Gift of archival materials, scholarship and faculty funding honors the memory of Rosa Ponselle
by Christine Stutz
After a painstaking process of cataloguing and restoration, a treasure trove of more than 1,400 items belonging to Metropolitan Opera star Rosa Ponselle is now available for public viewing — both digitally and in permanent physical displays — at Peabody’s Arthur Friedheim Library.
Ponselle began her singing career in 1912, as a teenager, on the vaudeville circuit. The gifted soprano was discovered by Enrico Caruso and debuted at the Metropolitan Opera at age 21, singing the role of Leonora in Verdi’s La forza del destino, opposite Caruso. Thus was launched an illustrious 20-year opera career as a dramatic soprano whom Maria Callas called “the greatest of us all.” When she retired in her mid-30s, Ponselle moved to Maryland with her Baltimore-born husband. In the 1940s, she moved to Villa Pace, an estate she had built in Stevenson, Maryland, where she lived until her death in 1981.
The Rosa Ponselle Collection was donated to Peabody in 2015 by the Lester Dequaine/Frank Chiarenza Foundation. Dequaine, who passed away in 2016, once operated a Rosa Ponselle Museum in Meriden, Conn., and had amassed an extensive collection of the singer’s personal belongings, including two recital gowns, countless photographs and concert programs, and a baby grand piano especially designed for her by the Baldwin Piano Company.
After the museum closed in 2007, Dequaine sought a permanent home for the collection, ultimately choosing Peabody because of Ponselle’s extensive ties to the Baltimore music community. (She was an ardent supporter of the Baltimore Civic Opera Company, which today is known as the Lyric Opera Baltimore.)
Matthew Testa, archivist at the Friedheim Library, said the first order of business for his team was to digitally scan the entire collection. Then they set about creating an online exhibit, at musiclibrary.peabody.jhu.edu/rosaponselle, that provides site visitors a structured presentation of Ponselle’s life and career. “It’s an introduction to who she was,” Testa says.
The physical exhibit, which opened in January 2018, includes Ponselle’s Baldwin piano, a silver tea service, ceramic figurines of Ponselle’s operatic roles, and some furniture. Items from the collection are displayed at several sites within the Friedheim Library, as well as Johns Hopkins’ Evergreen Museum and the Milton S. Eisenhower Library at Homewood.
Chiarenza, 91, says he is pleased that the collection his friend prized so highly is once again on public display. “I know that Lester spent hundreds of thousands of dollars restoring and maintaining the collection,” Chiarenza says. “Lester was very happy that Peabody was the place to receive and preserve the memorabilia.”
Along with the gift of the collection, Dequaine and the foundation provided funds for both an endowed undergraduate voice scholarship and a three-year faculty artist position in Ponselle’s name.
The Rosa Ponselle Scholarship in Voice, to be awarded annually to a voice student at the Conservatory, is held this year by mezzo-soprano Tammi Lee, a senior studying in Denyce Graves’ studio. At Peabody, Lee has been featured as a soloist with the Peabody Singers and in the role of Third Lady in Peabody Opera’s outreach production of Papageno!
“It is truly an honor to be named a recipient of the Rosa Ponselle Scholarship in Voice. The competition in the field of classical music is so fierce and the standards we work diligently for remain so high that it is always reassuring to receive this kind of support and encouragement for any young artist who is dreaming big,” says Lee.
Graves, an international opera superstar and since 2012 a member of the Peabody Voice faculty, has been named The Rosa Ponselle Distinguished Faculty Artist at the Peabody Conservatory. “All of us in this business are standing on the shoulders of those who have come before us,” notes Graves. “Rosa Ponselle was truly a luminary, and this link to her legacy is a great point of pride for me, for my studio, and for Peabody.”