Born to Italian immigrants living in Meriden, Connecticut in 1897, Rosa Ponselle (born Rosa Ponzillo) displayed a natural talent for both singing and instrumental music at an early age. To express that talent, she began her musical career as a teenager, singing ballads in local movie theaters to keep audiences entertained while the projectionist changed film reels. Ponselle then joined her older sister Carmela on the vaudeville circuit for three years before catching the ear of a renowned New York City agent. He persuaded the opera star and legendary tenor Enrico Caruso to come to his studio to hear the famous “Ponzillo sisters” sing a duet.
Caruso was captivated by Rosa’s voice and arranged an audition for the vaudeville songstress at the New York Metropolitan Opera. The Met’s opera manager promptly offered Rosa a staggering $150-per-week contract — equal to over $2,500 in today’s dollars — and the 21-year-old melody maker from Meriden suddenly found herself thrust into the national spotlight. Rosa Ponselle made her grand debut on the Metropolitan stage on November 15, 1918 as Leonora in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, starring opposite Enrico Caruso himself. She was the first American-born and American-trained singer to star at the Metropolitan Opera (although she vehemently denied ever receiving formal vocal training at any point in her career).
For the next 19 years, Ponselle thrilled audiences with her mellifluous soprano voice and dramatic stage presence, starring in the Met’s productions of famous operas, including Carmen, William Tell, Aida, Don Giovanni, and Norma. When the financial pressures of the Great Depression forced the Met to drastically cut Rosa’s salary in 1937, she chose to retire instead and focus on family life, having married the year before.
To this day, Rosa Ponselle is considered by critics and amateur opera fans alike as one of the greatest sopranos to ever grace the stage. Even long after her retirement, opera lovers swooned over her arias, with one New York Times critic reminiscing in 1972 that Ponselle’s “big, pure colorful golden voice would rise effortlessly, hitting the stunned listener in the face, rolling over the body, sliding down the shoulder-blades, making one wiggle with sheer physiological pleasure.” The uniquely American dream of a young, Connecticut-born daughter of Italian immigrants began amid thunderous applause on this day in Connecticut history.
Karina Küching, “How soprano Rosa Ponselle went from the small town of Meriden, CT to the Metropolitan Opera,” WFMT.com
Allen Hughes, “Rosa Ponselle, Dramatic Soprano,” New York Times
Reviews of Ponselle’s 1927 Debut in Norma, Metropolitan Opera archives
Rosa Ponselle Art – Youtube Channel featuring Rosa Ponselle recordings