Rosa Ponselle’s birthday

Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981)(Photo: United States Postal Service)
Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981)(Photo: United States Postal Service)

Rose Ponzillo was born in Meriden, Connecticut on January 22, 1897.  She had an older sister, Carmela and a brother, Tony. Her parents were Italian immigrants, illiterate, who ran a small grocery store. There was nothing remarkable about this family. They made a modest living and the parents never really assimilated. No reason to remember the Ponzillo family.

Except for when Carmela left for New York and worked as a model and a saloon chanteuse. She had a good voice. She was soon joined by kid sister Rose. In Meriden, they were extra mouths to feed, and Rose was a hearty eater.

In New York, the sisters put together and act and headed for vaudeville. They were The Sisters from Brighton Beach on crummy coast to coast tours. Around 1916 they hit the big time at New York’s Palace Theater.

Carmela was training for the opera. The sister act craze had run its course and Rose took voice lessons too, although she didn’t need any. Carmela had a fine talent. Rose lost some weight, styled her hair and became Rosa Ponselle, one of the greatest voices of all time.

Rosa started at the top in opera. Enrico Caruso heard her. Before long she made a debut at the Metropolitan Opera opposite the great tenor in Verdi’s La forza del destino. She had seen two operas in her life.

Rosa was a smash hit. The critics called her voice “vocal gold.” She spent the next 20 years as the world’s reigning prima donna. Today, if you care about such things, you already know that her voice is mentioned with awe, 75 years after her last performances.

Rosa retired in 1937 to get married. Divas make poor choices. Hubby left and Rosa lived on in her villa in the hills outside Baltimore.  She taught.  She ran the Baltimore Opera. She coached young singers like James Morris and Beverly Sills. The opera world regularly came to her door including: Joan Sutherland, Eileen Farrell and Luciano Pavarotti.  Rosa’s 80th birthday was a televised spectacular covered by the evening news.

I met her around 1980. She was clear headed, glamorous and infirm. I was so tongue-tied, that I could only blurt out, “It musta been real exciting to sing with Caruso.”  The lady replied “Youse wanna know if me and Caruso were INTERESTING??!!?”  Somebody told her I was just a kid. She could no longer hold a pen. She kissed a photo of herself, leaving a lip stick print.

By the way, Rosa was wooed by Hollywood for a film of Carmen. Here’s her screen test.

The movie was never made. She told Louis B. Mayer she wanted a quarter of a million dollars, to which he replied, “That’s 10 times what we pay Clark Gable!”

Oh well. Clark couldn’t sing.  Happy birthday, Rosa Ponselle!

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