Lily Pons was born Alice Joséphine Pons near Cannes, in 1898. Like Amelita Galli-Curci, another great coloratura soprano, she showed pianistic proficiency at a very young age, and was admitted to the Paris Conservatory as a piano student, where she won a first prize at the age of 15. At the outbreak of the WWI her family moved to Cannes proper, where young Alice played the piano and sang at fund-raisers for the French military forces. She began serious vocal studies at the relatively late age of 27, and made a successful debut the following year in a provincial house in Delibes' Lakmé, which was to become what for many was her signature role. She quickly began to attract serious attention to herself. She was gifted with an extraordinary high and flexible voice, and she was exceptionally petite, standing a mere 5 feet tall, if that, and weighing less than 100 pounds. (Heavens, some opera singers have lost more than that in attempt to keep their weight down!) This of course gave her the appearance of a child, essentially a teen-ager, which, in turn, made her a perfect Lakmé, Gilda, Lucia, or Marie, the daughter of the regiment. I suppose, to use a rather non-critical term, one could say she was "cute."
Her early success was such that other singers soon began to speak out on her behalf, and soon a trip to New York was arranged, where she had the opportunity to audition for Giulio Gatti-Casazza, at the Metropolitan Opera. Galli-Curci was in her last professional years at the Met, and there was a decided need to replace her. The audition must have been a real winner, because Gatti Casazza got her name on a contract very quickly, and by 1931, now armed with a Met contract and an RCA Victor recording contract, she made a spectacular debut at the Met as Lucia. She by now had changed her first name to Lily, and quickly inherited almost all of Galli-Curci's roles, as the great Italian-American coloratura had retired the previous year
Like Galli-Curci before her, Pons became a naturalized American citizen (in 1940) and set about to make herself very famous. She was extremely adroit at managing the media, and she was everywhere to be seen and heard: radio, movies and much concertizing. She was at the Met for thirty years, appearing 300 times in ten roles from 1931 until 1960. She took a season off during WWII to sing for American troops abroad. She had become an exemplary, beloved and most popular performer in the public's eye. Hers was, like that of Galli-Curci, Enrico Caruso, Alma Gluck, and Louise Homer, one of the classical music names most known and most revered in this country.
For starters, here is the role with which she was most identified, and in which she had extraordinary success. For many years, she virtually owned the part of Lakmé. Here is the famous "Bell Song," from a 1935 film entitled I Dream Too Much:
It is not hard to see why she owned this role, is it? Her extraordinary high and flexible voice, her movie-star looks, in an era of often severely aristocratic (and large) sopranos, and her bubbly way with even so demanding an aria as the Bell Song, all combined to make her a box office hit, from the moment of her first Met debut.
To my taste, this is the sound of a real coloratura. The same thing happened with coloraturas, in later years, that happened to opera singers in general, and that was the tendency for very powerful and dramatic voices to rise to prominence and overwhelm the gentler, bel-canto based singing of earlier times. This phenomenon, in the case of the coloratura, led to dramatic portrayals by some rather elderly and hefty Gildas and Lucias. Vocally jaw-dropping, certainly, but not, shall we say, necessarily an epicure's taste.
Here, finally, is Marie's very charming and energetic aria from La Fille du Régiment, another popular Pons showpiece:
It is all there—the bubbly cuteness, the remarkable cadenzas and fioratura, the sharply crisp enunciation, and the crystal-clear extreme top. One wants to stand up and shout Vive La Patrie! Portrayals of roles such as this are irresistible to most theater-goers, and in the case of the lyric theater, those of Lily Pons were clearly among the best ever.