Mass to celebrate opera star's legacy


The Rosa Ponselle Foundation has announced that a series of May concerts and Masses will celebrate the life of Rosa Ponselle, the Metropolitan Opera diva who died 20 years ago this month.

At 11:30 a.m. tomorrow at St. Charles Borromeo Roman Catholic Church in Pikesville, a memorial Mass will be offered for Ponselle, whom opera star Luciano Pavarotti called "the Queen of Queens in all of singing."

It was in this plain Victorian-era church that Ponselle, who lived in the nearby Greenspring Valley for 40 years, celebrated her faith and enthusiastically joined with the rest of the parishioners in the singing of hymns, her voice soaring above the others.

It was here also that funeral services were held for the woman who for 19 years was the reigning diva of the Metropolitan Opera before retiring in 1937 and moving to Villa Pace, the white Mediterranean-style villa she had built in the Greenspring Valley.

Named for the great aria "Pace, pace mio Dio," from Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," it was here that she had coached students and entertained the great and near-great from across the world. It was here, too, in her beloved Villa Pace that her life quietly came to a close at age 84, after she suffered a heart attack on May 25, 1981.

Born Rosa Melba Ponzillo in Meriden, Conn., she was the daughter of a baker and grocery store owner. She began singing as a child in school and church and in order to help add to the family income, she got a job in a local movie theater singing between film showings.

"The only things I knew to sing to the manager were hymns," she once wrote, recalling her youth. "I sang them, one after the other, shutting my eyes as I did it. When I opened them, I saw that his were full of tears."

Ponselle's older sister, Carmela, a mezzo-soprano, had gotten a job in New York singing in vaudeville. Rosa joined her in an act billed as the Ponzillo Sisters or "those Italian girls." It was on the stage of the Palace Theater that Enrico Caruso, the famed tenor, first heard Ponselle sing.

On first meeting Ponselle, he exclaimed, "Eh, scunizza" a Neopolitan word for urchin- "you look just like me."

"If only I could sing like you," she replied.

So taken was he with Ponselle's voice that he arranged an audition with the Metropolitan Opera's general manager, Gatti-Cazazza, who was equally impressed with her performance. He agreed to hire her, at the same time changing her name to Ponselle.

Ponselle made history when she joined the Metropolitan Opera as the first U.S.-born singer without European training or experience. In fact, she had never sung in an opera before.

She was 21 when she made her debut on Nov. 15, 1918, singing the role of Lenora in "La Forza del Destino." "In an operatic career that lasted less than 20 years, Miss Ponselle made an indelible impression through the impact of her phenomenal voice," said the New York Times at her death.

"It was a dramatic soprano that seemed to move seamlessly from the low notes of a contralto to a dazzling high C. She had coloratura flexibility, a splendid trill, powerful fortes, delicate pianissimos and precise intonation. Furthermore, she was handsome on stage and invested her interpretations with emotion."

On her 75th birthday, Harold C. Schonberg wrote in the Times, "That big, pure colorful golden voice would rise effortlessly, hitting the stunned listener in the face, rolling over the body, sliding down the shoulder blades making one wiggle with sheer physiological pleasure."

In his eulogy at her funeral, Paul Hume, the Washington Post music critic, elicited laughter from the mourners when he repeated the appraisal of European critic Ernest Newman after hearing her sing Violetta in "La Traviata":

"Her first word to her lover, 'Ritorniam,' was so seductive [that] any judge would have given her husband a divorce decree."

Ponselle married Carle A. Jackson, son of Baltimore Mayor Howard W. Jackson in 1936. The couple divorced in 1950.

Why she suddenly gave up her career in 1937 after a performance of "Carmen" is open to some speculation.

"The diva herself always said she had reached the point where she could no longer tolerate the anxiety that plagued her at every performance; a certain aria or even a single note could loom as a menace to her performance," said The Sun.

"Her fright was particularly unnerving at the opening of 'Norma,' when, as the Druid priestess, she had to stand on stage statue-like for half an hour before opening her mouth," observed the newspaper.

She was far from reclusive in Baltimore, having served as artistic director of the Baltimore Opera Co. from 1949 until resigning in 1979. She also helped and guided young singers including James Morris, the Baltimore-born bass, who has performed with the Metropolitan Opera.

A U.S. postage stamp in 1997 commemorated her 100th birthday. Books and CDs have also served to keep her legacy fresh as well as the "All Marylanders" opera singing competition sponsored by the Rosa Ponselle Foundation.

"Two new CDs by Ward Marston feature Rosa's radio broadcasts between 1934 and 1937," said Elayne Duke of the Rosa Ponselle Foundation. "Her voice was never more beautiful and she is even featured speaking live to the audience."

Lotte Lehman, the soprano, once asked Geraldine Farrar, also a celebrated soprano, "How does one get a voice like Ponselle's?"

"There's only one way," said Farrar. "By a very special arrangement with the Lord - and then you must work very, very hard!"

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