Baltimore Opera Company and Teaching
A New Role
Towards the end of her marriage, Rosa Ponselle began to find joy in singing again and to crave connection with music and the theater. Around this time, a friend of hers, Leigh Martinet, the son of one of the founders of the Baltimore Civic Opera, stepped into the organization after his father’s death and just as the company was on the verge of dissolving. While working on a production of La Traviata, he timidly invited Ponselle to attend some rehearsals. She instantly fell in love with the company and found herself able to put the singers at ease and give them helpful advice. She began to work with the production’s Violetta, Phyllis Frankel, who became her first official voice student. After the production achieved both critical and financial success, the board of directors invited Ponselle to become artistic director, an offer she accepted without hesitation.
It was Ponselle who convinced the board to become a union company, which shifted them into a professional organization. She also pushed to change the name of the company to Baltimore Opera Company, leaving the “Civic” behind. She would occasionally call on prominent New York singers, including Birgit Nilsson, Anna Moffo, Norman Treigle, and Placido Domingo, to help with ticket sales, and often brought in prominent directors and conductors, such as Tullio Serafin, Max Rudolf, and Robert Lawrence. The goal of the company, however, remained to feature local talent. There were those whom Ponselle called “adopted out-of-towners,” who came at the beginning of their careers to prepare roles with her and perform with the company. These included singers like Beverly Sills, Enrico Di Giuseppe, and Lili Chookasian. In these years, the 1950s and 1960s, the company created a fund-raising drive, began a vocal awards contest, engaged the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and adopted a fully professional chorus instead of one composed of volunteers.
Ponselle had a strained relationship with Bob Collinge, the general manager of the company who began in 1972, and resigned her post as artistic director in 1979 after nearly 30 years with the organization. Though she never took to the stage with the company, her experience and teaching contributed significantly to the musical life of Baltimore for three decades.
Students and Protégés
Local bass-baritone James Morris came to Rosa Ponselle as a teenager and worked with her in the very beginning. He began as a comprimario in multiple productions at the Baltimore Opera Company and was soon singing leads in Aida, Les Contes d’Hoffmann, and Don Giovanni. From there he was engaged at the Metropolitan Opera. After his performance in the Metropolitan’s telecast of Don Giovanni, Ponselle told him she had so enjoyed it and wished to see it again, so shortly thereafter he arrived at Villa Pace with a VCR and complete tapes of his own telecasts as well as a number of others.
Sherrill Milnes was introduced to Villa Pace by Lili Chookasian. Having only sung in concerts up until that point, he worked with Ponselle to prepare the role of Gérard in a production of Andrea Chénier in Baltimore. He, too, was soon engaged at the Metropolitan but returned to Baltimore to sing in Faust and Rigoletto.
Raina Kabaivanska was brought to Rosa Ponselle by Ida Cook, a fan and a biographer of Ponselle’s based in London. Kabaivanska, who was already working at the Metropolitan Opera, had been asked to prepare “Suicidio” from La Gioconda and came to Baltimore for guidance. Since Kabaivanska had focused mostly on German repertoire up to that point, Ponselle’s job was to help her make the voice comfortable in the more Italianate style. The first step was to sing a genuine pianissimo and then execute a seamless diminuendo. From then on, Kabaivanska attributed the change in her voice to her work with Rosa Ponselle and she returned to Villa Pace whenever she could to prepare roles. The Metropolitan management even phoned the retired diva to congratulate her on her fine work.
Beverly Sills is another important singer Ponselle nurtured. She came to Baltimore in 1952 at the age of 23, when the company was producing Massenet’s Manon. At the time, she had worked on the stage frequently, but opera was new to her. Sills sang the role of Manon and returned to play Donna Anna in Don Giovanni and to sing in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. She and Ponselle maintained a close correspondence for many years.