Rosa Ponselle

Rosa Ponselle
"I love to be wild. I can hold a stiletto between my teeth and let you have it when you deserve it."
- Rosa Ponselle

Induction Category:
Arts & Humanities

Born: 1897

Died: 1981

Inducted: 1998

Town: Meriden

On November 15, 1918, Rosa Ponselle was convinced that she was never going to see another day, let alone another performance. At just twenty-one years old, she was debuting as the first American soprano to sing at the Metropolitan opera without European experience or formal training. Ponselle had been invited by Italian tenor Enrico Caruso to audition for the female lead in Giuseppi Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and had fainted during her audition. On the day of her premier her nerves began to consume her again, and Ponselle convinced herself she was not even going to make it through the first act. When she got through the second act she thought, “A miracle has happened.” Indeed, she went on to achieve one of the most triumphant debuts in the history of opera.

Rosa Melba Ponzillo was born on January 22, 1897, the third child of Italian immigrant parents, in Meriden, Conn. By the time she was eight, her voice was developing well and it was already clear that she had great talent. Her musical career officially began when she was just eleven. As a young singer Ponzillo sang songs and sold sheet music at a local store before moving on to performances between the reels at a local silent film theater. Shortly after, she and her sister Carmella were performing in New Haven’s vaudeville theater acts. Ten years older than Rosa, Carmella moved to New York City to continue her vaudeville career and encouraged her younger sister to join her on Broadway where they performed together frequently and became known as “Those Tailored Italian Girls.” It was during one of these performances that Enrico Caruso discovered the younger sister and invited her to audition for La Forza del Destino.

During her twenty years as the reigning Metropolitan Opera diva, Ponselle sang twenty-two roles in 266 performances. She also performed in London and Florence and countless Europeans traveled to New York just to hear her. By the mid-1930s, Ponselle was ready to try a new role and began to prepare for a wilder, less formal stint as the lead in Bizet’s Carmen. To prepare for the role, she spent time in gypsy caves in Spain and learned how to flamenco dance. Some were weary of her decisions, but her final performances as Carmen were the first to be broadcast live on the radio from the Met and were billed by the New York Times as the “hottest tickets in town.”

In 1936, Ponselle married Baltimore socialite Carle Jackson and, in 1937, at the peak of her career, she retired as the twentieth century’s greatest vocal artist and actress, called the “queen of legato” and a “vocal force of nature” with a voice of “pure gold.” She and her husband built a villa in Maryland, which they called Villa Pace, and Ponselle spent the rest of her life at the home. She divorced Jackson in 1949 and never again appeared on-stage. However, she continued to sing privately for friends who visited her home. She also worked to further the popularity of opera in the Baltimore area, helping to guide the Baltimore Opera Company and working with young singers including Beverly Sills, Sherill Milnes, and Placido Domingo.

Rosa Ponselle died at her home in Maryland in 1981, at the age of 84. Following her death, the Rosa Ponselle Foundation was established in Baltimore to preserve the singer’s legacy. In 1997, the centenary of her birth, the U.S. Postal Service dedicated a stamp in her honor as part of its legends in music series.

During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War