Lily Pons


Born: April 12, 1898 Died: February 13, 1976
Lily Pons (born Alice-Josephine) began her musical studies at the piano and attended the Paris Conservatory. When Albert di Gorostiaga heard her sing, he persuaded her that singing was where her true talent lay and she began studying with him at the Conservatory. She made her debut in 1917 in a concert at Paris. She continued studying for 10 more years, making her operatic debut in Mulhouse as Lakmé. Because of her youthful beauty, she lied about her age in all interviews saying that she was born in 1904. The ruse was not discovered until after her retirement. She appeared in many provincial French opera houses where she came to the attention of the Italian tenor Giovanni Zenatello and his wife Maria Gay. They assisted Pons in obtaining an audition with the Metropolitan Opera and in 1931 she made her debut as Lucia di Lammermoor, the role she was to be associated with throughout her career and which marked her farewell in 1962. The Metropolitan Opera became her home base, but she continued to appear at the Paris Opera, Royal Opera Covent Garden in London, Chicago Lyric Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Teatro Colon Buenos Aires. She concentrated her appearances on a few well chosen roles which fit her style and temperament perfectly. These roles were Lucia di Lammermoor, Gilda in Rigoletto, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Lakmé and Marie in La fille du regiment. She also made occasional appearances in Tales of Hoffmann, Mignon, La Sonnambula, Linda di Chamounix, and Le coq d'or. In 1951, she sang two performances of Violetta in La Traviata, but this excursion into a more dramatic repertoire was never repeated.

Pons traveled for several months every year, giving recitals and concerts. She was always a welcome visitor for she embodied the essence of the prima donna. She was always made up perfectly and her gowns were created by the finest fashion designers. During World War II, she toured many of the battle theaters, often near the front lines, and even under those difficult conditions she insisted that she look her best in order to lift the spirits of the military personnel. Although her orchestral concerts usually concentrated on famous arias and coloratura showpieces, she did sing the premiere of the Chanson de Ronsard by Milhaud. In her recitals, she often sang songs of Fauré and Debussy as well as the entire Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor. Pons also appeared in several of Hollywood films including I Dream Too Much and That Girl From Paris. Her last public performance was with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Andre Kostelanetz in May 1972.

The voice of Pons was a very high, light coloratura soprano. Her ease in the extreme upper register and the weakness of her lower notes was the basis of her decision to sing the mad scene from Lucia di Lammermoor a whole step higher than the published score (the key of the original French edition). In her later years, she would have pitch problems, but the public rarely complained because she was so charming. She was a very small woman, about five feet tall and very slight, so she always appeared fragile, and yet she was always in total control of her life and career. She married the conductor Andre Kostelanetz in 1938, but the union dissolved in 1958. She was one of the most popular classical singers of her era.