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Born on January 22, 1897 in Meriden, Connecticut, Rosa Ponzillo (later changed into Ponselle) was an Italian-American singer and one of the greatest sopranos of the past 100 years. Her parents were Neapolitan immigrants who settled on Meriden’s west side, in a neighborhood populated by other Italians. Growing up, Rosa loved the piano but her voice was so beautiful not to be noticed and her older sister Carmela was pursuing a career as a cabaret singer. Rosa began singing popular ballads to silent-movie’s audiences while the projectionist changed film reels, and when she was only 17 her reputation led her to the San Carlino Theater, one of the largest movie houses in New Haven.

A year later, Carmela brought her younger sister Rosa to audition for her vaudeville agent. She was immediately hired to perform with Carmela as a "sister act". Between 1915 and 1918, the Ponzillo Sisters (also known as "Those Tailored Italian Girls") became a headlining act on the Keith Vaudeville Circuit, appearing in all the major Keith theaters and earning a substantial income. They sang traditional ballads, popular Italian songs, and operatic arias and duets. In 1918, Carmela and Rosa demanded a raise and got fired.

The legendary baritone Victor Maurel, whom Giuseppe Verdi had chosen to create Iago in Otello, auditioned both sisters, and so did great tenor Enrico Caruso, star of the Metropolitan Opera who was deeply impressed with Rosa's voice. He arranged an audition for the Met's general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, who offered Rosa a contract for the 1918-19 season.

At 21, Rosa Ponselle made her Metropolitan Opera debut, just a few days after the Great War had finished, as Leonora in Verdi's La forza del destino, opposite Caruso. In spite of an almost paralyzing case of nervousness, she scored a tremendous success, both with the public and with the critics. New York Times critic James Huneker wrote:

What a promising debut! Added to her personal attraciveness, she possesses a voice of natural beauty that may prove a gold mine. It is vocal gold, anyhow, with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich and ductile, brilliant in the upper register.

Rosa became a star and from that moment on she sang in the most important Opera Houses here and abroad. Her last operatic performance was as Carmen on April 22, 1937, in a Met tour performance in Cleveland. She and her husband Jackson built a luxurious home near Baltimore, Villa Pace, where she lived the rest of her life. Rosa died on May 25, 1981, aged 84. 




The Sun, March 09, 1919