but which her more exacting admirers had begun to despair of her ever taking, so easy is it in these days of neglected vocal art to let well enough its best it achieved such nobility of tone and purity and elevation of style ....And her acting, in its dignity, its plasticity, its significant directness, its fine new reticence, kept pace with her singing." [Town Topics]

This triumph was followed by Bellini's Norma in 1927. In those days before the Bellini resurgence, there was always a sense of occasion when someone was entrusted with the title role; Lilli Lehmann had been the last protagonist at the Met in 1892. "[Ponselle] has learned to strike the attitudes and outfling the gestures that were essential parts of 'the grand style.' She can sustain the long Bellinian melody; hold it serene and crystalline; give it depth and abundance, stir its sensibility and suggestion." [H. T. Parker, Boston Evening Transcript]

We spend so much of our time contemplating singers, applauding them when they succeed, complaining when they don't, and always wanting them to be better, it is good to have the reminder that Rosa Ponselle, with one of the great natural vocal instruments, worked to make the most of it. In 1930, W. J. Henderson summed up her achievement: "If she had not had the good sense to see her own deficiencies and to set about improving her art, she would have sunk into comparative insignificance in spite of the exceptional voice which nature bestowed upon her. As it is now, she is without doubt the foremost dramatic soprano of the Italian opera."

Sadly, there was not much more time for a soprano who was then only thirty-five years old. After Norma she had sung Luisa Miller, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, and Violetta in La Traviata. Her next role, Zoraima in Montemezzi's La Notte di Zoraima in 1931 was musically insignificant. More and more of her music was transposed; her last complete Norma was in January 1933. In 1935 Ponselle added a final role to her repertoire, Carmen. A great success at the boxoffice, it was a critical disaster. She appeared as Carmen and Santuzza for two seasons and then left the Met after a performance of Carmen on tour in Boston, April 17, 1937. Her attempt at Hollywood was a failure (even though her Carmen screen test remains a valuable document of her theatrical presence). She wanted to return in Adriana Lecouvreur, but the Met wouldn't stage it for her. There were a few concert tours and then her last appearances in February 1939. She was forty-two years old.


Rosa Ponselle, a vaudeville
photograph from 1917.

Rosa Ponselle as Leonora
in La Forza del Destino.
Photograph by White Studio.

Rosa Ponselle as Norma.
Photograph by Herman Mishkin.