Rosa Ponselle in 1919 | Photo: Bain, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Rosa Ponselle: The Unmatched Voice of the 20th Century

“No more lush outpouring of sound has been heard in our time than the Ponselle voice at its prime.” – Julian Moses (in Guide to American Recordings)

When one says, ‘greatest singer of the 20th century’, one thinks of two artistes: Enrico Caruso, as the greatest male singer, and Rosa Ponselle, as the greatest of the women. “So unique was the voice and artistry of Ponselle that in the 20 years of her career at the Metropolitan, she had no rivals. She reigned as Queen just as Caruso did as King of the operatic world,” wrote Edward J. Smith, an operatic music label owner. It has been mentioned that the three major requisites for an operatic career are, “voice, voice and voice”. Fortunately, Ponselle had all three ‘voices’—her vocal range was in excess of three octaves. No dramatic soprano was able to match her flexibility—her runs, trills, scales—she had them all.

Ponselle used to appear in theatres and vaudeville with her elder sister Carmela. In 1918 her voice coach William Thorner brought her to the attention of Caruso and opera manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who chose to cast her as Donna Leonora in the Metropolitan Opera’s revival of Verdi’s La Forza del Destino. This was the first operatic performance of Ponselle’s life. Her debut took place opposite Caruso on 15th November 1918 at the Met. In Forza del Destino, Ponselle says “I arrived at the theatre in a state of cold panic. I was numb. I couldn’t lift my arms.” However, that panic did not hinder her performance. A reviewer in Musical Courier wrote: “It is no exaggeration to say that she made a sensational impression and was sensationally received.”

She went on to enjoy extraordinary successes in Ernani, Don Carlos, La Gioconda and La traviata, among many others. The Ernani aria was guaranteed to send the audience into a frenzy. Nobody in living memory has sung that aria with such a command of tones and a prolonged trill. The audiences waited for the famous trill that brought the house down.

Her singing of arias and duets from Aida, Forza and Il trovatore are legendary. She is said to have regarded Aida as the greatest opera ever written. Ponselle’s greatest role was, according to many, in Norma. With the revival of the Vincenzo Bellini opera at the Met in 1927, Ponselle achieved perhaps the greatest triumph of her career. The eminent critic W. J. Henderson wrote that with Norma, “she added to her repertoire an embodiment which will increase her fame and which deepens the impression created in recent seasons that the ripening of her talent has been the result of a growing sincerity of purpose and earnest study.” The story goes that Maria Callas once told her friend, the English critic, Ida Cook, “I think you know that Rosa Ponselle was the greatest singer of us all. I listened to her constantly and wore out countless recordings. As soon as one was worn, I would hasten to replace it. “

Throughout her career, Ponselle had the advantage of working with great conductors like Bodanzky, Bellezza, Ettore Panizza and Serafin. She says, “It was their belief that if an artiste could thoroughly identify herself with her role, the stage action would be a natural outcome of her impersonation. It would express itself with a sincerity and conviction that the most painstaking stage direction would not give. Stage action should depend to a great extent on spontaneous interpretation.”

Ponselle was the first American without European training to make her debut in a major role at the Met. But the “agony of nerves” never left her and was responsible for her premature retirement. Baritone Robert Merrill narrates an episode about Aida and Ponselle. In 1947, ten years after her premature farewell, she made a rare trip to New York and was a guest at a dinner party. Merrill is said to have recounted the incident as: “We were sitting in the salon after dinner, all gathered around the piano. Lenny Bernstein sat down and began to noodle the keys. Rosa sat next to him. Blanche Thebom and I stood in the curve of the piano. Lenny played the entrance to Ritorna Vincitor. Then, suddenly out of the blue this tremendous voice rang out. Everyone just stared, open-mouthed. Then they started to cry. Rosa sang the entire aria with astounding vocal opulence, feeling and drama. That moment of dark, glorious song still remains a thrilling memory.”

Luciano Pavarotti has written: “Rosa Ponselle, almost more than any other singer, had the unique combination of voice and musical profundity to advance operatic interpretation by decades, simply by the sheer genius of her artistry … Whenever young singers approach me and ask whom they should pattern their singing after, I always respond: ‘Make a sincere study of the recordings of Rosa Ponselle.’ To every young singer in any age, ours, or some distant one, this will always be excellent advice. Rosa Ponselle is the Queen of Queens in all of singing.”

Besides the many of her recordings available in the Stuart-Liff Collection, I would recommend her arias from Aida, Norma, Il trovatore, Ernani and La vestale from the record set, The Art of Rosa Ponselle (RCA Camden).

The NCPA houses the world-famous Stuart Liff Collection of 6,000 books, 11,000 LPs and 12,000 CDs on Western classical music. This collection was generously donated to the Centre in 2009 by Vivian Liff, on behalf of George Stuart and himself, as a gesture of their friendship with Chairman Mr. Khushroo N. Suntook, an avid collector and connoisseur himself. The collection is an invaluable source for research by musicologists and students as well as for general music lovers. The library housing the collection is open from 10 am to 5.15 pm on weekdays.

By Jimmy Bilimoria. This piece was originally published by the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in the July 2023 issue of ON Stage – their monthly arts magazine.