Drake's Rosa Ponselle: a life to match the voice

April 20, 1997|By Elizabeth Teachout | Elizabeth Teachout,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography," by James A. Drake. Amadeus Press. Illustrated. 500 pages. $39.95.

Mention Baltimore to your favorite opera lover and you can bet that his look of absolute awe is less likely to be inspired by crabcakes or Cal Ripken than by thoughts of Rosa Ponselle, the dramatic soprano considered by many to have had the most beautiful voice of the century. But tell this same fan that you've read a new biography of her, and watch him shudder.

Not a misguided impulse: Most biographies of opera singers are oozing with heady adoration with enough minutiae about vocal technique to put anyone to sleep. But Ponselle fans have lucked out this time. James A. Drake's "Rosa Ponselle: A Centenary Biography" is an exceptional read, an elegant assembly of interviews with Ponselle and those closest to her, interpreted with good sense and obvious affection.

Hollywood story

Ponselle's story is pure Hollywood: Frumpy teen-ager drops out of school at 14 to support her family by singing vaudeville with her beautiful sister.

She is discovered by no less a star than Enrico Caruso and sings the first operatic role of her life at the age of 21 at the Metropolitan Opera with Caruso at her side. Fame and fortune follow. Then, at 39, she meets and marries Mr. Wrong, a handsome younger man who cares nothing about opera.

Retiring from the stage two years later, she battles depression and divorces, spending the rest of her life as Baltimore's beloved diva-in-residence.

What's not to like, particularly if you're a biographer? In Drake's case, quite a bit. His 1982 volume on Ponselle was greatly constrained by her legal representatives, and thus dealt almost exclusively with her career while ignoring her personal life. Luckily, his hours of taped interviews ended up giving this book its compelling personal color.

Each chapter begins with a Q-and-A with Ponselle. She fields questions with delightful candor, delivering pithy one-liners about such things as the world premiere of Joseph Breil's forgotten opera, "The Legend": "I got to create an opera that would smell up a cat's box."

Truth emerges

These memories are confirmed or squelched with great glee in the "Recollections" sections that follow. Ponselle's secretary Edith Prilik prefaces several good tales by saying "even Rosa likes to tell it that way; and, God knows, she's told it so many times that she probably believes it by now." Ex-husband Carle Jackson adds some scathing touches, but his 1978 interview ends on a hauntingly affectionate note as he explains why he wouldn't want to see his ex-wife again. "I would rather have her remember me like I used to be - I don't want her to see an old man now."

Drake understands the theatrical nature of a good biography, and lets his best material speak for itself: He juxtaposes Ponselle's claim that her rivalry with Maria Jeritza was "stuff made up by other people" with a newspaper clipping from her own scrapbook titled "Jeritza Fails to Achieve Triumph" -with "YES!" penciled in by Ponselle at the bottom.

Even when tripped up in her own stories, Ponselle would surely have agreed that Drake knows how to put on a good show.

Elizabeth Teachout is a pianist and opera coach from New York City. A student of Martin Katz, she has played for the Metropolitan Opera's Young Artists Program and Lincoln Center's New Directors Workshop.

Pub Date: 4/20/97

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