For many of those who experienced both singers live, Rosa Ponselle was even greater, both as a voice and as an artist, than Maria Callas.
After a teenage career as a vaudeville singer, Rosa Ponselle (below), at the age of 20 and with no previous operatic experience, made her debut at the New York Met in 1918 in the leading role of Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino, partnering Enrico Caruso. Apart from three seasons at Covent Garden (1929-31) and one at the Maggio Musicale in Florence (1933), her operatic appearances were all with that company. She created unforgettable impressions in such operas as Meyerbeer’s L’Africaine, Ponchielli’s La Gioconda, Montemezzi’s L’amore di tre re, Verdi’s La traviata and Bellini’s Norma. Her recordings reveal the liquid gold of her voice, heady in emotional power, with a matchless sense of line and legato. Bass Ezio Pinza recalled performances when, ‘instead of thinking of my own role, I would be lost in the dark splendour of her voice’. For Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, she was ‘ultimate perfection’, while for Callas she was ‘the greatest singer of us all’.
In her own words: ‘Believe me, I worked hard, so hard that I never really had a life of my own in all the years I was singing. You also have to be somebody who is willing to suffer, to feel the pain that goes with all of it.’
Greatest recording: Rosa Ponselle in opera and song Nimbus NI 177 (3 discs)