Anytime is a good time to remember Rosa Ponselle, even if you never heard her in person or listened to one of her extraordinary recordings. For it was she who unwittingly championed the American born and trained singer. Of course, there had been Americans on the roster of the Metropolitan Opera from its first season in 1883, but before Ponselle there had been no leading singer who had not first made his or her mark abroad. In contrast, the Met was the first operatic stage on which she appeared, and her performances outside the United States were few.
Caruso found hershe was then Rosa Ponzilloand his friend Giulio Gatti-Casazza, former general manager of the Met, gambled on her. If she succeeds, Gatti told Caruso, American singers will have the doors opened to them. If she fails, I will be on the first boat back to Italy, and New York will never see my face again. Gatti was not being melodramatic. The step was a big one, as it involved an operatically inexperienced, twenty-one-year-old soprano. But her talent was so big.
When Gatti made the decision to engage herat $150 per weekit was to his credit that he presented Ponselle not in a small role or buried her debut deep in the season. She first appeared at the Met in the opening week of the 191819 season as Leonora in La forza del destino opposite Caruso and Giuseppe De Luca. This was the Met premiere of the opera. The newcomer is American, began James Gibbons Hunekers review in The New York Times the following morning. She is young, she is comely, and she is tall and solidly built. 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, ductile, brilliant and flexible in the upper register.
Rosa began at the top and twenty years later she left at the top. In the decades between, the lot of the American singer improved dramatically as Gatti had hoped it would. She was followed by such exceptional home grown talents as Lawrence Tibbett, her sister Carmela (with whom Rosa had begun her career in vaudeville), Grace Moore, Gladys Swarthout, Rose Bampton, John Charles Thomas and Josephine Antoine.
Gatti, of course, did not strike gold every time. He also added to the Mets roster such now forgotten Americans as Marion Talley, Leonora Corona and Hilde Burke. But on the whole his batting average was extraordinary. And while singers such as Richard Crooks, Charles Kullman and Risë Stevens would go to Europe before joining the Met, it was no longer the necessity it had once been.
Gattis championing of the American singer was also timely. Although no one could have known it at the time the world was on the verge of a second global conflict that would seal the U.S. off from Europe and make it dependent on its own natural resources. One such splendid resource was the American singer. Thanks to Rosas success and example, the stage was set for such emerging artists as Helen Traubel, Eleanor Steber, Leonard Warren, Richard Tucker, Nadine Conner and Regina Resnik.
During nearly two decades with the Met, Rosa appeared in twenty-three roles. She was a renowned Gioconda, Norma, Violetta and Carmen. She also sang some curious repertory (Lalos Le roi dYs and something called The Night of Zoraima), and oddly, she never appeared as a Puccini or Wagner heroine. Both Elsa and Tosca would have suited her voice ideally, as the recordings she made of arias from both testify.
In the 1930s, Rosa slimmed down to movie-star proportions and was made-up as operas answer to Joan Crawford. The one piece of evidence we have of her in action is a Hollywood screen test from the 1930s, which proves she was a vibrant lively figure on stage with an uncommon mobility to her features. But Rosa could have weighed 200 pounds and stood still, and she would have been a legend because of her voice.
Was there ever such a sound? Such a perfect balance of richness, volume and ease of emission? If so, it has to predate the phonograph. Huneker called it gold, but there was more velvet than metal to it, and the color was darker than it was bright. It was like a shower of rubies. She had low notes that were plumier and weightier than most contraltos (Karin Branzell once told me she was almost embarrassed to sing with Ponselle, for Rosa sounded more like contralto than Branzell herself), and she could soar upward to a full throated high Ca note she fearedwithout a break in register or line. There was power, emotion, taste, sure intonation and remarkable flexibility to her singing.
One of my recurring regrets is that I was born too late to have heard her liveto have experienced a voice that set standards by which singers are still being measured and usually found wanting. But though I missed out on the singer, I was lucky enough to know the person, and I have indelible memories of weekends at her home Villa Pace outside of Baltimore in the Green Spring Valley.
These were times filled with good food, good talk and Rosas magnetic personality. She was sixty-three when I first met her during intermission at a performance by the Baltimore Opera, which she served as artistic director. She was still a handsome, vivacious woman and wore a dress that was tightly cinched at the waist and cut low to display several of her best features. During my first weekend at Villa Pace I discovered that Rosa the human being was as special as Rosa the artist.
She loved people and entertaining and was a riveting story-teller. A lively part of the household were Rosas dogs. At one point she had over a dozen poodles, and I remember one evening after dinner, while chatting in her living room (the guests included Milton Eisenhower, the presidents brother), the door to sun room suddenly burst open and a flood of yapping, eager canines came bounding in, jumping on top of the guests. Rosa roared with laughter.
Then there was the squirrel. It had been found on the grounds of Villa Pace when a tree was cut down, and Rosa built a cage for it in the sun room. One day she insisted I go into the cage with her to feed it, and the animal leapt on my head and begin rooting in my hair. I was terrified. Again Rosa roared.
One afternoon by her pool, she ordered me to jump into the deep end with her. I did as I was told. Now just swim beneath me, she directed, and then tell the others if I move. It was Rosas party trick. She supported herself in the water solely by filling her lungs to their capacity with air. This allowed her to float freely without so much as wiggling her toes. With breath control like that, no wonder she had such an endless legato.
The same afternoon, the subject of her studio recordings came up. She was very firm in her dislike for many of them. When I protested, she said We had to fight the clock. Arias were cut and rushed, and they had trouble miking my voice. None of my records, except for a few songs, really reflected the way I sang. If you want to hear what I truly sounded like, listen to my radio broadcasts.
I found out what she meant a few years later when I heard for the first time songs and arias from a remarkable series of concerts given between April 1934 and April 1936, which were sponsored by Chesterfield cigarettes and conducted by André Kostelanetz. Rosa, of course, was long a popular favorite on the air waves, and during her career she gave sixty-two radio concerts between 1927 and 1937. Interestingly enough, the first and the last of these were sponsored by Victor. But the best of what has survived are the Chesterfield concerts. In his memoirs Kostelanetz explained why these air checks are of so exceptional a presence and quality.
When [Ponselle] first sang at rehearsal in the Hudson Theater on Forty-fourth Street, our broadcasting studio until the end of the Chesterfield series in 1938, it was glorious to hear....The only problem was she was so loud I couldnt hear the orchestra. I gave the baton to Alex Cores, my assistant and went into the control room. Her voice was coming through so strong on the high notes that the needle, which should register ideally in the center of the meter, was all the way to the right.
The engineer cut the volume way down. He controlled Rosas voice in such a way that the louder she sang, the softer it came through, and vice versa. It was not clear who was in control...Well, when I told our engineer how powerfully Rosa was heard in the hall, he suggested that she sing more softly. But I just couldnt imagine her voice, which was something close to a primitive force, having to be restrained. And I also did not feel justified in asking her to, in effect, reinterpret the whole piece just for the microphone.
I decided it was the moment for an experiment: why not move the mike away from her and from the stage altogether, hang it out over the sixth or seventh row? An hour or so later we were set up. Alex took the baton, and I posted myself in the control room once more. The effect was unbelievably beautiful. Rosas voice was in all its glory, the orchestra was heard. And something else happened: the quality of the sound was immensely improved, the overtones were beautiful. We were all in a state of happy bewilderment that so simple a change, and one prompted by nothing more than a whim, could make such a significant difference...The poet was right, distance does lend enchantment.
In all, Rosa did thirty-four broadcasts for Chesterfield of which thirteen have been preserved (eleven of the thirteen are in this set and the remaining two will followed in a second Marston volume coupled with the existing non-Chesterfield broadcasts). The Chesterfield programs included a number of songs and arias she never recorded commercially. For example, there is her luxuriant singing of Printemps qui commence from Samson et Dalila, a surprising Batti, batti from Don Giovanni, a grand Divinités du Styx from Alceste and a riveting aria from Romano Romanis opera Fedra, an opera she sang only at Londons Covent Garden.
There is also the delight of Bizets Ouvre ton coeur, a moving Danny Boy, a vibrant Clavelitos and a full-throated My Hero from Oscar Strauss The Chocolate Soldier. Beyond these, many of the arias and songs she also recorded in the studio come across here with even greater freshness and immediacy. Rosa, incidentally, took the money she earned from The Chesterfield Hour and invested it in two elaborate diamond clips, which could be worn separately or as a single piece of jewelry. She was inordinately proud of themas well she should have beenand always referred to them as her Chesterfield diamonds.
Incidentally, when a number of songs and arias from the Kostelanetz shows were first scheduled for an LP issue many years ago, Rosa picked her favorites among themthe four Carmen arias from 1936, the Ave Maria based on the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, Bartletts A Dream, Strausss Blue Danube Waltz, Addio del passato from La traviata and Ernest Charless When I have sung my songs. The gods were good to Rosa, and she was good to her gifts. There was another twenty years of professional singing left in her throat when she stopped. But her life style during the forty years left to her proved she had no regrets, even if we did. But we shouldnt be too greedy. Few have given so much in so short a time. In paying tribute to Rosa on her eightieth birthday, the late Walter Legge wrote When some aggressive socialist says to me, All men are created equal, my instinctive response is to answer, Bring me another Ponselle or Caruso... then we can start talking.
Don't hold your breath. There'll never be another Ponselle.
© John Ardoin, 1999
John Ardoin is author of The Callas Legacy, Callas at Juilliardthe Master Classes and The Furtwängler Record.