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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


JD Hobbes said...

What a fine article! Thank both of you for presenting this. It is certainly consistent with the high quality of this website and adds yet another chapter to the history of great music and artists that we are privileged to hear.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Dr. Hobbes! I really appreciate that comment. I knew that you--and other faithful and very select readers--would really like this one! I feel so privileged to have so outstanding an expert favor us with an article on so great a singer, about which his knowledge is seemingly endless! Thanks again! (In four years, have you ever missed a single article! I don't think so! Can't tell you how much that means to me!)

Anonymous said...

All I can say, Edmund...And Dr. Drake!-- is WOW. WOW. WOW!
I think this is one of the most outstanding articles I have read on the whole web!! How do you do it?


Edmund St. Austell said...

Well, Martha, I DON'T do it:-) That's the whole secret...I get people on board who actually know what they are doing:-) :-)

We have been really lucky with the superb quality of our guest writers. It makes such a difference!! And let me say the same to you that I did to Dr. Hobbes. I REALLY appreciate your loyal readership. I don't think you ever miss one! I am so fortunate to have this quality of readership. And most importantly, YES, this article is amazing!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful! Reads like a novel!

J. Westerly

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, Mr. Westerly; yes, the writing style is most engaging! Thanks for the comment!

Daniel Shigo said...

Excellent article, which gives the reader a great deal of information. Thank you!

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Mr. Shigo. I really appreciate the comment!

Darren Seacliffe said...

Usually, I won't make any comments on female singers but this time, it will be different. I'm doing it for my friend. (You see, I'm indifferent to most sopranos, you see, however great they were)

About the Rosa Ponselle extracts posted here: I have to say that she was really good when she sang the extracts from Guglielmo Tell and La Vestale. Personally, I didn't really like the songs themselves. Only a great soprano Rosa Ponselle could sustain my interest through those 2 pieces of music. I have to praise her for that. As for the Carmen, it was no more than okay, I'm afraid. She didn't have the right style for it.

However, I was very impressed by her rendition of the aria 'Ernani, involami'. Yes, she did sing the aria beautifully and sweetly but it's not what places her above the many other great sopranos who've attempted this aria. It's the fact she was able to tackle the coloratura parts as skillfully as they did even if she didn't receive the same vocal training they did. Now, that's what I call a true miracle. I'll talk more about it later.

What I like most about Ponselle is that she was able to make the classic heavy Verdi roles she sang early in her career sound as though they were bel canto soprano roles, like Lauri-Volpi did. I much appreciate her elegance and her finesse in singing these roles and the girly way she sounds when she attempts them without making herself appear as a nightingale. That's enough to classify her among the great sopranos of all time. When you hear that she's able to do all these things without much vocal instruction, now that's what you call a true vocal miracle. I know she had a singing teacher but from what I read, it seems he was more a cheerleader than an instructor. Sounds like Marilyn Monroe's drama coach, if you ask me.

I suppose Ponselle's vocal miracle status might have been a double-edged sword. Based on what I read, I guessed that as a singer who stepped on the opera stage straight from the vaudeville circuit, Ponselle might have been insecure about her lack of vocal training compared to her colleagues. Did she really lose her high notes or did she think she lost her high notes? I think it's more likely the latter. I really pity her. The stage must have become considerably daunting to her once that started. I won't be surprised she started thinking of retirement at that point. Most people in her position would do that.

It's a pity there aren't any duets here. Among Ponselle's work, it's her duets which I like the most. When she sings with Martinelli, Stracciari and de Luca, though I listen to the duets because of them rather than her, I find myself drawn to her singing as much as her partners' as the singers make their way through the music. I like the way she acts as a perfect foil with her beautiful and dramatic singing. It makes the performance all the more exciting.
Both soprano and tenor match each other completely. Perfect harmony, I would say. Until now, I think her Aida and Trovatore duets with Martinelli and Stracciari remain unsurpassed.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you Darren, as always, for an interesting comment!

chloe hannah said...

Thank you for the vivid capture of such a character. An educational read (and listen) I greatly enjoyed!

Anonymous said...

Hi Mr.Drake,

Thanks for the interesting article. Ponselle, together with Callas and Muzio are my trinity of soprano who excel in Italian repertoire. I just want to know a bit about the relationship among them. From what I have read, Ponselle respected Muzio greatly, and even considered Muzio to be the best Leonora (in il trovatore) of her era. Callas admired Ponselle, and much later of her life, she was introduced and thrilled by Muzio through Onassis (interestingly, I think Callas' artistry is more in tune with Muzio's, even in her early years)

I would love to know whether Ponselle met Muzio and Callas in person at some points in her life?

Thanks for the answers :)


Darren Seacliffe said...

You're welcome, Edmund. I hope Dr. Drake will return with a guest article for a male singer one day.
I miss the old days when your replies were longer but you're busier now, so I guess..I hope my comments aren't too long, showy and wordy. I can tone down if you like, in future. I wouldn't want to steal your trumpet, good Edmund. This is after all your stage. If you feel that way, please let me know.

I wonder if he's read my stuff. What I do must seem like child's play to an expert like him.

Sorry for leaving such a personal comment here but this is the best way to reach you which I know of.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Chloe! Great to hear from you!

Edmund St. Austell said...

I will call your question to Dr. Drake's attention. Thank you!

Edmund St. Austell said...

This is fine, Darren. Although you can always write to me on Gmail if you wish. Yes, the blog has become another creature since the very early days when I and a half dozen friends basically swapped what had the year before been emails:-) But it is the nature of things to grow, and the blog has become international and heavily read. I largely moderate now, which is ok with me. At my age, that's about what I have the energy for:-)

Darren Seacliffe said...

Well, Edmund, 74's not too old in modern society, considering how Gladstone became the GOM (Grand Old Man) of English politics and Disraeli only became prime minister relatively late in time. As they say, 60's the new 40 so by those standards, you're in your early 50s now.

It's sad. The blog has grown so big and you've become much busier than you were before. I wonder, Edmund, if you can still return to academic publishing, as you mentioned, given how big the blog has grown. I think your channel's become just as big. Who knows? One day, maybe, you might actually be asked to do a real-life Edmund St. Austell show in your late 70s or early 80s. Maybe we'll get to see the next George Burns in you. I hope you can keep up the success you've gotten.

Edmund St. Austell said...

:-) :-) :-) !

Unknown said...

Thanks for your very insightful comment. Of the duets Ponselle recorded commercially with such colleagues as Riccardo Stracciari, Giovanni Martinelli, Ezio Pinza and Charles Hackett, for example, only the "Trovatore" duets with Stracciari seemed to give her any pleasure listening to them in her later years. Her first series of "Aida" recordings with Martinelli in 1924 remained unpublished for years because she was displeased with the balance between Martinelli's and her voices on the test pressings. Only the constant urging of Martinelli and the Victor recording executive Calvin G. Child persuaded Ponselle to allow the 1926 electrical recordings of the "Tomb Scene" to be released commercially.

Darren Seacliffe said...

I'm glad you perfectly understood what I meant, Edmund. Speaking of George Burns, he inspired me to do this dedication to your distinguished self.

Have a nice Indian summer. George Burns is such a good role model, don't you think? He made his Indian summer last till he was reunited with Gracie Allen. Maybe you can do the same too.. I know you're old but don't take it too much to heart. So long as you're still hale and hearty, you can wear your years lightly the same way he did. After all, they're just numbers if you don't put too much weight in them.

It's true that it's depressing that things grow old and wilt around you at this stage in life but like always, there's a silver lining. At least you can become an establishment. A living institution. After all, you see George Burns being the Grand Old Man of American showbiz even when his best friend Jack Benny went up to do a show for God. Not everybody can receive homage from 3 to 4 generations. It's not the tributes that counts but it's the fact you've had the chance to touch the lives of more people than any others. Nobody will give homage unless he's been awed, after all.

This is all I have to say, Edmund. Maybe there might be little we can talk about these days but at least I have adequate belief that reading this will make you feel better for a brief moment. A day that went along well is the most I can give you for all the opportunities you've given me to try my hand at academic writing, something which I'm denied in my college.

It's up to you whether you want to publish this but I hope you'll be gladdened by these humble statements of mine from a rookie who's just begun to make his way in the world to the Grand Old Man of Opera Critique. (sorry for the reference to Gladstone, which you're not)

Please forgive me if I overdo it this time. I'm a verbose feller by nature.

Unknown said...

I'm pleased to answer your question, and I thank you for your comment. Actually, Ponselle and Muzio were very good friends--there was never a hint of rivalry between them, and as you said, Ponselle regarded Muzio as being unsurpassed as Aida and Maddalena in "Andrea Chenier," notwithstanding that those were two roles long associated with Ponselle. Regarding Callas, Ponselle was less enthusiastic in private, but never heard not met Callas in person. The connection between the two great divas was Tullio Serafin, who had sent Ponselle some recordings of Callas in the late 1940s. Ponselle thought the young Callas had wonderful potential--but she never commented (at least to me) about Callas during the latter's international career.

DanPloy said...

The Amadeus biography of Ponselle is wonderful as is this article.

At the time I read it I was already a fan of hers, having found her by way of Martinelli.

Oh, to have been able to have heard her live. Surely there has never been such a beautiful voice.

And it is not a false beauty, as when a singer sings quietly, her beauty is maintained regardless of power, and is imbued with emotion which is so often lacking when a singer tries to sing beautifully.

I am besotted I will admit; for me she can do not wrong whether it be Carmen or Traviata. I do not believe any other singer is so far ahead of the rest. Her voice takes your heart and squeezes it tightly; you breath with her, feel what she feels; it takes you to another place.

I hate to say it but for Martinelli there is Lauri-Volpi or Merli, for Ruffo there is de-Luca or Tibbett, but Rosa is up there all by herself.

Yes Muzio does come close sometimes, (and was unfortunately less recorded in her prime).

For me, Rosa was the greatest singer to have ever lived.

G. F-M said...

In speaking with a Tucker fan, I was advised simply to consult the 'Drake book'. Since then, the name has starred at me frequently from the book's spine, which has become worn from constant reference. What a honour to have such a illustrious professional here on Great Opera Singers!

It is a pleasure too, to hear those anecdotes which are so illustrative, such as the story of Milnes: beside that voice, Ponselle also had that certain instinct for her art that is the mark of the great ones. She knew just how to sing it! This knowledge, in my experience, does not really originate in study or science, but to me seems an unconscious, instinctive response.

Jing said...

Yes, this is absolutely one of the best articles ever. And what fun!!! I compliment Dr. Drake and all who have responded so thoughtfully and passionately. But most of all, thanks, Edmund. "Great Opera Singers" continues to grow deeper and richer with each new post. Masterfully done!

The selections this time are especially striking. I have to confess I really loved the Carmen screen-test. Ponselle is GREAT in it! Carmen was my first opera. I will always love it, and the many productions I have seen since the first almost always disappoint me. So many Carmens sing quite well, but their gypsy raw amoral vitality seems so sanitized and calculated. But Rosa - egads! Somehow, as Mr. Seacliffe suggests, her spontaneous talent and abandon must be rooted in her Vaudville years - always trying to grab and please an audience. (Incidentally, I recall that the Ponzillo sisters weren't just scraping by - they were a classy and well-paid duo. Rosa, I believe, was making less money initially at the Met than she had at the Palace in New York.) Like so many of the articles on this blog, it is fascinating to see how unique and self-crafted the path to success is with so many American opera singers. Anyway, I only wish her Carmen movie had been made - and also, I rather wish that Ponselle had pursued a second career as a mezzo. How amazing she sounds!(The parallel to Callas is striking). And I loved that snippet of an interview with her between Carmen takes. When I heard that nasty little bit about the stiletto between her teeth, I thought that she also would have made a great film noir actress.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you so much, my dear friend. A great comment, and much appreciated!

Unknown said...

I realize that I too may be biased about Ponselle's place atop Mt. Olympus, but who am I to dispute what Maestro Serafin said of Ponselle being one of only three singers he considered "vocal miracles" (the two others being Caruso and Titta Ruffo); or what such esteemed singers as Alexander Kipnis said of her ("She was the greatest dramatic soprano and the greatest singing actress I have ever seen and heard"); or what the legendary Callas said of Ponselle ("I think we all know that she was the greatest singer of us all").

Unknown said...

I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful comment, and also the compliment you so generously paid me regarding my biography of Richard Tucker (whose centennial will take place on August 28). Twice I was privileged to be present during coaching sessions that Ponselle held at Villa Pace with singers from the Baltimore Opera Company. In each of those sessions, she repeatedly reminded the singers that they had to become unconscious of their voices in order to immerse themselves in the music and drama--to "live it," as she would say, rather than just to sing it.

Unknown said...

I'm so pleased that you have enjoyed the article and the selections that accompany it. Thanks to our friend Edmund, I was given the luxury of writing at length about Ponselle, and thereby was able to add a number of her performances that are now available on YouTube. Regarding Ponselle's income from her vaudeville appearances compared to her initial earnings from the Metropolitan Opera, you're quite right: she and Carmela were earning $800 per week on the Keith Circuit, whereas her Met contract only paid her $150 per week during her first season.

Darren Seacliffe said...

Sorry, Edmund, I hope Dr. Drake's still entertaining questions. I've a few I'd like to ask him, concerning Rosa Ponselle's colleagues.

Dear Dr. Drake, may I ask if you were acquainted with Giuseppe de Luca and Giovanni Martinelli? From what I understand, these 2 singers were regular partners of the great Ponselle. There's something I'd like to ask about them. An Italian acquaintance once told me that both singers never returned to Italy after they went to the Met. Did they have any reasons for doing so? I don't believe it was because of competition because given their talent, I've no doubt that they were more than the match of the leading tenors and baritones in Italy at that point of time. If you've any information, could you please get back to me here about it. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Dear Edmund

I have only just finished listening to the Rosa Ponselle recordings as
I was not able to use the given links (I can't seem to access them,
perhaps because I sometimes try to at work during my lunch break and
sometimes at home, with my iPad).

I enjoyed the article hugely and went to Wikipdea to read more about
her. Her technique seems to me to be so rock steady that I find it
difficult to think that she suffered so much from pre-performance
nerves. Her singing of "Homing" was so beautiful; her expressiveness
was exceptional. Of course you can never tell how big a voice is from
a recording so I was interested to hear that she did have a big one;
calling herself "a freak of nature" was not over the top.

Hope you are well.


Sally D

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much, Sally, for an excellent comment. Always appreciated!

Unknown said...

Although I had the privilege of interviewing Martinelli in 1967, my discussion with him concerned his Victor recordings an his recollections of the recording processes of that era. As regards Giuseppe de Luca, I had no contact with him and therefore can't provide any information or insights about his reasons for not returning to Italy.

Unknown said...

I know exactly what you mean--and it mystified everyone who knew her and performed with her as to why she had such a terrible case of pre- performances nerves. She told me (as she did other interviewers over the years) that she was always afraid that the major New York critics would find fault with her performances at the Met. our, however, where she could more freely avail herself of transpositions, she had no nervousness at all.

DanPloy said...

Hello Darren,

Just regarding Martinelli not returning to Italy. Without checking my references there are perhaps 3 reasons:

Martinelli was invited to Italy to perform in the premiere of Turandot but the director of the Met told him if he left he could never return. There was huge rivalry between La Scala and the Met, or between the two directors. Martinelli was just a pawn in this.

Martinelli was quite a celebrity in New York and his family were settled there. He didn't want to leave them for long periods of time touring in Europe; (he actually performed very little outside of the US once he had first moved there).

I believe Pertile was the lead singer at La Scala at that time (born the same year as Martinelli if you believe Martinelli's birth date) and perhaps Martinelli didn't want to go 'head to head' with him. Martinelli did have competition at the Met, Gigli, Lauri-Volpi and in the early days, Caruso, but the former two returned to Italy.

Although he died in New York his body was flown back to Italy for burial.

Anonymous said...

Thanks to Dr. Drake for the brilliant article, and thanks to you, Edmund , for attracting such an expert to your blog. The choice of recordings is very impressive.I don't comment on her singing because it doesn't need comments - total greatness. What surprised me again in her biography is that she could master correct technique so fast. It seems that good teachers were everywhere in those times. Or maybe it has a lot to do with her Italian origin. People sang more then, and many of them sang correctly.

I read Buster Keaton memoirs, where he wrote a lot about various vaudeville circuits , and he mentioned Keith Circuit too. It sound like a very ancient times. So the old lady Edith Prilik was right when she said "I first heard Rosa in 1915, and none of the rest of you know what the hell you're talking about.":) And it seems to me that Ponselle was a very ‘down-to-earth’ person , like most of the vaudeville artists were. Judging by her screen test as Carmen, she was a good actress.


Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you, my dear friend, for a characteristically good and interesting comment. Strange about the overlapping Keith circuits--it must have been one of the most important ones. And yes, I agree. Judging from that clip, it would seem that she had real acting talent!

Anonymous said...

[correct version]

Ponselle was definitely a "freak of nature" as Mr. Drake reports she stated about herself in his definitive biography. She had a turn-key voice that made her ready to debut in La Forza Del Destino at 21 - whereas most strong sopranos will tackle it in their 40s - opposite the most famous tenor of all time. To whatever extent he taught her - which remains controversial -, Thorner didn't make Ponselle. Nor Romani who came in only after she signed her first MET contract and rather seems to have coached her for her roles. She had this naturally structured voice with coordinated registers, lined up portions, seamless scales and homogeneous sound from bottom to top, not even mentioning the rare and highly sought after Bel canto style chiaroscuro. Like Melba, who was not more made by Marchesi nor the two earlier less known teachers she had. Melba whom we learn from Mr. Drake that she behaved like a Diva - in the negative sense of the word - during her encounter with Rosa, contrary to Bellincioni, whom she liked to prepare Traviata with and the legendary Tetrazzini whose meeting with left her sweet memories. "Like Melba" and unlike Malibran, the yet probably most famous female opera singer of all time, whose retive voice and stormy coaching turned her against her father-teacher Manuel Garcia Senior and made her debut opposite the legendary castrato Velluti somewhat less glorious than the Countess Merlin rumored it around and than Rosa's debut opposite Caruso. It was in Zingarelli's Romeo e Giulietta in London, in 1830, at the King's Theatre. After the performance, its director John Ebers only found to say about Malibran : "Well, she has a pleasant voice...". But we have to give her the credit for her courage : Pasta herself & Ronzi De Begnis had forfeited in turns and only the young 17 year old boiling outsider Maria Malibran had accepted to take up the challenge. Though 44 and on the decline, he was still a Divo; she was an inexperienced hopeful Diva. And Velluti, the last of his kind, was not the man to be stolen the show. Ponselle was said "a Caruso in petticoat"; he was "a Melba in tuxedo" in sum...

Only anecdotes I know. But what is left to be said after Mr. Drake ?


Anonymous said...

My bad : the duet Velluti/Malibran took place in 1825, not 1830. Let's be exact when answering Mr. Drake !


Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for this wonderful article. I read somewhere Sutherland admired Rosa and went to visit her in one ocassion. I would love to know if there's any information about this.