In 1918, Carmela and Rosa demanded a large raise from the Keith Circuit, as a result of which their act was dropped. At the time, Carmela was studying in New York with a well-connected voice teacher/agent named William Thorner. Thorner heard Rosa sing and agreed to give her lessons. (Rosa later denied that Thorner had ever given her voice lessons, but her statements on the subject are contradictory.) Although initially less impressed with Rosa's future prospects compared to Carmela's, Thorner changed his opinion after the legendary baritone Victor Maurel, whom Verdi had chosen to create Iago in Otello, auditioned both sisters at his friend Thorner's request. Soon afterward, Thorner persuaded the great tenor Enrico Caruso, star of the Metropolitan Opera, to his studio to hear Carmela and Rosa sing. Caruso was deeply impressed with Rosa's voice and arranged for an audition with the Met, as a result of which the Met's general manager, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, offered Rosa a contract for the 1918-19 season.
Rosa Ponselle made her Metropolitan Opera debut on November 15, 1918, as Leonora in Verdi's La forza del destino, opposite Caruso. It was her first performance on any opera stage. In spite of an almost paralyzing case of nerves (which she suffered from throughout her operatic career), she scored a tremendous success, both with the public and with the critics. New York Times critic James Huneker wrote:
What a promising debut! Added to her personal attraciveness, she possesses a voice of natural beauty that may prove a gold mine. It is vocal gold, anyhow, with its luscious lower and middle tones, dark, rich and ductile, brilliant in the upper register.
In addition to Leonora, Ponselle's roles in the 1918-19 season included Santuzza in Cavalleria rusticana, Rezia in Weber's Oberon, and Carmelita in the (unsuccessful) world premiere of Joseph Carl Breil's The Legend (a role and opera that Ponselle loathed so much that she later burned the score and said the opera "would stink up a cat box").
In the following Met seasons, Ponselle's roles included the lead soprano roles in La Juive (opposite Caruso's Eléazar, his last new role before he died), William Tell, Ernani, Il trovatore, Aida, La Gioconda, Don Carlo, L'Africaine, L'amore dei tre re, Andrea Chenier, La vestale, and in 1927 the role that many considered her greatest achievement, the title role in Bellini's Norma. In addition to her operatic activities, which were centered at the Met, Ponselle also had a lucrative concert career.
In 1933 Ponselle sang her only performances in Italy, as Giulia in La vestale, with the Maggio Musicale in Florence. As in London, the audiences were wildly enthusiastic. At the second performance, Ponselle had to encore the aria, "O nume tutelar." Her success was such that she considered an engagement at Milan's La Scala, but after witnessing a Florence audience's brutal treatment of a famous tenor, Giacomo Lauri-Volpi, who cracked on a high note, she decided not to press her luck further with the notoriously difficult Italian operagoing public. Other than her appearances in London and Florence, Ponselle never sang outside the United States.
Ponselle continued in the 1930s to add roles to her repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1930 she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni to great acclaim, but her first New York appearances in 1931 as Violetta, a role she had sung with such success in London, received a more mixed reception from the New York critics, some of whom found her interpretation too forceful and dramatic. (W.J. Henderson complained of her "assaults" on the vocal line.) In 1931 she sang in another unsuccessful world premiere, Montemezzi's La notte di Zoraima, which sank without a trace. Like many other opera singers of that time, she made a brief trip to Hollywood and made screen tests for M-G-M and Paramount, but nothing came of them. In 1935, Ponselle sang her first Carmen at the Met. In spite of a great popular success with the role, for which she had prepared meticulously, Ponselle received a drubbing from most of the New York critics, especially Olin Downes in the New York Times, whose savagely caustic review hurt Ponselle deeply. The only roles Ponselle sang during her last two seasons at the Met were Santuzza and Carmen, roles that did not tax her upper register. Differences with the Met management regarding repertoire led her not to renew her contract with the company for the 1937-38 season. Her last operatic performance was as Carmen on April 22, 1937, in a Met tour performance in Cleveland. She was 40 years old, at the height of her popularity, and apart from a receding upper register, still in magnificent voice.
Her marriage to Jackson was rocky and they divorced in 1949. The breakup was traumatic for Ponselle, and she suffered a nervous breakdown. Although she never again appeared on the concert or opera stage, Ponselle continued to sing at home for friends, who reported that her voice was as magnificent as ever. This was confirmed in 1954, when RCA Victor came to Villa Pace and recorded Ponselle singing a wide variety of songs. In the late 1940s, Ponselle became the guiding force of the fledgling Baltimore Civic Opera Company, providing coaching and voice lessons for the young singers who appeared with the company. Among those who coached with her during their Baltimore Civic Opera appearances at the start of their careers were Beverly Sills, Sherrill Milnes, Plácido Domingo and James Morris.
In weight and caliber Ponselle's voice was a true dramatic coloratura soprano, capable of encompassing all the demands of roles like La Gioconda and Norma. Although not a coloratura soprano in the mould of Tetrazzini or Galli-Curci, she had unusual flexibility for such a large and powerful voice and could negotiate fast scale passages with ease and accuracy, the proverbial "string of pearls." She possessed a fine trill that she could sustain seemingly forever: when she sang the trill in the cabaletta "Tutto sprezzo" in Act I of Verdi's Ernani, the story was that the conductor would simply fold his arms and wait for her to finish, picking up his baton only when she indicated that she was ready to come out of the trill.
Added to the above, Ponselle was a sensitive musician and an imaginative interpreter. She was a quick study and could sight-read with accuracy. She possessed an excellent sense of rhythm. She was a convincing and intense actress, at times (in the opinion of some critics) pushing drama and intensity past the bounds of good taste. One can hear something of this in the denunciation scene in a 1935 performance of La traviata, during which Ponselle's Violetta sobs and cries out and grows increasingly (and audibly) hysterical as Alfredo berates her.
The principal flaw in Ponselle's voice, past the earliest years of her operatic career, was a problematic top register. Even in her earliest days, she had a phobia of the high C. In an interview in 1955, Ponselle said that the first thing she did when looking over a prospective role was flip through the score and count the high Cs. (The exposed high C in "O patria mia" in Aida terrified Ponselle and was the reason she did not sing more often a role that otherwise fitted her, vocally, like a glove.) Throughout her career Ponselle availed herself freely of transpositions. Apparently, she never sang any of the high Cs in Norma but transposed them all down to a B. Her "Sempre libera" in the live Traviata is taken down a whole tone. In the later years of her career, but while she was still relatively young, her top register receded, and she was increasingly drawn to roles like Santuzza, Carmen and Adriana that did not tax her upper register. Some have speculated that Ponselle was by nature a mezzo-soprano. This theory is bolstered by the dark richness and solidity of her lower register. Ponselle herself once told mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne that she might have studied as a mezzo had she not begun singing so young. More likely, however, Ponselle, like Horne and Regina Resnik, started out as a true soprano, but as her voice matured it darkened and settled into a lower placement. If Ponselle had continued to sing in opera into the 1940s, she would probably have done so as a mezzo-soprano.
The following recordings best demonstrate the various aspects of Ponselle's voice discussed above:
Range, timbre, pianissimo: "Suicidio!"
Trill and coloratura: "Ernani, involami" and "Mercè, diletti amiche" ("Bolero")
Legato: "Tu che invoco" and "O nume tutelar"
Dynamic control and messa di voce: "Pace, pace, mio Dio"
Columbia Recordings. Shortly before her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1918, Ponselle signed a 5-year contract with American Columbia. Although at that time Victor was the more prestigious label, and the one for which Caruso recorded, Ponselle was counselled to sign with Columbia because she would be the company's leading soprano and not just one in a stable of great singers. Ponselle made 44 discs for Columbia, including arias from many operas in which she never sang, such as Lohengrin, Tosca, La Bohème, Madama Butterfly, and I Vespri Siciliani. All her Columbia recordings were acoustics. Her 1923 Columbia recording of "Selva opaca" from William Tell was her personal favorite among all her acoustic recordings, because she felt that it was the most accurate representation of her voice and style at the time. Of particular interest among the Columbia discs are three duets she made with Carmela of some of their vaudeville hits, including a version of "Comin' Thro' the Rye" that features an elaborate coloratura cadenza that would not be out of place in Bellini's Norma but sounds a bit strange in the Scottish Highlands. One of Ponselle's regrets about signing with Columbia was that it deprived her of the chance to record with Caruso, who was an exclusive Victor artist.
Victor Recordings. When her Columbia contract expired in 1923, Ponselle immediately signed with Victor. Her recordings from 1923-1925 are all acoustics; from 1925 on, they are all electrics. Ponselle's greatest recordings for Victor include "Pace, pace mio Dio," "Suicidio!", "Casta Diva," and the two arias from La vestale. She also recorded several ensembles, including the complete Tomb Scene from Aida with Giovanni Martinelli and "Mira, o Norma" with Marion Telva, the Adalgisa of her first Normas in 1927. Ponselle made no studio recordings after 1939. In 1954 RCA Victor, unable to persuade Ponselle to return to the recording studio, took its recording equipment to the Villa Pace and set up a microphone in the foyer. Ponselle, with piano accompaniment by conductor Igor Chichagov, recorded alternate versions of 53 songs, many of which were released on two LP discs, Rosa Ponselle Sings Today and Rosa Ponselle at the Villa Pace. They show that Ponselle's voice was in magnificent condition even at age 57, with extraordinary richness and depth (including a low D in Der Tod und das Mädchen), even if the top notes are a bit attenuated.
Live Recordings. Ponselle sang often on the radio in the early 30s, and she generally had her broadcasts recorded on 78 rpm acetate disks. Many of these have been released since on LP and CD. There are four complete opera performances from the Metropolitan Opera Saturday matinee broadcasts: Don Giovanni (1934), La traviata (1935), and two performances of Carmen (1936 and 1937). The 1937 Carmen is the Cleveland tour performance that was Ponselle's farewell to the operatic stage. The Traviata and Carmen performances are in good sound (for a mid-30s radio broadcast transcription); the Don Giovanni is in very poor sound. Ponselle's live recordings also include many songs and arias from her radio concerts. Finally, there are private recordings made at the Villa Pace of Ponselle singing various songs and arias accompanying herself on the piano, some of which are items she never recorded elsewhere. There is a particularly moving and very freely-rendered performance of the aria "Senza Mamma" from Suor Angelica.