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Lily Pons - Prima Donna Assoluta March 11 2022

Lily Pons was a French-American operatic soprano actress known for her skills at marketing herself and becoming one of the most well-known and beloved culture icons of her time. Her career was long and varied, working as an actress, opera singer, and concert singer plus made multiple appearances on radio and television.

 

Her ability to self-promote and stay in the limelight for decades led her to be well-loved by the general public. She was a celebrity endorser for multiple popular brands of her time and even had an entire town named after her in Maryland.

Lily Pons in Concert

Lily Pons during a broadcast with the Bell Telephone Orchestra at Carnegie Hall 1954

 

Lily Pons embodied the glamorous opera era of the 1900s. She was known as the prima donna assoluta. It was her looks and her talents that launched her to such great success, with her French chic style and impressive range of voice. Her elegant life and enchanting personality kept her in the public eye well past the height of her career.

Lily Pons in concert in Lexington Lily Pons in concert in Lexington, Kentucky 1954

 

LILY PONS' EARLY LIFE - THE MOLDING OF A STAR

Early Life in France

Lily Pons, originally Alice Josephine Pons, was born in Draguignan, France, on April 12th, 1898. She had a French father, Léonard Louis Auguste Antoine Pons, and an Italian mother, Maria Naso. According to Pons herself, despite being born two months premature, she was born with thick hair and two teeth, considered an omen of a healthy and happy life.

Lily Pons at a young age

In her early years, she lived on her grandfather’s farm surrounded by many aunts, uncles, cousins, and siblings. Not only was she close with her family, but she also became a huge animal lover and had a collection of little pets from birds to mice to a piglet. Her love for animals would stay with her throughout the course of her life.

 

[Image] Lily Pons at a young age

 

She also developed a love for fashion at a young age, something that would help her career blossom years later. Not only did she have an affinity for designer shoes, but she also became very meticulous about her clothing, waking up early in the mornings to iron her clothing so everything would be just perfect when she went to school. Her love for fashion continued to grow later as her mother opened a dress-making shop inside their home where she and her sisters became expert seamstresses.

 

Unexpected Advice That Changed Her Life

Lily Pons reflected back on her ninth birthday as being a significant one that changed her life. It wasn’t a special present that launched her love for music, but something totally unexpected.

Only hours before her first real birthday party, a pipe burst in the Pons home, flooding the kitchen and dining room. As a child, she thought for sure her birthday was ruined. However, the beloved family maid, Louise Mertel, saved the day. She had the pipe fixed and the house cleaned in time for her party to go on as usual.

Young Lily Pons - A photo by Hermann Mishkin, New York

 

It wasn’t the act of her saving the party that altered the course of Lily’s life, rather Louise’s answer to a question asked by Lily’s mom: “How do you always manage to get everything done?”

 

[Image] Young Lily Pons - A photo by Hermann Mishkin, New York

 

I never ponder. I just start,” Louise replied. Those last three words went through Lily’s ears and got stuck inside her brain like a magical little answer to everything moving forward. She said the effects were immediate, giving her a boost to start doing her homework and practicing the piano. Those little words, “just start,” would guide her through her future career with ambition and grace.

 

Life During the War

As World War I came along, Lily Pons’ life started to look a little different. The family moved to Cannes and her father was enlisted in the army. Damage from mustard gas would cause his death a few years later.

Lily Pons Typed Essay and Autograph Note Signed by her

In Cannes, Lily continued studying piano, and she entered the Paris Conservatoire when she was only 13 years old. She eventually found herself playing for wounded soldiers in a hospital where she initially started to sing along as she played. It was there that she got her first taste of connecting with an audience through singing.

 

[Image] Lily Pons Typed Essay & Autograph Note Signed by her

 

During this time, Lily was also exploring her love for the theatre. She joined an acting troupe at age fourteen and performed with them for three years.

 

A First Marriage Inspires A Future In Opera

Since the death of her father, Pons wanted to marry a rich man who could take care of her. When she was 16, she met her first husband, August Mesritz, on the beach in Cannes. The 39-year-old lawyer and publisher has recently been widowed and had a young son. They married very shortly after, and Mesritz provided Pons the life she had wanted, with plenty of leisure time that she spent practicing varying arts.

It was her first husband who had encouraged her to begin taking singing more seriously. After listening to her sing around the house, he found her a well-known singing teacher named Alberto de Gorostiaga who helped Pons develop her voice and stuck with her throughout her career.

Lily Pons on stage in La Fille du Regiment

Lily Pons on stage as Marie in Donizetti's "La Fille du Regiment"

 

FROM HOBBY TO CAREER - HER JOURNEY TO BECOME AN OPERA SINGER

 

Lily Pons as Lakme Signed Photograph

A Breakout Performance

Lily Pons made her debut at the Grand-Théâtre of Mulhouse in Alsace in a 1927 performance of Lakmé. She received decent reviews on her voice but many reviews raved about her onstage presence and physical beauty.

 

[Image] Lily Pons as Lakmé -one of her key roles. Photograph signed by her

 

She continued performing in various productions around France for the next few years. Although she continued receiving nice reviews for her performances and had garnered a little bit of fame around her home country, she was turned down by the Paris opera.

 

Making Her Way to the Met

After being discovered by Giovanni Zenatello and his wife, Maria Gay, Lily was introduced to Bruno Zirato, who would become her first manager. Bruno’s wife, Morgana, was also a coloratura at the Met, and the couple would end up being long-time friends with Pons throughout her career.

Lily Pons as Lucia di Lammermoor at Teatro Colon - Bs Aires

Lily met the Ziratos at their home where she would first sing for them. While they both found she had a beautiful voice and solid techniques, there were some limitations she would have to tackle. Up until this point, she had done all her singing in French and had a different training than most of the opera singers at the time. Maria Gay assured the Ziratos she would oversee Lily’s coaching of the Italian approach.

 

[Image] Lily Pons as Lucia di Lammermoor at Teatro Colon - Buenos Aires

 

Lily officially signed on with Bruno as her manager shortly before her audition at the Met, where they were looking for a replacement star coloratura due to the retirement of Amelita Galli-Curci. The general manager of the Met, Giulio Gatti-Casazza, was captivated by Lily Pons, who showed up for her audition in an outfit fit for the queen. He requested to sign her on immediately, and negotiations began.

 

Mastering the Italian Bel Canto

Before her debut, Lily worked hard to master the Italian Bel Canto style that she had never studied before. She worked with coach Wilfred Pelletier because he was familiar with both the French style Lily was familiar with as well as bel canto.

She also worked directly with Tullio Serafin who was known for preparing singers for new roles and new productions. Lily had trained and studied very hard to prepare for her debut, however, she was extremely nervous and felt very anxious before her first performance.

 

Her Metropolitan Debut

Lily Pons made her Metropolitan debut on January 3, 1931, as Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. This would be the start of a long and prosperous career as a principal soprano at the Met.

Lily Pons & Rudolf Bing Signatures on Contract

From the debut night of her first performance of Lucia, Lily Pons became a star in the United States. She was championed from the very first act of her breakout performance in the United States. Thanks to her time in France, she knew how important newspaper publicity was, and was absolutely tickled when she found herself on the front page of many New York papers.

 

[Image] Contract signed by Lily Pons & Rudolf Bing for a season at The Metropolitan Opera

 

One article in the Musical Courier praised Lily Pons’ voice as being an exquisite natural beauty. The article talked about her exceptional breath control, impressive range, clean staccatos, and pure chromatics.

There were also comments on her charm and appearance. While she was actually in her 30s already, many people believed she was only around 18 years old thanks to her petite stature. She was slender compared to most opera singers at the time and donned gorgeous costumes that grabbed viewers’ attention.

 

Overnight Success

Her debut performance was so well received that Lily Pons became an overnight success. During her first season alone, she took on four new roles. She played Gilda in Rigoletto, Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia, Olympia in Les contes d’Hoffman, and Philine in Mignon. With each new role, applause filled the opera hall and people fell more and more in love with Lily. It was the combination of her appearance and voice that really took her fame to the next level.

Lily Pons as Olympia in Les Contes d´Hoffmann - Met Opera 1931

Pons took on two additional roles during her second season at the Met, adding Amina in La sonnambula and the title role of Lakmé to her repertoire. Lakmé had been her very first role ever back in France and was revived by Gatti-Casazza especially for her and her talents.

 

[Image] Lily Pons as Olympia in Les Contes d´Hoffmann - Met Opera 1931

 

Her performance in Lakmé was a big hit, thanks to both her precision with the Bell Song and her costume for the performance. Lily wore a risqué costume and navel jewelry that garnered media attention at a level no other soprano ever received. The production also included elaborate stage production and brilliant colors. Many of her fans were excited to hear her singing in her own language.

 

A Long and Successful Career

Her professional relationship with the Met would go on to last nearly 30 years. After her debut, she received the majority of Galli-Curci’s roles. During that time she was in as many as 300 performances. She also performed as a guest in opera houses around the United States. She ended up becoming one of the biggest stars of the Met and one of the most popular opera singers in America.

 

LIFE AFTER BECOMING A SENSATION

The Metropolitan Broadcasts

Many Americans could only dream of hearing Lily Pons live on stage, but thanks to the introduction of the Metropolitan Radio Broadcasts the same year as Lily’s debut, that good fortune was extended to the entire population. On the weekly broadcasts, Americans could listen to full-length opera performances that Lily Pons often partook in. These broadcasts helped Lily reach a broader audience and gain even more loyal fans.

 

Heading to Hollywood

Thanks to her fame and becoming a household name, Lily Pons ended up being pursued for film contracts by multiple agencies. She ended up signing with RKO Pictures and making three movies with them between 1935 and 1937.

Hitting a New High - movie still shot with Lily PonsHitting a New High - movie still shot with Lily Pons

Her movies I Dream Too Much, That Girl from Paris, and Hitting a New High were all Hollywood musicals that didn’t go very far. After the less-than-stellar experience she had during the filming of her final film, Lily stated she would never go back to Hollywood.

She did end up returning to the silver screen one more time about ten years later, but this time she played herself in Carnegie Hall.

Lily Pons and Eric Blore in I Dream Too Much

Lily Pons and Eric Blore in I Dream Too Much

 

André Kostelanetz

The man who would eventually become Lily Pons’ second husband, André Kostelanetz, was a successful musician in his own right. After emigrating to the United States from Russia, he became a recital accompanist to some of the biggest opera singers in the US.

In 1928, he had his own radio show called The Chesterfield Hour which has its own orchestra and featured classical and popular soloists. It attracted some of the largest names, and soon, André and Lily met to see if it would be a good fit for her.

Kostelanetz and Pons in rehearsal

Lily Pons in her camerino, rehearsing as Lakme with Andre Kostelanetz

 

Rehabbing Her Voice

At this point, Lily Pons was already a loved and respected opera star, but when she auditioned for André he felt something was off. It seemed her voice had been overused and strained, and with his encouragement, she began working towards rehabbing her voice.

She got back in touch with her voice coach, Alberto de Gorostiaga. For the next year or so, the three of them worked on getting her voice back to what it had once been. During that time, André and Lily also fell in love.

 

André and Lily - The First Classical Music Power Couple

From here on out, André was heavily involved in Lily’s career and work. He helped record the songs for her film I Dream Too Much. Due to the issues with her voice, André would cut together the songs section by section from multiple takes.

Lily Pons & Andre Kostelanetz Signed Photograph

As she began her next film, That Girl From Paris, André was flying from New York to the west coast every week. In his autobiography, he recounted how the transcontinental flight at that time would take 18 hours. As the two continued to date, they began to garner media attention. They traveled around the world together where Lily would sing and they would explore other countries.

 

[Image] Lily Pons & Andre Kostelanetz in their wedding day - Photograph signed by the couple

 

The pair finally decided to get married in 1938, after four years of intense romance. At this point, they were receiving a level of media attention unrivaled by former classical musicians.

 

Then Came War

During the war, the power couple wanted to do something special for the troops. Pons canceled her fall and winter season in 1944, and the two of them set off on a tour with the United Service Organization (USO) to entertain troops in Europe and the Pacific.

Pairing up with a band made up of American soldiers, André and Lily performed at multiple military bases around the globe. André recorded their experiences in a journal and through letters to his brother, recounting the war-like conditions in which they often performed. They traveled more than 100,000 miles with the military to perform in places like India, China, Burma, and Europe.

 

Lily Pons Large Photograph and Memorabilia Archive Selection

The Other Side of the Record”

Their tours earned them the love and respect from countless soldiers, however, not everyone supported them. Author Charles O’Connell wrote in his book that the two of them had inflated stories of their journeys and were only out for fame and fortune.

 

[Image] Lily Pons Large Photograph in role

 

The Post-War Era

With her relationship with André and their tours during the war, they had become household names. When the war finished, Lily went back to her career at the Met. She toured around the United States, often breaking records for attendance.

She sang at the Met until 1960, where she gave her final performance on December 14th. From there, she made guest appearances around Europe, South America, and the United States. She continued to sing at the occasional concert as well.

 

Lily Pons Final Performance

Lily Pons at older age, at home

Her last performance was in 1972 when she came out of retirement to perform with her then ex-husband André Kostelanetz one final time. At the age of 74, she sang at New York’s Philharmonic Hall for one more impressive milestone in her life. Tickets to the event sold out in hours, and Lily Pons gave one final and exceptional performance.

 

[Image] Lily Pons at older age, at home

 

She retired to Dallas, Texas, where rumors report she had a secret lover there. In 1976, she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The cancer ravaged her body quickly, and she passed away at the age of 77 years old. She left behind a legacy of being one of the biggest stars in classical music in the United States.

 

SEE MORE PHOTOGRAPHS OF LILY PONS AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS ARTICLE

 

Sources:

 

Lily Pons - A Centennial Portrait: James A Drake

Lily Pons - Wikipedia

Lily Pons, Star Coloratura of Met, Dead - NY Times

 

SEE ALSO:

Lily Pons: Lot of 57 Unsigned Photographs (Part III)

Lily Pons: Lot of 36 Unsigned Photographs (Part VI)

Lily Pons: Lot of 64 Unsigned Photographs (Part II)

Lily Pons & Nino Martini Signed Curtain Call Photograph

Lily Pons: Lot of 9 Unsigned Photos + 2 gala programs

Lily Pons Signed Album Pages Inscribed to her by Various Artists

Lily Pons: Lot of 74 Unsigned Photos and 1 Signed Photo (Part V)

- Lillian Nordica: Lily of the North - A Biography (Blog Article)

- Kathleen Ferrier: Klever Kaff (Blog Article)

- Grace Moore: The Tennessee Nightingale (Blog Article)

 

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Getting ready for her 25th Anniversary Met Gala

Getting ready for her 25th Anniversary Met Gala

 

Hitting a New High - Movie lobby card

Hitting a New High - Movie lobby card

 

Lakme in Montecarlo

Lily Pons as Lakmé in Montecarlo

 

Lily Pons as Gilda in Rigoletto

Lily Pons as Gilda in Rigoletto

 

Lily Pons as Lakme

Iconic photograph of  Lily Pons in her signature role: Delibes' Lakmé

 

Lily Pons as Marguerite in Faust

Lily Pons as Marguerite in Gounod's Faust

 

Lily Pons as Rosina in Barbiere at the Met

Lily Pons as Rosina in Barbiere at the Metropolitan Opera

 

Lily Pons in La Traviata at the Met

Lily Pons as Violetta Valèry in Verdi's La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera

 

Lily Pons in La Traviata

Lily Pons at her camerino during a performance of La Traviata at The Met

 

Lily Pons coming to greet during a curtain call

Lily Pons coming to greet during a curtain call

 

 Lily Pons in concert in the UK

 Lily Pons in concert in the UK

 

Lily Pons in her living room at home

Lily Pons in her living room at home

 

Lily Pons in Hitting a New High

Lily Pons in the film "Hitting a New High"

 

Lily Pons in Le Coq d'Or

Lily Pons in Le Coq d'Or

 

Lily Pons in Lucia di Lammermoor

Lily Pons in the mad scene from "Lucia di Lammermoor"

 

Lily Pons in the film Carnegie Hall

Lily Pons in the film "Carnegie Hall"

 

Lily Pons on stage in La Fille du Regiment

Lily Pons on stage as Marie in La Fille du Regiment

 

Lily Pons on stage in Traviata

Lily Pons on stage in La Traviata's Act I

 

Lily Pons on the set of Hitting a New High 1937

Lily Pons on the set of Hitting a New High 1937

 

 Lily Pons on the set filming Hitting a New High 1937

Lily Pons on the set filming Hitting a New High 1937

 

Lily Pons promo photo in La Fille du Regiment

Lily Pons promo photo in La Fille du Regiment

 

Lily Pons signing autographs

Lily Pons signing autographs

 

Lily Pons walking her dogs

Lily Pons walking her dogs

 

Lily Pons with Henry Fonda in the film I Dream Too Much 1935

Lily Pons with Henry Fonda in the film "I Dream Too Much" (1935)

 

Lily Pons with her husband and tenor Nino Martini

Lily Pons with her husband and tenor Nino Martini

 

Lily Pons with Jack Oakie in Hitting a New High 1937

Lily Pons with Jack Oakie in "Hitting a New High" (1937)

 

On the set of Hitting a New High - Lily Pons

Lily Pons on the set of "Hitting a New High"

 

On the set of Hitting a New High

On the set of "Hitting a New High"

 

Pons is given a telephone of golden button by conductor Donald Vorhee for her 50th appearance on the Bell Telephone Hour

Lily Pons is given a telephone of golden button by conductor Donald Vorhee for her 50th appearance on the Bell Telephone Hour

 

Pons with Peerce and Petroff in Lucia di Lammermoor

Lily Pons with Jan Peerce and Ivan Petroff in Lucia di Lammermoor

 

Promo card from her film I Dream Too Much

Promo card from her film "I Dream Too Much"

 

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