Rosa Ponselle, 84, one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of the modern era and the last link between the fabled days of Enrico Caruso and the stars of today, died yesterday at her home at Stevenson, Md., after a heart attack.
Miss Ponselle made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on Nov. 15, 1918, singing the role of Leonora in "La Forza del Destino," by Guiseppe Verdi. The tenor that night was Caruso himself. Her last appearance at the Metropolitan was on March 14, 1937, when she appeared in concert.
In the years between, she established herself at the very top of her profession, leaving audiences and critics gasping for superlatives with which to describe her artistry. She was the first American-born and American-trained singer to become a major star with the Metropolitan company without European experience. Thus she made it easier for other Americans to join that famous company. None, whether born and trained here or elsewhere, has surpassed her.
Following that concert at the Metropolitan, Mill Ponselle went into retirement at Stevenson in the suburbs of Baltimore. She left center stage after 19 seasons and with her voice entirely intact. Although she entertained frequently and kept her voice in training, she sang in public only for special occasions. She turned down dozens of offers to return to the stage and dozens more for major recording contracts. However, she was for many years the artistic director of the Baltimore Civic Opera Company. She also taught promising students.
But she was not forgotten -- neither by the public nor by her peers in the world of music. In addition to many pleas for her to return to opera, she received numerous honors. They included honorary doctorates from the Peabody Institute of Music in Baltimore and the University of Maryland. She also received the Commendatore Medal from the government of Italy. The numerous callers she received included Leontyne Price, Luciano Pavarotti and Beverly Sills, all of whom came to pay her homage.
In 1972, Harold Shoenberg, the music critic of The New York Times, wrote that "there was nothing like the Ponselle sound. Ever. That big, pure, 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."
And in 1953, Paul Hume, the music critic of The Washington Post, wrote of some of the recordings she made toward the end of her career.
"In these records the deepest hues of the dark color that shaded Ponselle's voice in her final Met Seasons are apparent. But it is a factor that in no way affects the floating power of the voice, the ease of portamenti, the long-breathed phrases, and the other quantities that make up a typical Ponselle delivery."
Hume also heard Miss Ponselle sing at her 80th birthday party, and wrote of "a series of rising notes, incredibly rich in texture, firm, secure, and powerful. It is not possible for a woman 80 years old to sound that way, but Ponselle has never been limited to what was possible."
Miss Ponselle was born Rosa Melba Ponzillo on Jan. 22, 1897, at Meriden, Conn. Her father, who had immigrated to the United States from Naples, Italy, was a baker and the owner of a grocery store. She began her musical education by studying the piano. As a young girl, she played the piano in movie theaters and presently found that she could sing. When she was 16, Miss Ponselle, and her sister, Carmela, who also went on to a career as a mezzo-soprano at the Metropolitan, began singing in vaudeville. Later, Rosa became a pupil of William Thorner.
According to one story, Caruso first heard Miss Ponselle sing in vaudeville. In any case, she was prepared to take on the part of Leonora in "La Forza del Destino," which the Metropolitan Opera never before had staged, when she was 21. It is said that the Met's general mangager, Gatti-Cazazza, suggested that she change her name from Ponzillo to Ponselle.
After that first performance, one critic said the young singer was "a Caruso in petticoats."
Throughout her career, one of the hallmarks of Miss Ponselle's life was the discipline with which she approached her work. Years later, she said it was a desire to be free of this discipline that persuaded her to retire.
In an interview with The Post in 1972, Miss Ponselle was asked to comment on today's singers.
"The young singers today are launched before they learn, "she said. "They sing in one place and then rush to sing somewhere else. The important thing is what they want. So they want to make money fast, or do they want to leave something for posterity? Plus a great voice, which they must have, they have to have common sense: they have to respect the voice."
As for herself, Miss Ponselle said: "When I was with the Metropolitan, I took no summer engagements. I went every year to the mountains and rested my voice. I did plenty of mental work. I restudied my roles and I worked on new ones. But I took no engagements.
"And during the years I was singing, I accepted no social invitations. That kind of singing demands great sacrifice. You have to give up many pleasures. You start with the greatness of the gift from the Lord. But the more you work, and the closer you get to what you think may be the ideal, the more you realize how far from it you still are."
So in December 1936, Miss Ponselle married Carle A. Jackson, the son of a mayor of Baltimore. They built "Villa Pace," the name of which is taken from the first words Leonora sings in "La Forza del Destino:" "Pace, pace, mio Dio" ("Peace, peace, my God.") The house is on Italian-style villa that stands on the top of a hill. In 1946, Miss Ponselle was divorced from Jackson, but she continued to live there for the rest of her life.
On Christmas Day 1979, Villa Pace was severely damaged by a fire. For some time, Miss Ponselle lived with a community of nuns nearby. But soon she was able to return home.The restoration of the damage from the fire is not yet finished.
Miss Ponselle's house was to have been the site of a celebrity auction next Sunday on behalf of the Peabody Institute of Music. That event has been postponed until further notice. As for Villa Pace itself, Miss Ponselle made provision for it to be used as a museum.
Miss Ponselle suffered a number of stokes in recent years and had been confined to a wheelchair.
Her sister, Carmela, died in 1977. She leaves no immediate survivors.