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Exhibits:  The Sheridan Libraries and Museums

Prima Donna

Cover of Time Magazine in Chandler Ross Painting, November 19, 1931

Time Magazine November 1931, Rosa Ponselle as Violetta.

Soprano assoluta

"At the close of the opera Miss Ponselle received twenty or more curtain calls; so many, in fact, that the fire curtain was lowered and the lights were dimmed as an invitation for the hundreds still standing in the auditorium to go home."
- Excerpt from a New York Evening Post review of Ponselle in Andrea Chenier

Known as one of the greatest dramatic sopranos of her time and as the first American prima donna, Rosa Ponselle was often met with endless standing ovations and graced the covers of magazines like Time, Musical America, Musical Courier, Opera News, among many others. She was immediately nicknamed "a Caruso in petticoats" when she debuted across from him on the Metropolitan Opera stage, became known as the "Goddess" or "Queen" of song, and was simply "the absolute" when it came to soprano operatic repertoire. Ponselle performed with the Metropolitan Opera for 19 years both in New York and on their annual tour and also had her own national concert tour that she performed annually. Each year her booking advertisements proclaimed how quickly her previous season had been booked and sold out to even the furthest removed of locations.

She was often invited to the White House by the Presidents of the United States, beginning in 1921. She sang at the inauguration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1933 and sang the "Star-Spangled Banner" at a Baltimore campaign rally for Dwight Eisenhower shortly before his election in 1952.

Twenty-two Roles

During her career at the Metropolitan Opera from 1918 to 1937, Rosa Ponselle sang 22 roles in more than 400 performances, approximately 300 of which were at the Metropolitan Opera itself and 100 of which were on tour. She had her debut in the American premiere of Verdi's La Forza del Destino and sang in a revival of Bellini's Norma, which had not been heard at the Metropolitan since 1892, when Lili Lehmann performed the title role. 

Ponselle sang many of the key soprano roles in opera: Violetta (La Traviata), Donna Anna (Don Giovanni), Santuzza (Cavalleria Rusticana), Elisabetta (Don Carlos), Mathilde (Guillaume Tell), and Elvira (Ernani). She ended her operatic career at the Met performing the titular role in Bizet's Carmen. She also premiered many new operas, including her coach Romano Romani's Fedra, and performed in works that are no longer standard repertoire, such as Ponchielli's La Gioconda and Spontini's La Vestale, the only work she ever performed in Italy.

[This exhibit page previously contained an image of Ponselle in blackface makeup, a staging decision now widely considered racist and offensive, in her role as Selika in L'Africaine. The photograph can still be viewed here. The image was removed from this page in November 2023.]


Below are a sampling of programs with notable roles in Rosa Ponselle's career, some of which she loved and some she hated. The audience and reviewers were just as polarized on some, such as her controversial interpretation of Carmen and her Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata.