She was born Rosa Ponzillo on January 22, 1897, in Meriden, Connecticut, the youngest of three children. Her parents were Italian immigrants from Caiazzo, in the province of Campania. Ponselle had an exceptionally mature voice at an early age and, at least in her early years, sang on natural endowment with little, if any, vocal training.
Her sister, Carmela, was already an established singer in vaudeville after her debut in The Girl from Brighton, a 1912 Broadway musical. Three years later, in 1915, Carmela brought Rosa to audition for her vaudeville agent. In spite of being markedly overweight, Rosa impressed with her voice, and she was hired to perform with Carmela as a “sister act”. Between 1915 and 1918, the Ponzillo Sisters (also known as “Those Tailored Italian Girls”) became a headlining act on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, appearing in all the major Keith theaters and earning a substantial income in the process. The sisters’ act consisted of traditional ballads, popular Italian songs, and operatic arias and duets.
In 1918, Carmela and Rosa demanded a substantial fee increase from the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, as a result of which their act was dropped. Victor Maurel, whom Giuseppe Verdi had chosen to create Iago in Otello, auditioned both sisters at his friend Thorner’s request. Soon afterward, Thorner persuaded the great tenor Enrico Caruso, star of the Metropolitan Opera, to his studio to hear Carmela and Rosa sing. Caruso was usually wary of amateur singers but was deeply impressed with Rosa’s voice. He arranged an audition for the Met’s general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who offered Rosa a contract for the 1918/1919 season.
Metropolitan Opera debut and early operatic career
Rosa Ponselle made her Metropolitan Opera debut on November 15, 1918, just a few days after the Great War had finished, as Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino, opposite Caruso. It was her first performance on any opera stage. She was quite intimidated for being in the presence of Caruso, and in spite of an almost paralyzing case of nervousness (which she suffered from throughout her operatic career), she scored a tremendous success, both with the public and with the critics. New York Times critic James Huneker wrote: “…what a promising debut! 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 in the upper register.
In the following Met seasons, Ponselle’s roles included the lead soprano roles in La Juive (opposite Caruso’s Eléazar, his last new role before he died), William Tell, Ernani, Il trovatore, Aida, La Gioconda, Don Carlos, L’Africaine, L’amore dei tre re, Andrea Chénier, La Vestale, and in 1927 the role that many considered her greatest achievement, the title role in Bellini’s Norma. In addition to her operatic activities, which were centered at the Met, Ponselle had a lucrative concert career. A tour of the West coast included an appearance at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara on March 14, 1927 in the Artist Series of the Community Arts Association’s Music Branch, accompanied by pianist Stuart Ross.
Appearances abroad and later operatic career
Outside the USA, Ponselle sang only at Covent Garden in London (for three seasons) and in Italy (in order, so she said, to honor a promise she had made to her mother that she would one day sing in Italy).
Ponselle continued in the 1930s to add roles to her repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1930 she sang her first New York appearances in 1931 as Violetta, a role she had sung with such success in London, received a more mixed reception from the New York critics, some of whom found her interpretation too forceful and dramatic. (W.J. Henderson complained of her “assaults” on the vocal line.) In 1931 she sang in another unsuccessful world premiere, Montemezzi’s La notte di Zoraima, which sank without a trace. Like many other opera singers of that time, she made a brief trip to Hollywood and made screen tests for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures, but nothing came of them.
Differences with the Met management regarding repertoire led her not to renew her contract with the company for the 1937/38 season. Her last operatic performance was as Carmen on April 22, 1937, in a Met tour performance in Cleveland.
Her marriage was rocky, and she and her husband divorced in 1949. The breakup was traumatic for Ponselle, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. Although she never again appeared on the concert or opera stage, Ponselle continued to sing at home for friends, who reported that her voice was as magnificent as ever. This was confirmed in 1954, when RCA Victor came to Villa Pace and recorded Ponselle singing a wide variety of songs. In the late 1940s, Ponselle became the guiding force of the fledgling Baltimore Civic Opera Company, providing coaching and voice lessons for the young singers who appeared with the company. Among those who coached with her during their Baltimore Civic Opera appearances at the start of their careers were Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo, James Morris, and Joshua Hecht.
Ponselle died at her estate, Villa Pace, near Baltimore, Maryland on May 25, 1981, aged 84, after a long battle with bone marrow cancer.