Rosa Ponzillo (1/22/1897-5/25/1981), the child of Italian immigrants living in Connecticut, began singing in vaudeville with her sister, then decided to try for grand opera. Here's an excerpt from interviews with Ponselle describing how she broke into opera singing the role of Leonora in La Forza del Destino, 1918. She has just told how William Thorner, an agent and manager with connections at the Met Opera, brought Enrico Caruso to hear her sing.
RP: After I finished singing, [Caruso] walked over to me and said to me in a very matter-of-fact sort of way, "You'll sing with me." Well, you could've knocked me over with a feather. I said, "Sing with you? Where? When?" All he said was, "Maybe in a year or two, maybe later, but you'll sing with me at the Metropolitan." Then he sat down next to me--I was as nervous as a kitten--and he said, pointing to his throat, "You have it here," meaning that I had the voice it would take to sing with him at the Met. Then he pointed to his heart, and he said, "And you have it here," which was his way of saying that I had the quality of emotion, the depth of feeling, that it would take to be an artist. Then he raised his hand to his head, and tapped his temple with his finger. He said to me, "And whether you have it up here, only time will tell."
Interviewer: At that point, then, was it Caruso who spoke about you to Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera?
RP: That's right. Caruso went back to Gatti-Casazza and told him about these two sisters from vaudeville, and that one of them (he probably said "the fat one," because I was as big as a telephone booth in those days) had just the right voice for Leonora in La forza del destino. You see, they had this big premiere coming up, and it was wartime so they didn't have any of the great European sopranos over here to sing Leonora.
Interviewer: How did Gatti-Casazza react?
RP: Gatti said to him, "This young girl who has only heard two operas in her life and is out of vaudeville is going to come and do Leonora with you? You must have your head examined!" Caruso said, "Wait till you hear her, and you'll change your mind." And then Gatti said, "Well, I'll tell you this: if this American makes good, every door will be open to American potentials from that moment on. And if she doesn't make good, Signor Gatti takes the first ship back to Italy - the first ship back to Italy - and America will never see me again!" But Caruso said to him, "You wait. You won't have to take that ship back to Italy."
Interviewer: Did Gatti-Casazza engage you on Caruso's word, or did you have to audition?
RP: Well, after we sang for Caruso, Carmela and I had two auditions at the Met. The first one was a formal thing--it was only a couple of days after Caruso heard us at Thorner's studio. A lot of the big stars at the Met came to that audition. Giovanni Martinelli was there, and Pasquale Amato, Adamo Didur, Frieda Hempel, Margarete Matzenauer, and Caruso came too. The second one, that was about two weeks later, [was] just for Gatti and some of the executives. That time, I didn't do so good.
Interviewer: Why not?
RP: I fainted. Isn't that the limit! Here I am, a kid looking for the big break, and when it comes, what does Rosa do? Rosa passes out on the floor. What happened was, Gatti had asked me to prepare the "Casta diva" from Norma. I had never even heard of the opera (I didn't know Norma from Wagner in those days), but Nino Romani helped me prepare it. Gatti asked how long I would need to learn it, and Romani told him two weeks. So, at this final audition with Gatti I was asked to sing the "Casta diva," and I got through it fine, right up to the last few measures. Then, all of a sudden, I keeled over. The next thing I knew, Carmela was leaning over me with smelling salts. I don't know what caused it--nerves, maybe a touch of the flu, or maybe I just ran out of breath. But I was sure I had lost my chance. I mean, why would the Metropolitan take a chance on somebody like that? Yet the next thing I knew, Gatti took me into his office, opened the drawer of his desk, pulled out this piece of paper, and handed it to me. I said, "What's this?" He said, "It's a contract. You're going to sing here with Caruso." Well, I didn't know the first thing about a contract! I was just a kid, barely twenty-one, and this was all new to me. I signed the contract, and from then on, as I said before, it was the force of destiny.
Above: Ponselle collapsing into Enrico Caruso's arms in Verdi's Forza del Destino.
The Miller Building
This sculpture is on the façade of the I. Miller Building, which bears the motto “The show folks shoe shop dedicated to beauty in footwear.” Israel Miller, a Polish immigrant who excelled at making shoes for theater people, ran a public contest to find America's best-loved actresses to decorate the building's facade. The winners were (left to right) Ethel Barrymore (drama), Marilyn Miller (musical comedy), Mary Pickford (movies), and Rosa Ponselle (opera).
Click here for a great series of before-and-after photos of the Miller Building, and here and here for more on the history of the building.
- On Rosa Ponselle, see here, with anecdotes by a man who knew her.
- The beginning of a biography by James A. Drake (including the whole interview excerpted above) is here.
- Here's Ponselle singing "Casta diva" from Norma.
- Quotes on the quality of Ponselle's voice by Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti, and others: here.