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Sunday, July 21, 2013

Max Lorenz: Germany's Answer to Lauritz Melchior


Today I am pleased to offer to readers another guest commentary by Mr. Darren Seacliffe, from Singapore. Darren is an undergraduate student in his early 20's, pursuing a degree in a private university in Singapore. His interest in both opera and operetta spans a wide variety of genres, from Rossini to German operetta to Wagner! I will only add that Mr. Seacliffe's knowledge of opera, especially for one so young, is truly extraordinary!  Today, he presents a detailed analysis and comparative study of two great Heldentenors, Max Lorenz and Lauritz Melchior, dwelling principally upon German tenor Max Lorenz!.


Lauritz Melchior, the Great Dane, is unanimously regarded by most critics and connoisseurs, especially those in the Anglo-American musical circles, to have been the greatest Heldentenor of all time. However, in recent years, the name of another Heldentenor, Max Lorenz, a contemporary of the Great Dane, has been brought up as an alternative candidate for this illustrious title. Like all great men, Max Lorenz remains surrounded by controversy even to this very day. To the Germans, he was the greatest Heldentenor they ever had. To the English and the Americans, he was an  overrated Heldentenor who supposedly only got his big break because Lauritz Melchior had abandoned Germany for the US. .

 With the exceptions of Der Fliegende Hollander and Tannhauser, the musical structures of Wagner’s operas tend sometimes not to be very listener-friendly, and can  demand more concentration and greater mental stamina on the part of the listener. Unlike most Italian and French operas, in which one doesn’t have to wait too long between each musical number, the show stoppers in Wagner’s operas are somewhat dispersed. Italian opera ensembles are usually of manageable length; Wagner’s ensembles are often very long, so that only the greatest cast and best conductor can sustain the listener’s attention through them. These two characteristics account for the formidable nature of Wagner’s operas. Nonetheless, with the right performers, it need not appear that way to interested listeners. Max Lorenz and Lauritz Melchior were two such performers.

Being the most prominent representatives of 2 starkly contrasting approaches to performing Wagner, Max Lorenz and Lauritz Melchior can both be described as antipodes to one another.  A Lauritz Melchior Wagner performance is a considerably different listening experience from a Max Lorenz one. A  Melchior performance is like a wandering down a meandering river to  Asgard, the world of the gods in Teutonic  mythology.  With his superhuman stamina and velvety rich voice, Melchior renders each Heldentenor role he sings deceptively lyrical. From start to finish, he is able to deliver lyrics so smoothly and easily that he makes  the ‘killer’ roles of Tristan and Siegfried sound no less difficult than the much more commonly performed roles of Lohengrin and Siegmund. In comparison, a Max Lorenz performance is like a bumpy boat trip to Asgard down a surging river current. Lorenz’s singing may not have been as smooth or as easy on the ear as Lauritz Melchior’s, but I feel that his interpretations of the great Heldentenor roles gave more life to the characters he played than Melchior did. As a creature of the stage, Max Lorenz was more imaginative in his characterization. He was less restrained, more passionate and showed more conviction in his performances. More importantly, as a natural tenor, Max Lorenz seemed to have a higher top which made him sound more powerful and heroic than the baritone-turned-tenor Lauritz Melchior.

With such different approaches in singing Wagner, one might be inclined to think that Max Lorenz and Lauritz Melchior had different singing teachers. The truth, however, was quite different. Both great Heldentenors actually had the same singing teacher, Ernst Grenzebach. As a result, Lorenz was capable of singing passages with almost the same amount of smoothness and ease his fellow student did. Listen to this extract from Lohengrin sung by Max Lorenz with Kate Heidersbach in 1929, and see if you don’t you find his performance uncannily similar to the one by  Melchior.  Lorenz’s singing may not be as poetic as Melchior’s but I feel he sounds slightly more romantic than Melchior in his interpretation of the role.  I find Lorenz’s performance almost as beautiful and as powerful as Melchior’s classic version with Lotte Lehmann. Some  might find this  Lorenz rendition surprisingly different from the one they’ve heard. I think one reason could be the fact he was still using the technique Grenzebach taught him then.

After the above performance,  Max Lorenz’s singing technique would begin to deviate from the one Grenzebach had taught him. This was because Max Lorenz always felt that expression was much more important than the beauty of the sound he made. As the man himself once said, ‘I didn’t care much if a tone wasn’t absolutely exquisite. For me, expression was the main thing.’’ To make the dramatic outbursts so typical of his singing, he was sometimes forced to sacrifice single notes and even the musical line. He would drag or chop up the lyrics and/or strain his voice from time to time to make a theatrical statement during his performances. Periodically, he would strain his voice so much, and it became so raw, that some of the notes he produced came out ugly or even ridiculous. On top of that, there were some over-generous helpings of sobbing and declaiming . To the Germans, all these would make his performances sound more powerful and intense than anybody else’s. To the English and the Americans, they made them” hammy.”

While the talent of the great Lauritz Melchior (1890-1973) was discovered relatively early, Max Lorenz (1901-1975) was, in comparison, a late bloomer. Unlike Melchior, who sang in a boys’ choir at an English church, Lorenz at one time got himself thrown out of choir practice for bellowing, roaring and singing off-key. Despite this early setback, however, he never gave up. His deep love of singing made him determined to make a career for himself as an opera singer. Nevertheless, he had to contend with his father’s opposition. Lorenz’s father felt that a musical education was nothing more than a waste of money so Lorenz was forced to take his singing lessons on the sly, with the support and encouragement of his mother. Lorenz initially studied under Prof. Pauli in Cologne. After failing an audition at the Wiesbaden State Opera House, he decided to seek further instruction. In spite of his father’s strong disapproval. However, through the intercession of his mother, Lorenz was able to go to Berlin where he studied under the highly regarded Ernst Grenzebach, who would transform this boy into a master singer.

After going through a rigorous 2-year training regime under the hard taskmaster Grenzebach, in 1926, Max Lorenz was allowed to take part in a singing competition held by a popular magazine, where he won first prize. Shortly after, he was given a contract by Fritz Busch of the Dresden State Opera. During his tenure at the Dresden State Opera, Lorenz initially sang minor roles like Walther von der Vogelweide in Tannhauser. It didn’t take long, however, for Lorenz to get his first big break. After a performance of Richard Strauss’ Salome under the baton of its composer, Strauss was so impressed he offered Lorenz the technically difficult (but unrewarding) role of Menelaus in the opera Die Aegyptische Helena. Lorenz was to obtain his first big success in this role. He continued to prove successful in  singing roles from Richard Strauss’ operas. Some of the roles he sang included Herodes (Salome), Bacchus (Ariadne auf Naxos) and Aeghist (Elektra). It’s a great pity that there are  no recordings of Lorenz’s Menelaus, as far as I know. However, fortunately, Lorenz was captured in his other prime Strauss tenor role, Bacchus, in a 1944 performance of Ariadne staged in celebration of the composer’s 80th birthday. Here is the best part of his performance in this opera, the finale with the legendary soprano Maria Reinin, in the title role:

 In this extract,  Lorenz’s tenor isn’t as raw or ungainly as it was in the rest of this performance or,for that matter, in some other performances during this stage of his career. His singing may not be beautiful in the conventional sense but don’t you feel something when you hear him sing with such passion and fervor? He’s so dramatic I find myself touched by the intensity of his performance. His singing is so powerful that it makes me willing to put up with his throaty voice.

Lorenz’s successful performance in Ariadne auf Naxos took him to the Berlin State Opera and the Vienna State Opera, where his Radames brought him the attention of the Met’s German wing conductor, Artur Bodanzky. Bodanzky would later invite Lorenz to sing at the Met, where he would score his first international success. During Lorenz’s stay at the Met (1931 – 1933), he sang Walther (Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg), Tannhauser, Lohengrin, Siegmund (Die Walkure) and Siegfried . The Americans were especially taken by Lorenz’s youthful Siegfried. His success in America was to earn him an invitation to Bayreuth in 1933, where he would become the finest Heldentenor of his age. (Note: It’s true that by 1933, Lauritz Melchior was no longer performing in Bayreuth. There’s a misconception I heard in some quarters that Max Lorenz only got his chance to perform at Bayreuth because he was the sole Heldentenor in Germany after Melchior’s departure. This is untrue. There were still several other great Heldentenors left in Germany like Set Svanholm, Joachim Sattler and August Seider. Though not as good as Lorenz and Melchior, they were still first-class.)

Besides singing Wagner and Strauss, Max Lorenz was known to make periodic excursions into the non-German operatic repertory. Among his most successful roles in the non-German operatic repertory were the previously-mentioned Radames (Aida), Don Alvaro (La Forza del Destino) and his most famous role after the great Wagner tenor roles, Verdi’s Otello. Lorenz was such a successful Otello that he was repeatedly invited by La Scala to sing the role in Italian there. (Lorenz would ultimately reject La Scala’s invitation because he felt his Italian wasn’t good enough to sing Otello in Italy.) Compare that to Lauritz Melchior, whose repertoire became exclusively limited to Wagner after his move to the Met. It wasn’t that Melchior couldn’t sing the non-German operatic repertoire;before Melchior moved to the Met, he sang a few non-German tenor roles like Otello and Radames in Europe. When he moved to the Met, being a member of its German wing meant that he wasn’t given the chance to sing anything but Wagner there.


Unlike  Melchior, who was only able to leave a few selections from Pagliacci, Aida, Otello and L’Africaine as mementoes of his work in the non-German repertoire, Max Lorenz was captured in substantially complete performances of Aida and Un Ballo in Maschera.  Sadly, there aren’t any recordings of his Otello apart from a few excerpts). Here are samples of his work in each of these operas.  First, the young Max Lorenz’s rendition of “Celeste Aida” in German. It is what I would call truly heroic.  He might not be as thrilling as in some his later performances but his vocal display demonstrates considerable power, a portent of  a great dramatic tenor. Notwithstanding his formidable vocal instrument, he was able to scale it down to sound appropriately delicate and tender in the lyrical moments of the aria, a feat few other tenors could replicate:

The following excerpt from Un Ballo is most definitely unusual. How often do you hear a fully-fledged Heldentenor attempt a lyric role? At this point, Max Lorenz was already an experienced Siegfried. Though he may sound  throaty here, he absolutely convinces in the tragic role of Riccardo (Gustavus III) with his tearful performance. He sounds as though he’s being torn apart by his love for Hilde Konetzni’s Amelia:

Lorenz’s arrival in Bayreuth could not have come at a more opportune time for the opera festival. At that time, Winifred Wagner, the woman in charge of the festival, was trying to re-establish Bayreuth as the premier venue for Wagner performances. Furthermore, the festival’s artistic director, Heinz Tietjen, and its scenic director Emil Pretorius, were trying to stage groundbreaking Wagner performances that were as near to Wagner’s conception as possible. Combining heroic stature and a formidable stage presence, Max Lorenz was the man of the moment, the right man to help them realize these noble aspirations. Heinz Tietjen was to be the man who would bring about the turning point in Max Lorenz’s career. For months, he worked with Lorenz for two to three hours every day, rehearsing every gesture and move with him a hundred times over. Lorenz would become the finest Heldentenor of his age under his mentorship. He was proven to be a success at Bayreuth. With his incredibly expressive voice and his vast reserves of natural energy, Lorenz was the heart and soul of every performance, leaving a lasting impact on his audiences. People thronged to see him and he found himself swamped with wedding proposals. (One American lady was so desperate to marry him that she offered to buy him off his wife for 1 million dollars!)

While Max Lorenz personified the Wagnerian hero in Bayreuth, in the US, Lauritz Melchior was keeping the Wagner dream alive and more importantly, helping the Met stay in business, during the Depression and World War II. Lauritz Melchior’s reputation has survived largely intact into the modern day because of the standard-setting excerpts he recorded in the studios of big recording companies like HMV and RCA Victor, and the considerable number of broadcasts in the Met archives from his heyday. On the other hand, Max Lorenz’s reputation has proven vulnerable to the ravages of time. One reason why his reputation didn’t last as long as Melchior’s did was because until recently, his recordings weren’t as accessible as Melchior’s. Ever since Melchior’s recordings were first released during his lifetime, they have been in circulation. In the case of Max Lorenz’s recordings, as far as I know, they have only been reintroduced to the public not too long ago. Another reason was that while all of Lauritz Melchior’s recordings betray no sign of vocal decline, most of  Lorenz’s complete performances were from the period of his vocal decline, namely the period after 1945. The last reason is because Lorenz has never been well-received by the Anglo-American music critics who continue to hold sway until today, for reasons that I’ve described earlier. Max Lorenz’s greatness was lost on them because they couldn’t understand the words on which he placed so much emphasis in his work.

  Lorenz not only performed the Wagner tenor roles which Lauritz Melchior kept in his active repertoire: Tannhauser, Parsifal, Lohengrin, Tristan, Siegmund and Siegfried, both young and old. He also sang roles which Melchior did not sing such as Walther, Erik (Der Fliegende Hollander) and Rienzi. Tannhauser, Tristan and Siegfried were to become his most famous Wagner tenor roles. (Though Siegmund was a role which Max Lorenz sang relatively often, the Siegmund of choice during his time was Franz Volker, despite Lorenz’s status as Germany’s top Heldentenor.) 
Siegfried was the Wagner tenor role which was associated with Max Lorenz during his time at Bayreuth in the 1930s. According to the great Fischer-Dieskau, Lorenz was the only one then who had the immediacy, the fiery temperament and conviction required to play the role. In fact, Lorenz identified so much with the character that he eventually became one with Siegfried when he was singing the role. You can hear it for yourself in these two excerpts I’ve selected.Here is Max Lorenz’s Forging Song, from Siegfried, recorded in 1936, during his prime:

And here is his rendition of Siegfried’s Narrative from Gotterdammerung, recorded live under Wilhelm Furtwangler with Ludwig Weber as Hagen. Please bear with the sound. Note that this performance in 1950 was from Lorenz’s twilight years:

I can’t deny that Lauritz Melchior’s version of the Forging Song is easier on the ear and sweeter but is Lorenz’s version more gripping? Though Lorenz may not sound as smooth and easy on the ear as Melchior did, with the fire and poetry he imbues in his performance, his characterization of Siegfried becomes more potent than Melchior’s. If you watch the documentary on Max Lorenz,, you will find a small part of the Forging Song in better sound. When you listen to it, you can understand how thrilling his performance could be. Even when Max Lorenz was in his late career, and though his voice had become rawer and drier, in the more tender and more delicate parts of the scene, some poetry still shines through in his singing.

 After the War, Max Lorenz came to be better known for his Tristan than his Siegfried. His Tristan was monumental, not only in vocal terms but also in dramatic terms as well. You can hear it for yourself in this extract taken from a performance of Tristan he recorded when he was at his peak:


In this performance, I’ll say that Max Lorenz isn’t too far away from the standards Melchior set in the role. This is no small praise considering the fact that Melchior was such a successful Tristan that he has become synonymous with the role.  

It’s incredible how Max Lorenz was able to scale down his loud voice to make his Tristan sound tortured by love. The way he expresses his feelings for his Isolde, Paula Buchner, is so sentimental that one can’t help feeling sorry for this ill-starred pair of lovers. This is truly a first-class rendition of the heartbreaking duet.

 As the finest Heldentenor of his age, Max Lorenz was bound to rub shoulders with the Nazis that ruled Germany during his time in Bayreuth. His athletic physical appearance and his position as the leading Siegfried of his day placed him at the center of a cult in which the Nazis worshipped Wagner as Germany’s greatest composer during a time when the Germans were on a quest to search for heroes that they could look up to. After all, Siegfried was a hero whose name epitomized the powerful and insistent hopes of a vulnerable German people recovering from the debacle of the First World War. (‘Sieg’ and ‘Frieder’, the 2 German words that make up Siegfried’s name mean ‘Victory’ and ‘Peace’ respectively.) The way Lorenz utilized his position made him more than a great singer. It made him a singer greater than most as a person.

 Despite being the Third Reich’s star tenor, Max Lorenz’s life under the Nazi regime was no bed of roses. As a prominent homosexual, Lorenz was in a truly precarious situation. For a short while, he was banned permanently from the German stage after the Nazi authorities caught him in an affair with an assistant conductor.  It was only through Winifred Wagner’s intercession with Hitler that he was able to resume his career. If that wasn’t dangerous enough, Max Lorenz was also married to a Jew, Charlotte Appel. Although he was already in great personal danger, he adamantly refused to divorce his wife, even when the Holocaust was in full swing. Lorenz even insisted that his wife be given her share of the meager privileges to be had during World War II. Things eventually came to a head when the SS came to Lorenz’s house to take his wife and his mother-in-law away. Lorenz’s wife and his mother-in-law were only able to emerge from the experience unscathed when his wife asked Hermann Goering’s sister to intervene in the matter. After the visit, Max Lorenz was able to obtain Goering’s personal protection for his wife and mother-in-law. Besides saving them, Lorenz also used his unique position to hide several colleagues and friends and help them leave Germany. It was true that things could have been much easier for Lorenz if he fled Germany, but being a man who was closely connected to his home and fatherland; it was something he could not do. Moreover, the Nazis didn’t allow him to take his wife abroad.

 For me, as good as Lorenz’s Siegfried and/or Tristan may be, the role which I’ll always associate with Max Lorenz will be his Tannhauser. It was his Tannhauser that kindled an interest in Wagner in me which not even the great Melchior could arouse. Allow me to present the coup de grace from this performance:

This excerpt is the best sample of Max Lorenz’s work to show how expressive his singing could be. In hindsight, it’s true that Max Lorenz’s rendition of the Rome Narrative from Wagner’s Tannhauser isn’t conventionally beautiful. Even so, you can’t deny how dramatic it is. I believe that the impassioned nature of his artistry can be traced to his personality. Though always good for a joke in company, Lorenz, in private, like Franco Corelli and several other great singers, was a man plagued by insecurities. He felt the stage compensated for his innate shyness. If you take this into account, I feel one can understand why his performances have such an impact on me. A man afflicted with doubt who drew on the stage for support is an artist well capable of making a character’s last tormented moments sound sickeningly realistic. The stage is the means for him to channel his negative feelings. Here, I’m sure Max Lorenz made full use of that.

 After the War,  Lorenz moved to Vienna, where he became the leading Heldentenor of the Vienna Opera House. Here, he specialized in the roles Tannhauser, Tristan and Verdi’s Otello. He would also spend more time than ever on tour. He began appearing at the Salzburg Festival, where he participated in the performances of several modern works. Many major opera houses around the world invited him for guest performances, where he made a resurgent comeback. Some examples of his more famous guest performances would include the Gotterdammerung he sang at La Scala as part of Furtwangler’s ring cycle, a Tristan he sang there under de Sabata with the great Gertrud Grob-Prandl and a Walkure he sang at the Met with the renowned baritone Joel Berglund. (Note that recordings of these 3 performances exist, though with variable sound quality.) Despite these international successes, it was soon time for Max Lorenz to wind down his hitherto flourishing career.

 By the early 50s, Lorenz’s voice was beginning to show signs of wear and tear. It was only natural after two decades of heavy duty work singing Wagner’s dramatic tenor roles. (Lauritz Melchior, on the contrary, proved immune to the toll of time but his case is more an exception than the norm.) Although Max Lorenz was coming into a phase of vocal decline, he continued to be a first choice singer when it came to casting the operas of Richard Strauss and other modern works. During this stage of his career, instead of playing lead roles in these operas, he would play character roles. An example would be the Drum Major in Berg’s Wozzeck. Nevertheless, there were times when he was still asked to play main roles. He was asked to play the main roles of Josef K. and the Podesta in the operas Der Prozess and Penelope by the composers Gottfried von Einem and Rolf Liebermann respectively. Another new role which he also added to his repertoire was the title role in Pfitzner’s Palestrina.

 Despite  Lorenz’s attempts to expand his repertoire, the curtain was soon to fall on his illustrious career. A new era ushered in a new management regime in the Vienna State Opera House, like all opera houses worldwide. In 1955, Max Lorenz was discharged by the incoming Intendant, Herbert von Karajan, the same way his senior Lauritz Melchior was laid off by the Met’s new General Manager, Rudolf Bing, several years earlier. Lorenz would switch to the Vienna Volksoper where he sang operetta or musical roles like Buffalo Bill, in Annie Get Your Gun (in German, obviously). Nevertheless, from time to time, he would occasionally perform lead roles in various opera houses. Max Lorenz would give his farewell performance in 1962 as Herod in Salome at the Vienna State Opera. It was an ignominious occasion. According to the tenor Waldemar Kmentt, no one from the management came to give him a proper send-off. There were no flowers or anything else for that matter. This in my opinion was a downright shameful way to send off a legendary tenor who had given so much to German musical life during his best years. On Lorenz’s side, when it dawned on him that his singing career was over, he became utterly inconsolable. Legend has it that he was so sad that he was unable to take curtain calls for saying goodbye to his beloved audience, forcing him to leave via a side entrance.

The end of Max Lorenz’s singing career was not the only blow to come to the great singer. Another blow would come when he lost his wife in 1964. It was a blow from which he would never recover. After his retirement, Lorenz was to become a mentor to young singers like Jess Thomas, Jean Cox and most importantly, the great American Heldentenor, James King, with whom he went through all the major Wagner tenor roles and to whom he was closest. He also received visits from former colleagues from time to time. Even so, Lorenz became a very lonely person. Time was certainly not kind to him. Once he had been the No. 1 Heldentenor in Germany, now he was reduced to being a nonentity. His reputation has barely recovered since. If that was not bad enough, he would even find himself classified as something he had never been: a Nazi singer. The misclassification unfortunately remains to this very day in some circles. Only Death would release Max Lorenz from all his woes,on 11 Jan 1975.

To end, if you’re in the mood for adventure or something extreme, please allow me to present to you a sample of Lorenz’s work in modern operas from the final stage of his eminent career. We have a short duet from Berg’s Wozzeck with Christel Goltz. Here, Max Lorenz plays the role of the boorish Drum Major. Doesn’t his raw and dry voice suit the pungent music? He makes his voice so harsh that he sounds as crude as his character here.



Thursday, July 11, 2013

James A. Drake On Rosa Ponselle!

I am both honored and pleased to be able to present Dr. James A. Drake, the world's recognized authority on Rosa Ponselle, as our guest author today.  A recently retired college president, James A. Drake is the author of seven books, four of which are biographies of great opera singers of the twentieth century.  Although not a musician (he earned a doctorate in philosophy and taught primarily in social-science disciplines before he became a university administrator), Dr. Drake earned the confidence of the legendary soprano Rosa Ponselle, with whom he collaborated on her autobiography for Doubleday and Company.

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 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