The outpouring of emotion caused by the recent death of Frank Sinatra may remind us of the power of music, and the particular power of the voice, to get under our skin. Sinatra hypnotized three generations with his smoothness, his rhythm, and his matchless enunciation—a notable achievement in English. But though the bobbysoxers called him “The Voice,” Sinatra, whatever his accomplishments, never deserved that sobriquet. He didn’t have the chops. And there have been a lot of other admirable singers who didn’t altogether have what it takes in the vocal department, strictly speaking. So—who was “The Voice,” then?

There are legitimate contenders for that title, a number of whom have been dead for well over a century. Then there are some 19th-century legends who come into view—or earshot—as their careers ended and the era of recording began. We can talk about some of the old bel canto singers, artists of the stature of Mattia Battistini, Fernando di Lucia, and others. But the old 78’s really started spinning with Enrico Caruso, whose tenor still resounds. Titta Ruffo, the Lion of Baritones, was perhaps the only singer of his range with such charisma that he could sell out an opera house by himself. There were basses then, before and after the Great War, who left imposing evidence of their command: Plancon, Journet, Pinza. But when we look in the soprano range, some think, as I do, that we find The Voice—and this in competition, mind you, with Elizabeth Rethberg, Frieda Leider, Kirstin Flagstad, Maria Callas, Zinka Milanov, Montserrat Caballe—in Rosa Ponselle (1897-1981), the subject of Phillips-Matz’s biography.

Writing a quarter of a century ago, Harold C. Schonberg did not mince words about the Ponselle effect, which he experienced many times:

When Rosa Ponselle was singing, the vast distance between stage and upstairs standing room seemed diminished. That big, pure, colorful 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. There are voices and voices, and the Metropolitan Opera in the 1930’s had many great ones. But there was nothing like the Ponselle sound, ever. To many of us it was the greatest single voice in any category. She had the low notes of a contralto, and a knockout high C; and there were no artificial registers to the voice — it went from bottom to top in the smoothest, most seamless of scales, with no shifting from chest to head.

That sounds about right. Ponselle was The Voice if anyone was. But for those of us who couldn’t be there in the 1920’s and 30’s, there are compensations.

Mary Jane Phillips-Matz’s new biography of Rosa Ponselle is one of those compensations. In telling the story of Ponselle’s life, she has filled in the details of a legend. Of course, in Ponselle’s case, the legend is true. Ponselle was a prodigy, and had the most auspicious and unlikely debut in operatic history. When she stood on the Metropolitan stage in La Forza del Destino with Caruso and Mardones just a few days after the end of the Great War, she had never had a formal music lesson or ever performed in opera before. She was the daughter of Italian immigrants named Ponzillo—an exuberant girl, tall, dark, striking. She was also blessed with humility and courage, both of which she would need.

Ponselle decided early to drop out of school, because she wanted to sing. This decision was one of those things that released her. She sang with her sister Carmela for the pleasure of it, and then the}’ decided to sing for monev, defying their family to do it. Rosa said that singing was the only thing she wanted to do, and that singing was the only thing she could do. Carmela and Rosa appeared in vaudeville as “Those Tailored Italian Girls.” Their repertoire included “Kiss Me Again,” “Swanee River,” and “Are You from Dixie?” The transition to the Met was as outrageous as it sounds, including recognition not only by Caruso but by Victor Maurel, the first Iago and the first Falstaff. The next thing she knew Rosa, at the age of 21, had a contract with the Met and a lot to learn. Ponselle responded with all the effort she could muster, but she never completely overcame her fear of performing. She retired from the stage in 1939, though she maintained an engagement with the musical world in Baltimore and also coached such notables as Placido Domingo, Sherrill Milnes, Raina Kabaivanska, and James Morris. The recordings she made in 1954 show that she was still Rosa Ponselle, and that her voice had darkened and deepened with age.

Rosa Ponselle was more than a voice, or even The Voice. She was a sportswoman, a great lady, and, though a star, a person who maintained a certain honesty and simplicity all her life. She was a great singing actress with natural dramatic instincts, who believed what she sang. She was endowed with a tremendous gift, which included her “mask”—she liked to think she looked like Caruso. And she used that gift very well.

Like many artists, she was divided against herself in some way. She had an unwise relationship with an unscrupulous man in the 1930’s, and married an abusive one later. Perhaps we can say that, like Tosca, she lived for art, and had to suffer in life. She was a diva after all and a great American, one whose image is now on a postage stamp.

The other compensation, besides Phillips-Matz’s biography, is the legacy of the recordings of Rosa Ponselle. All of them are of compelling interest, and some are indispensable experiences. The collection of Columbia acoustics published by Pearl is mandatory—we hear her first operatic work as well as her vaudeville songs. Her later Victor electricals and her Villa Pace recordings have been gathered by Romophone. The 1935 broadcast of La Traviata, available on Pearl, wins no acoustical plaudits, but is a stunning demonstration of Ponselle’s mastery.

Listening to Ponselle is something else—a glass of Barolo and a kick in the pants. What other singer of any kind so combines power and beauty, strength and agility, conviction and plush? How can we not think of Rosa Ponselle first, last, and always when we think of Verdi’s two Leonoras, of Bellini’s Norma, of Elvira and Aida—whenever, indeed, we think of music in the night and an inviolable voice?


[Rosa Ponselle: American Diva, by Mary Jane Phillips-Matz (Boston: Northeastern University Press) 557 pp.; $29.95]