On November 15, 1918, Rosa Ponselle was convinced that she was never going to see another day, let alone another performance. At just twenty-one years old, she was debuting as the first American soprano to sing at the Metropolitan opera without European experience or formal training. Ponselle had been invited by Italian tenor Enrico Caruso to audition for the female lead in Giuseppi Verdi’s La Forza del Destino and had fainted during her audition. On the day of her premier her nerves began to consume her again, and Ponselle convinced herself she was not even going to make it through the first act. When she got through the second act she thought, “A miracle has happened.” Indeed, she went on to achieve one of the most triumphant debuts in the history of opera.
Rosa Melba Ponzillo was born on January 22, 1897, the third child of Italian immigrant parents, in Meriden, Conn. By the time she was eight, her voice was developing well and it was already clear that she had great talent. Her musical career officially began when she was just eleven. As a young singer Ponzillo sang songs and sold sheet music at a local store before moving on to performances between the reels at a local silent film theater. Shortly after, she and her sister Carmella were performing in New Haven’s vaudeville theater acts. Ten years older than Rosa, Carmella moved to New York City to continue her vaudeville career and encouraged her younger sister to join her on Broadway where they performed together frequently and became known as “Those Tailored Italian Girls.” It was during one of these performances that Enrico Caruso discovered the younger sister and invited her to audition for La Forza del Destino.
During her twenty years as the reigning Metropolitan Opera diva, Ponselle sang twenty-two roles in 266 performances. She also performed in London and Florence and countless Europeans traveled to New York just to hear her. By the mid-1930s, Ponselle was ready to try a new role and began to prepare for a wilder, less formal stint as the lead in Bizet’s Carmen. To prepare for the role, she spent time in gypsy caves in Spain and learned how to flamenco dance. Some were weary of her decisions, but her final performances as Carmen were the first to be broadcast live on the radio from the Met and were billed by the New York Times as the “hottest tickets in town.”
In 1936, Ponselle married Baltimore socialite Carle Jackson and, in 1937, at the peak of her career, she retired as the twentieth century’s greatest vocal artist and actress, called the “queen of legato” and a “vocal force of nature” with a voice of “pure gold.” She and her husband built a villa in Maryland, which they called Villa Pace, and Ponselle spent the rest of her life at the home. She divorced Jackson in 1949 and never again appeared on-stage. However, she continued to sing privately for friends who visited her home. She also worked to further the popularity of opera in the Baltimore area, helping to guide the Baltimore Opera Company and working with young singers including Beverly Sills, Sherill Milnes, and Placido Domingo.
Rosa Ponselle died at her home in Maryland in 1981, at the age of 84. Following her death, the Rosa Ponselle Foundation was established in Baltimore to preserve the singer’s legacy. In 1997, the centenary of her birth, the U.S. Postal Service dedicated a stamp in her honor as part of its legends in music series.
During This Time
1921 - 1945: Prosperity, Depression, & War
Industrial growth, economic expansion, and plenty of consumer goods gave women more purchasing power and pleasure in the 1920s. Women gained political office, but after achieving the right to vote the Women’s Movement fractured over the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The percentage of married women in the workforce doubled, though in menial jobs, while women of color had few opportunities. The media’s message about the home was ambivalent. For daughters, the young flapper was glamorized in movies starring Clara Bow who had It (sex appeal). But the modern mother, equipped with widely-advertised appliances, was expected to keep house and raise children with new efficiency.
The prosperity of the twenties contrasted with the hardships of the 1930s following the 1929 stock market crash. Farm families in the Dust Bowl, suffering from drought and crop failures, fled to California where they worked as migratory laborers. As impoverished families across America struggled, desertion rose (but not divorce, which was expensive), and family size grew smaller. Women’s jobs were largely confined to low-paying domestic labor, garment factories, and food-processing plants, all further segregated by race and ethnicity.
In the midst of the Great Depression, President Roosevelt, helped by wife Eleanor, brought strong leadership toward recovery with the New Deal. Professional women were included in federal projects, and work relief programs gave help to poor women. The Social Security Act of 1935 owed much to Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. African-American Mary McLeod Bethune, using her executive position in the National Youth Administration, pressured the administration to provide equal pay for blacks in all programs.
World War II deeply influenced women’s lives. Sex-segregated labor diminished, as symbolized in the poster of “Rosie the Riveter.” Women were accepted into the military, though the public was concerned about the loss of femininity. Defense industries were reluctant to admit women, but as men were drafted, the resistance eroded. Older, married women provided the largest number of new workers. Black, Mexican, and Chinese women had new opportunities, but Japanese women suffered internment in camps. With demobilization, women were laid off, but many were soon back on the job. Their role still was defined in the home, but the war had increased women’s activities in the workplace.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.