ROSA PONSELLE by James A. Drake


A Centenary Biography
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 A marvelous celebration of the life and career of the brilliant American soprano, incorporating interviews with the singer (who died in 1981) as well as the recollections of people who worked with her and for her, of family members, and of artistic colleagues. Each chapter of interviews is followed by a comprehensive documentary section drawn from such items as letters by Ponselle and reviews of her performances. The result is a fascinating, complex, and convincing portrait of a remarkable woman. Rosa Ponselle was born in 1897, in Meriden, Conn., to Italian immigrants. She studied music with her mother, and with her sister Carmilla formed the Italian Girls, a successful vaudeville act that eventually took them to New York, where they shared the bill with such luminaries as Al Jolson, Ed Wynn, and the Astaires. Caruso heard her sing, and the rest is history: In 1919 she became an overnight star at the Metropolitan Opera, and for roughly 20 years she was the American prima diva, a tempestuous star not just of opera, but the concert stage, radio, and recordings. She made her last appearence at the Met in 1937, after some 365 performances; she was, she tells Drake, ``tired of the grind.'' She spent the rest of her long life as a society hostess, usually living alone (her one marriage didn't last long). We know her through her recordings, most of which she condemns as ruined by ``that damned clock'' (i.e., the need to fit a performance within the confines of a 78 rpm recording, which drove singers to sing faster and louder, sacrificing nuance and contrast). Some of her recordings, such as the two arias from Vestale made in 1926, are classics. Her recollections of fellow perforers are frank, vivid and perceptive. Ponselle's husband remembered her as ``alluring, bright, shrewd . . . sometimes just impossible.'' Drake's splendid book gives us the full measure of her--both as diva and vaudeville star turned society hostess and self-exiled recluse. (63 b&w photos, not seen)

Pub Date: April 1st, 1997
ISBN: 1-57467-019-0
Page count: 536pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1997