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Sunday, July 29, 2012


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.


JD Hobbes said...

Yes, she marketed herself across various media, including TV shows, very well. In that respect she reminds me of Beverly Sills...perhaps even more than Sills. At any rate, thanks for a good portrait of Pons.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Hobbes. I kind of hoped the first person to comment, now that we are back on the air, would be you:-) We've been down a fair bit of time now. Thought it would be a good idea to get back before I evaporate off the web:) I'm pretty much done with the reconstruction now. A little bit left to do. I'm not the sharpest tool in the shed when it comes to fooling with software and codes. But, so far so good.
Thanks for the comment. Yes, that was one of the most outstanding things about Pons, was her media-savvy way of going about things. She made a huge reputation for herself in that way, and also in restricting her repertoire to a small number of operas at which she excelled. Other singers could learn something from that! Thanks again, my friend, and welcome back!

Anonymous said...

Its so nice to see you back, Mr. StAustell. I always look forward to your blogs, and I REALLY appreciate this one. I was always so fond of Pons. Your right, she was always in the Ladies Magazines and everything. I just love her singing. Thanks again, and welcome back!


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Martha. It's a pleasure. Yes, she had a huge following in this country, and as you say, she was everywhere to be seen. As Mr. Hobbes said, it's somewhat like Sills, who was also a huge presence on TV, as an adult, and she was all over the radio when was little Bubbles Silverman. And of course Roberta Peters, another great favorite, was always to be found on the concert venue, all across America. I find that to be a very healthy attitude on the part of artists. People will support what they feel belongs to them, and that includes great singers.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Edmund. Great blog. I love this kind of voice. Galli-Curci is my all time favorite, but Pons comes in a close second. Had to laugh about the "elderly and hefty" Gildas and Lucias." You wouldn't have anyone in mind would you? Probably don't care to share that, ha!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Ha, ha. Well discretion is not only the better part of valor, but probably also the better part of music criticism:-)

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that male opera singers have had somewhat less success in multi-media marketing than the females have, although of course there are exceptions. Tibbett, Lanza, and Pavarotti used the media, particularly the movies (or TV in Pavarotti's case) to enhance their popularity, but outside of that I'm scratching my head a bit. It seems the most successful of them are the quasi-opera singers like Nelson Eddy and Andrea Bocelli. What are your thoughts?

JD Hobbes

Edmund St. Austell said...

Certainly the cross-over singers have had a bigger success, simply by virtue of the material and their particular way of singing, which doesn't instantly stand up and scream OPERA! :-) But generally speaking, you are right. It's mighty hard to compete with a pretty, photogenic woman, especially in the movies!
Thanks for the comment! Interesting observation! Much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

“To my taste, this is the sound of a real coloratura.” I totally agree; her singing is ideal and absolutely effortless, and the voice is unique. A true nightingale. Thanks for the article on this brilliant singer.
Her self-promotion required a lot of energy; she was very hard-working, as I understood. Perhaps other singers would like to be on TV and radio too, but it’s not easy:) One must always be active and self-disciplined


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much,my dear friend. Yes, you are right. (As you always are:-) It takes as much or more energy to keep oneself before the public as it does to perform. The movie actor Tony Curtis once said that fame is a career of its own, completely separate from the artistic career, and it has to be cultuvated separately, because it is in fact a career of its own, and has its own rules, goals, challenges, problems, etc. A lot of people don't realize that, but I am sure he is correct. Thanks again, and welcome back from vacation:-)

Gerhard Santos said...

Hello sir Edmund! This post was extremely interesting. Thanks for sharing! *GOD BLESS*

Nate said...

As I mentioned on your youtube post, Edmund, Pons was the first opera singer I ever heard on recording--as Marie in Fille du Regiment--so it stands to reason she is a sentimental favorite of mine (and probably countless others). She did have a small repertoire of ten operas, with only a few performances of Traviata added later in her career, but she became identified with several of these roles, including Lakme, Lucia, Gilda, Philine, Olympia, and Marie. Too bad her early Sonnambula and Linda di Chamounix Met performances were never captured on radio. Anyhow, I could go on and on about "la petite Lily," but allow me simply to thank you for your generous appreciation of her singing.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thanks, Nate. Always a pleasure to hear from you. You and I share a love of coloraturas. (Well,the great ones at least, starting with the nonpareil G-C)! I am very fond of Pons--always have been. The ease with which she produces that extraordinary top is fascinating. But it's not only that, it's also that indefinable charm that characterizes her presentations. She's just one of those singers that makes you smile from ear to ear. Whatever it is, I wish I could bottle it and sell it:-) Thanks again, Nate.

Anonymous said...

"She was extremely adroit at managing the media, and she was everywhere to be seen and heard: radio, movies and much concertizing."

I take it from Wikipedia:

" A town in Maryland named itself after her, and thereafter the singer contrived to have all her Christmas Cards posted from Lilypons, Maryland. Opera News wrote, "Pons promoted herself with a kind of marketing savvy that no singer ever had shown before, and very few have since; only Luciano Pavarotti was quite so successful at exploiting the mass media."

I thnak you for this and all other nice, well written and so interesting articles.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, my friend. I appreciate your comment!