Lily Pons, ca. 1937
Alice Joséphine Pons
April 12, 1898
|Died||February 13, 1976 77) (aged|
Dallas, Texas, U.S.
|Resting place||Cimetière du Grand Jas, Cannes|
|Nationality||France (U.S. after 1940)|
|Occupation||opera singer, actress|
|Known for||Metropolitan Opera coloratura soprano|
(m. 1930;div. 1933)
(m. 1938;div. 1958)
Alice Joséphine Pons (April 12, 1898 – February 13, 1976), known professionally as Lily Pons, was a French-American operatic soprano and actress who had an active career from the late 1920s through the early 1970s. As an opera singer she specialized in the coloratura soprano repertoire and was particularly associated with the title roles in Lakmé and Lucia di Lammermoor . In addition to appearing as a guest artist with many opera houses internationally, Pons enjoyed a long association with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, where she performed nearly 300 times between 1931 and 1960.
Opera is a form of theatre in which music has a leading role and the parts are taken by singers, but is distinct from musical theater. Such a "work" is typically a collaboration between a composer and a librettist and incorporates a number of the performing arts, such as acting, scenery, costume, and sometimes dance or ballet. The performance is typically given in an opera house, accompanied by an orchestra or smaller musical ensemble, which since the early 19th century has been led by a conductor.
A soprano[soˈpraːno] is a type of classical female singing voice and has the highest vocal range of all voice types. The soprano's vocal range (using scientific pitch notation) is from approximately middle C (C4) = 261 Hz to "high A" (A5) =880 Hz in choral music, or to "soprano C" (C6, two octaves above middle C) =1046 Hz or higher in operatic music. In four-part chorale style harmony, the soprano takes the highest part, which usually encompasses the melody. The soprano voice type is generally divided into the coloratura, soubrette, lyric, spinto, and dramatic soprano.
A coloratura soprano is a type of operatic soprano voice that specializes in music that is distinguished by agile runs, leaps and trills.
She also had a successful and lucrative career as a concert singer which continued until her retirement from performance in 1973. From 1935–37 she made three musical films for RKO Pictures. She also made numerous appearances on radio and on television, performing on variety programs like The Ed Sullivan Show , The Colgate Comedy Hour , and The Dave Garroway Show among others. In 1955 she topped the bill for the first broadcast of what became an iconic television series, Sunday Night at the London Palladium. She made dozens of records; recording both classical and popular music. She was awarded the Croix de Lorraine and the Légion d'honneur by the Government of France.
RKO Pictures was an American film production and distribution company. In its original incarnation, as RKO Radio Pictures, Inc. it was one of the Big Five studios of Hollywood's Golden Age. The business was formed after the Keith-Albee-Orpheum (KAO) theater chain and Joseph P. Kennedy's Film Booking Offices of America (FBO) studio were brought together under the control of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) in October 1928. RCA chief David Sarnoff engineered the merger to create a market for the company's sound-on-film technology, RCA Photophone. By the mid-1940s, the studio was under the control of investor Floyd Odlum.
The Ed Sullivan Show was an American television variety show that ran on CBS from June 20, 1948, to June 6, 1971, and was hosted by New York entertainment columnist Ed Sullivan. It was replaced in September 1971 by the CBS Sunday Night Movie.
The Colgate Comedy Hour was an American comedy-musical variety series that aired live on the NBC network from 1950 to 1955. The show featured many notable comedians and entertainers of the era as guest stars.
Pons was also savvy at making herself into a marketable cultural icon. Her opinions on fashion and home decorating were frequently reported in women's magazines, and she appeared as the face for Lockheed airplanes, Knox gelatin and Libby's tomato juice advertisements. A town in Maryland named itself after her, and thereafter the singer contrived to have all her Christmas cards posted from Lilypons, Maryland. Opera News wrote in 2011, "Pons promoted herself with a kind of marketing savvy that no singer ever had shown before, and very few have since; only Luciano Pavarotti was quite so successful at exploiting the mass media."
The Lockheed Corporation was an American aerospace company. Lockheed was founded in 1926 and later merged with Martin Marietta to form Lockheed Martin in 1995. The founder, Allan Lockheed, had earlier founded the similarly named but otherwise unrelated Loughead Aircraft Manufacturing Company, which was operational from 1912 through 1920.
Rose Knox was an American businesswoman, who ran the Knox Gelatin Factory in Johnstown, New York, United States, after her husband died. She won wide respect as one of the leading businesswomen of her time.
Libby's is a brand of canned food and beverages owned by Libby's Brand Holding based in Geneva, Switzerland and licensed to several companies around the world.
Pons was born in Draguignan near Cannes, to a French father, Léonard Louis Auguste Antoine Pons, and an Italian-born mother, Maria (née Naso), later known as Marie Pétronille Pons. She first studied piano at the Paris Conservatory, winning the First Prize at the age of 15. At the onset of World War I in 1914, she moved with her mother and younger sister Juliette (born December 22, 1902 – died 1995) to Cannes where she played piano and sang for soldiers at receptions given in support of the French troops and at the famous Hotel Carlton that had been transformed into a hospital, and where her mother worked as a volunteer nurse orderly.
Draguignan is a commune in the Var department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur region, in southeastern France.
Cannes is a city located on the French Riviera. It is a commune located in the Alpes-Maritimes department, and host city of the annual Cannes Film Festival, Midem, and Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. The city is known for its association with the rich and famous, its luxury hotels and restaurants, and for several conferences. On 3 November 2011 it also played host to the G20 organisation of industrialised nations.
World War I, also known as the First World War or the Great War, was a global war originating in Europe that lasted from 28 July 1914 to 11 November 1918. Contemporaneously described as "the war to end all wars", it led to the mobilisation of more than 70 million military personnel, including 60 million Europeans, making it one of the largest wars in history. It is also one of the deadliest conflicts in history, with an estimated nine million combatants and seven million civilian deaths as a direct result of the war, while resulting genocides and the 1918 influenza pandemic caused another 50 to 100 million deaths worldwide.
In 1925, encouraged by soprano Dyna Beumerand Mesritz, who agreed to fund her singing career, she started taking singing lessons in Paris with Alberto de Gorostiaga . She later studied singing with Alice Zeppilli in New York. On October 15, 1930, Pons married her first husband, August Mesritz, a successful publisher, and spent the next several years as a housewife. The marriage would end in divorce on December 7, 1933.
Alice Zeppilli was a French operatic soprano of Italian heritage who had an active international singing career from 1901 to 1930. The pinnacle of her career was in the United States where she enjoyed great popularity between 1906 and 1914; particularly in the cities of Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia. She was popular in Monte Carlo where she performed frequently from 1904–19 and later worked as a singing teacher after her retirement from the stage. She made only one recording, a phonograph cylinder for Columbia Records consisting of the Gavotte from Jules Massenet's Manon and Olympia's "Doll aria" from Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann.
Pons successfully made her operatic debut in the title role of Léo Delibes' Lakmé at Mulhouse in 1928 under Reynaldo Hahn's baton and went on to sing several coloratura roles in French provincial opera houses. She was discovered by the dramatic tenor/impresario Giovanni Zenatello, who took her to New York where she auditioned for Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the general manager of the Metropolitan Opera. The Met needed a star coloratura after the retirement of Amelita Galli-Curci in January, 1930. Gatti-Casazza engaged Pons immediately and she also signed a recording contract with RCA Victor.
Clément Philibert Léo Delibes was a French composer of the Romantic era (1815–1910), who specialised in ballets, operas, and other works for the stage. His most notable works include the ballets Coppélia (1870) and Sylvia (1876), as well as the operas Le roi l'a dit (1873) and Lakmé (1883).
Lakmé is an opera in three acts by Léo Delibes to a French libretto by Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille.
Mulhouse is a city and commune in eastern France, close to the Swiss and German borders.
On January 3, 1931, Pons, unknown in the U.S., made an unheralded Met debut as Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor and on that occasion the spelling of her first name was changed to "Lily". Her performance received tremendous acclaim. She became a star and inherited most of Galli-Curci's important coloratura roles. Her career after this point was primarily in the United States. She became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 1940. From 1938 to 1958, she was married to conductor Andre Kostelanetz. In 1955 they built a home in Palm Springs, California.
Pons was a principal soprano at the Met for thirty years, appearing 300 times in ten roles from 1931 until 1960. Her most frequent performances were as Lucia (93 performances), Lakmé (50 performances), Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto (49 performances), and Rosina in Rossini's The Barber of Seville (33 performances). She drew a record crowd of over 300,000 to Chicago's Grant Park Music Festival in 1939 for a free concert.
In 1944, during World War II, Pons canceled her fall and winter season in New York and instead toured with the USO, entertaining troops with her singing. Her husband Andre Kostelanetz directed a band composed of American soldiers as accompaniment to her voice. The pair performed at military bases in North Africa, Italy, the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, India and Burma in 1944.In places, the heat of the sun at the outdoor performances was so overbearing that Pons, always wearing a strapless evening gown, held wet towels to her head between numbers.
In 1945, the tour continued through China, Belgium, France and Germany—a performance near the front lines.Returning home, she toured the U.S., breaking attendance records in cities such as Milwaukee at which 30,000 attended her performance on July 20, 1945. That same month she also played Mexico City, directed by Gaetano Merola.
Other roles in her repertoire included Olympia in Jacques Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffmann , Philine in Ambroise Thomas's Mignon , Amina in Vincenzo Bellini's La sonnambula , Marie in Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment , the title role in Léo Delibes's Lakmé , the Queen in Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Golden Cockerel , and the title role in Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix , (a role she sang in the opera's Met premiere on March 1, 1934). The last major new role Pons performed (she learned the role during her first season at The Met) was Violetta in La traviata , which she sang at the San Francisco Opera. Another role Pons learned, but decided not to sing was Melisande in Debussy's opera Pelléas et Melisande ; the reason, as she confided in a later interview, was twofold: first, because she felt soprano Bidu Sayão owned the role; and, secondly, because the tessitura lay mainly in the middle register of the soprano voice rather than in the higher register. In her last performance at the Met, on December 14, 1960, she sang "Caro nome" from Rigoletto as part of a gala performance.
She also made guest appearances at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, Royal Opera House in London, La Monnaie in Brussels, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Chicago Opera. Her final opera appearance was as Lucia to the Edgardo of twenty-one-year-old Plácido Domingo in 1962 at the Fort Worth Opera.She continued to sing concerts until 1973. On February 11, 1960, Pons appeared on NBC's The Ford Show, Starring Tennessee Ernie Ford .
She starred in three RKO films: I Dream Too Much (1935) with Henry Fonda, That Girl from Paris (1936) and Hitting a New High (1937). She also performed an aria in the 1947 film Carnegie Hall.
She died of pancreatic cancer in Dallas, Texas, at the age of 77. Her remains were brought back to her birthplace to be interred in the Cimetière du Grand Jas in Cannes.
A village in Frederick County, Maryland, 10 miles south of Frederick, Maryland, is called Lilypons in her honor.
George Gershwin was in the process of writing a piece of music dedicated to her when he died in 1937. The incomplete sketch was found among Gershwin's papers after his death and was eventually revived and completed by Michael Tilson Thomas; it was given the simple title, For Lily Pons.
Pons donated Ita, her pet ocelot, to the New York Zoological Gardens when it became too dangerous to remain in her apartment in The Ansonia on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Pons had received the pet, which she believed was a baby jaguar, from a friend in Brazil. The pet and Pons were very attached to each other but it snarled at visitors and was deemed a hazard.
The 1937 Merrie Melodies cartoon The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos caricatures Pons as "Lily Swans".
In Stephen Frears's 2016 film Florence Foster Jenkins , Pons is played by Aida Garifullina.
Pons left a large legacy of recordings, mostly on the RCA Victor and Columbia labels, many of which are available on LP and CD.
Lucia di Lammermoor is a dramma tragico in three acts by Gaetano Donizetti. Salvadore Cammarano wrote the Italian-language libretto loosely based upon Sir Walter Scott's historical novel The Bride of Lammermoor.
Dame Joan Alston Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE was an Australian-born coloratura soprano noted for her contribution to the renaissance of the bel canto repertoire from the late 1950s through to the 1980s.
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Irra Petina was an actress and singer, as well as a leading contralto with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. She was called the "floperetta queen" by critic Ken Mandelbaum.
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Lalla Miranda (1874–1944) was an Australian coloratura soprano who was primarily active in Belgium, France, and Great Britain. Born in Melbourne, she was the daughter of opera singers David Miranda and Annetta Hirst and the older sister of opera singer Beatrice Miranda. After studies in London and Paris, she made her professional opera debut in The Hague in 1898. She then appeared in numerous operas in Amsterdam in successive years. In 1899 she was a resident artist at La Monnaie. She made several appearances at the Palais Garnier in Paris and at theatres in the French Provences during the first two decades of the 20th century. In 1900–1901 and from 1907–1911 she was committed the Royal Opera House on London. In 1910 she was committed to both the Manhattan Opera Company and the Philadelphia Opera Company. She notably opened the 1910 season at the Manhattan Opera House in the title role of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, a role for which she was famous. In New York and Philadelphia she also sang Gilda in Rigoletto, Olympia in The Tales of Hoffmann, and the title role in Lakmé. After 1918 she was primarily active with the Carl Rosa Opera Company. She retired in the early 1920s. She made only a few recordings on the Pathé Records label.
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