With a foreword by Luciano Pavarotti, the Ponselle-Drake collaboration yielded excellent reviews and was named "Music Book of the Month" by the National Book Clubs of America in 1982. The book was also promoted during a Metropolitan Opera broadcast in the 1982-83 season.
By that time, Dr. Drake had been selected by Sara Tucker, widow of the celebrated tenor Richard Tucker, to write an authorized biography of the great singer, who had died in 1975 while at the peak of his career. For the Tucker book, Luciano Pavarotti again contributed a foreword, and the biography was officially released at a special event hosted by maestro James Levine at Lincoln Center. Once again, Dr. Drake's newest work received a "Music Book of the Month" award.
As the centennial of Rosa Ponselle's birth approached in 1997, Dr. Drake returned to his first biographical subject and wrote an entirely new book, "Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography," published by Amadeus Press. Using a postmodern approach in the book's narrative structure, Dr. Drake utilized in near-verbatim form the intensive interviews he had conducted with Ponselle and her family members, managers, fellow artists and friends. The resulting biography is generally considered the most authoritative book about the soprano who was described by a critic as "a Caruso in pettiticoats."
The setting was a Mediterranean-style estate called Villa Pace, in the rolling hills of Maryland's Green Spring Valley. The date was January 22, 1977. The occasion was the 80th birthday of Rosa Ponselle, whom Luciano Pavarotti had described to the media earlier that day as "the Queen of Queens in all of singing." Seated in her favorite chair near the fireplace in Villa Pace's walnut-paneled library was the diva herself. "I never used to mind birthdays that had a zero on the end," Ponselle told a CBS interviewer who was covering the event, "but I don't know what to think about one that has an eight in front of it. What's happened to me? I can't believe I'm this old now."
As the writer whom Rosa Ponselle had selected to be her biographer, I was privileged to be at Villa Pace that memorable evening. As the birthday celebration continued through the late-night hours, one of Ponselle's long-time friends, Hugh Johns, said to me, "I really regret, Jim, that you never heard Rosa sing. I heard her in the 1950's, and she was amazing!" After a polite pause, George MacManus, a retired New York cosmetics-industry executive, said to Hugh Johns, "Well, you should have heard Rosa when I met her in the 1940's. But you're too young, so you couldn't have known her and heard her like I did." At that point another guest spoke up and said, "Well, I first heard Rosa in 1936, when she was still singing at the Met then, so I heard her before both of you did."
After yet another guest made it clear that he had heard Ponselle in the late 1920s--and as the diva was following this one-upmanship banter attentively--Edith Prilik, a petite elderly woman who had been Ponselle's secretary and confidant throughout her career, rose from her chair and announced, "I first heard Rosa in 1915, and none of the rest of you know what the hell you're talking about."
Today, more than thirty years after Rosa Ponselle passed away in 1981, we run the risk that Edith Prilik bluntly underscored: we cannot know with any certainty what Ponselle's voice was like in its prime. All we have as the basis of any judgment-making are her recordings, most of which she herself did not particularly like. "Whenever somebody plays [one] of my early records for me," Ponselle said in a 1973 interview, "I sound like I'm singing inside a box. I keep waiting for somebody to lift the lid and let me out."
One of the very few of her early commercial recordings which she would consent to listen to later in life was an acoustical disc she had recorded in February 1923 for the Columbia Graphophone Company. The aria is "Selva opace" from Rossini's William Tell, which the Met had revived for the tenor Giovanni Martinelli at the time. Ponselle regarded this as the best of her earliest recordings:
However inadequately the primitive recording technology of that era may have captured Ponselle's large and opulent voice, all of New York's music critics were uniform in their praise for her stunningly mature singing--all the more remarkable considering that Ponselle was only twenty-one when she made her Metropolitan debut, had only seen two operas in her life, and had never performed more than twenty minutes at a time on any stage. Her pre-Metropolitan career, which spanned but three years, had been spent in vaudeville with her older sister Carmela, where the two were billed on the prestigious Keith Circuit as "The Ponzillo Sisters," their family's surname.
Among the several duets that their vaudeville act comprised (all of which Rosa musically arranged) was the familiar "O sole mio," which Rosa and Carmela recorded for the Columbia company in September 1921. In the studio recording, as on the Keith Circuit stages, Rosa sang the first verse and the refrain, after which Carmela sang the second verse and then Rosa began the refrain. Despite the technological limitations of the recording process at that time, the uncanny resemblance between the sisters' voices is quite audible:
Although Carmela Ponselle eventually had a reasonably successful career as a mezzo-soprano on recordings, on radio and at the Metropolitan (where she made her debut as Amneris in Aida in December 1925), it was Rosa who became an operatic superstar. In the succession of new and demanding roles she assumed at the Metropolitan (twenty-three roles in total, of which she was typically given two major roles to prepare each season), Elvira in Verdi's Ernani became especially identified with her early in her career. Although the Met had revived the opera mainly for the tenor Giovanni Martinelli, it was Ponselle's singing of 'Ernani, involami" which proved to be the most popular of the revival. She recorded the aria for the Victor Talking Machine Company (later RCA Victor) in January, 1928.
Through the late 1920s and early 1930s, Ponselle remained one of the top-drawing artists on the Met roster, and was able to expand the scope of her popularity through nationwide radio broadcasts. At that time, the major radio networks regularly tested their audio reception by making test recordings, or "air-checks" of their broadcasts. Although only six of the soprano's Metropolitan Opera performances were preserved as air-checks (including four performances of Carmen, one Traviata and a fragmentary, barely audible broadcast of Don Giovanni, a significant number of Ponselle's radio appearances were preserved in air-check form.
These off-the-air recordings, in Ponselle's estimation, were superior to the commercial recordings that she made during her Metropolitan career. "My radio broadcasts not only captured more of my voice, she explained, "but they also gave me the freedom to sing an aria at a more relaxed tempo than in my Columbia or RCA recordings." Among her personal favorites was an air-check from her "Chesterfield Hour" performance of "Tu che invoco con orrore" from Spontini's La Vestale," in which she had sung the title role at its Metropolitan Opera premiere in November, 1925. Announcer Milton Cross, who was the voice of the Met's Saturday afternoon broadcasts for decades, provided the brief introduction to the aria:
The "long, gravely sculptured melodies" of La Vestale (as one critic wrote at the time) proved to be a stepping stone to Ponselle's assumption of the title role in Bellini's Norma, which had not been heard at the Met since 1890. Regrettably, no air-checks of Ponselle singing the demanding 'Casta diva" are known to exist, and her commercial recordings of the aria for the Columbia and Victor labels were among her least favorite discs. On the stage, she said, "I always sang the second verse twice as slow and half as loud as the first verse, but [the recording engineers] told me that you would hardly hear the tone, it would be too soft, and the tempo would be too slow to do justice to the "Casta diva." Nonetheless, her Victor recording, which dates from December, 1928, gives us some idea of Ponselle's interpretation of the aria and its recitative:
In Norma Ponselle reached the apex of her career--although her eroding self-confidence in her upper register led her to transpose any passages with high Cs to a lower and more congenial key. But despite the critical acclaim she received as Norma, Ponselle wanted to put aside classical roles in favor of ones that involved 'real flesh-and-blood women,' as she put it, in a role like Violetta in Traviata, which she sang to substantial acclaim at Covent Garden but in which she received mixed reviews from the New York critics. Even some of her colleagues questioned her judgment when trying to adapt such a large, dark, dramatic voice to the role of the frail Violetta. As her first Alfredo in that opera, the fiery tenor Giacomo Lauri-Volpi later wrote, "her mad assumption of the role of Violetta in effect strangled the mythical Giulia in Vestale."
If Ponselle's conception of Violetta earned mixed reviews, her portrayal of Bizet's Carmen netted a much harsher verdict from most of the New York critics. "It is altogether likely that the music of Carmen lies badly for [her] voice," wrote Pitts Sanborn in the New York Herald, while his counterpart Olin Downes, in The New York Times, declared flatly, "We have never heard Miss Ponselle sing so badly, and we have seldom seen the part enacted in such an artificial and generally unconvincing manner." Because Ponselle was then turning her attention to a film career, she relocated to Hollywood and made screen tests for the Paramount and MGM studies. The MGM test, which George Cukor directed in October, 1936, has survived. In 1979, when I interviewed Cukor, he maintained that Ponselle would have made a viable on-screen Carmen in the context of that era's movie musicals:
Rosa Ponselle never officially "retired" from the Metropolitan Opera, but rather let her career slip away. After she indulged in Hollywood society for a time, she moved to Baltimore, the home of her first and only husband, who was son of that city's mayor and was ten years younger than Ponselle. Together, they planned the design and construction of their marital home, which she named 'Villa Pace," but eventually their marriage failed. By then Ponselle was no longer singing in public--which she blamed chiefly on the Met's general manager, former tenor Edward Johnson, for refusing to revive Adriana Lecouvreur for her. Afterward, she dismissed any overtures from the Metropolitan and described herself to Johnson a "no come-back girl." A more likely reflection of her state of mind at the time was a conversation she had with her colleague Grace Moore, who recalled Ponselle saying to her, "I am 39 years old and have never had any fun...so I think I had better start now before it is too late."
Some fifteen years later, living alone at Villa Pace in the aftermath of her divorce, Ponselle found refuge in the Baltimore Civic Opera Company, which she transformed from a shoestring operation into an impressive regional company with a roster of up-and-coming stars that included Beverly Sills and Eileen Farrell in the 1950's, and later James Morris, Placido Domingo and Sherrill Milnes, among others.
As a coach and voice teacher, Ponselle flourished when working with natural talents like Farrell, but she had reservations about the young Sills ("I never thought she would have the career she's had," Ponselle told me in 1977) and had little to offer Milnes, as he told me candidly. "Rosa's approach was basically to have us watch her sing a phrase, and then do it just the way she did it." Milnes explained. "But I'm more of a vocal 'mechanic,' and I do best when I'm told to elevate the soft palate, for example--but she didn't teach that way. It was just 'Watch me, and do as I do.'"
Nonetheless, as Milnes attested to me, and as Sills wrote in her first book, Ponselle's voice was still largely intact when they were studying with her. In the autumn of 1954, fifteen years into her self-imposed retirement, RCA Victor momentarily lured her out of retirement to record any songs and arias of her choice. RCA even accommodated Ponselle's refusal to travel to New York City for the recording session, and instead transformed part of Villa Pace into a makeshift recording studio. To promote the resulting album, RCA arranged for a then popular radio host, Ruby Mercer, to interview Ponselle and play selections from the album during one of Mercer's programs. This is an excerpt from that program, in which Ponselle speaks of and then sings a touching rendition of 'Homing" by Teresa del Riego
Rosa Ponselle would continue to sing for her "private amusement," as she described it, until a debilitating stroke in 1979 left her partially paralyzed and unable to speak articulately. A year earlier, during one of my last interviews with her at Villa Pace, I had the privilege of observing her while I played a recording she had made in 1926. She listened intently and seemed pleased to hear her youthful voice again. Afterward, she leaned back in her chair and said simply, "I was a freak--a freak of nature." She was then 81. Three years later, she was laid to rest next to her sister Carmela, among the hills and woods that surround Villa Pace.
JAMES A. DRAKE