By Christina Volpe
Rosa Ponzillo (known better as Rosa Ponselle) etched her name in history as the first American-born and American-trained singer to star with the Metropolitan Opera Company. After getting her musical start in Connecticut, Ponselle traveled widely as an accomplished soprano, performing in some of the most esteemed opera houses in the world.
A Musical Family
Born on January 22, 1897, in Meriden, Connecticut, Rosa emerged from humble beginnings as the daughter of Italian immigrants. She grew up in the close-knit Italian American neighborhood of Springdale Avenue in Meriden.
The musical journey of the Ponzillo family was set in motion by Rosa’s older siblings, Anthony and Carmella, who immersed themselves in the choir of Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Church in Meriden, learning to read, sing, and play the piano. From a young age, Rosa exhibited her musical prowess as a “song slide girl” in silent film houses, providing a melodic backdrop to silent pictures.
Rosa, inspired by her sister Carmela’s singing of Italian opera and cabaret on local stages, embarked on her own stage career. Rosa joined forces with Carmela to create the operatic vaudeville act known as the “Tailored Italian Sisters” or “The Ponzillo Sisters,” performing between 1915 and 1918. In New York, Rosa caught the ear of the legendary opera singer, Enrico Caruso, who arranged for Rosa to audition with the Metropolitan Opera Company.
Rise to Opera Stardom
On November 15, 1918, at 21, newly named Rosa Ponselle took the stage alongside Caruso in Giuseppe Verdi’s La forza del destino, marking her debut with the Metropolitan Opera. This milestone showcased her exceptional talent and cemented her status as the first American-born singer to join the Met without European training or formal vocal experience, paving the way for future American-trained vocalists.
Ponselle’s operatic journey extended beyond the borders of the United States. She graced London’s Convent Garden for three seasons between 1929 and 1931 and delivered three captivating performances of La vestale in Florence, Italy in 1933. Upon marrying and moving to Baltimore, Maryland, Rosa Ponselle bid farewell to the Met, having performed there for 19 illustrious seasons.
In Baltimore, Ponselle became an integral part of the local theater community, leaving an indelible mark as the first artistic director of the Baltimore Opera Company. In April 1937, Ponselle’s final operatic performance in Carmen in Cleveland marked the culmination of a remarkable career on the stage, but she did not stop there. In the 1950s, she worked with RCA Victor to record some of her most popular songs.
Ponselle’s Musical Legacy
Rosa Ponselle’s contributions to the world of opera did not go unnoticed. She received the Commendatore Award from the government of Italy, a testament to her impact on the global stage. Additionally, the Peabody Conservatory of Music and the University of Maryland both bestowed Ponselle with honorary doctor of arts degrees, further underscoring her significance in music.
After battling cancer, Rosa Ponselle died on May 25, 1981, near Baltimore. As she retired in 1952, Ponselle expressed a profound sentiment: “I do not want a comeback. No one knows how much I gave up to sing in opera. I’ve had all that—for which I am most grateful. Now I want to catch up on everything I’ve missed.” In those words, Rosa encapsulated a life dedicated to artistry and breaking barriers while leaving an enduring legacy that resonates in the hearts of opera enthusiasts to this day.
Christina Volpe is a public historian and Ph.D. Candidate at Salve Regina University. She holds an MA in public history from Central Connecticut State University where she focused on digital curation and historic preservation. Christina serves as curator of The Barnes Museum in Southington, Connecticut.