- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 25, 2000

Rosa Ponselle stood above the likes of Geraldine Farrar, Amelita Galli-Curci and Claudia Muzio in an age of golden singers.

The voice of the young American from Meriden, Conn., brought even the great Arturo Toscanini to his knees. But Elayne Duke, president of the Rosa Ponselle Foundation in Stevenson, Md., says few singers today can reach the standard set by the legendary soprano.

"Regrettably, over the years we have found a decline in the training of opera singers," says Miss Duke, in announcing the foundation's decision to suspend its vocal competition. "The talent has simply not progressed enough to merit continued competition."

The Rosa Ponselle Foundation will continue to give individual grants to aspiring young classical singers "studying with competent private teachers who are willing to provide intensified training schedules without charging rapacious lesson fees," Miss Duke say.

The end of the statewide vocal competition, called "All Marylanders," marks the latest in a series of retrenchments by the foundation, which was formed in 1982 after the singer's death and endowed by her estate. Villa Pace, the singer's palatial home near Baltimore, was sold in 1987. It had been maintained by the foundation as a museum and occasional recital hall.

Ten years later, the Rosa Ponselle international vocal competition, which had awarded nearly a half-million dollars in grants and prizes to rising singers since its inception in 1984, was shut down.

The foundation also had operated a "Young New Yorkers" competition.

"Without consistent and competent technical and artistic training of young singers, the potentials of our fine young talents cannot be realized," Miss Duke, the last remaining close friend of Rosa Ponselle, wrote in 1997.

Singers such as Olga Borodina, who won both the international competition and a study grant in 1988, or Deborah Voight, who did the same in 1990, are few and far between, Miss Duke says.

More common is the case of a recent medal winner, a baritone, who received his $25,000 first-prize money with the "solemn commitment" that he would move to Italy and study with famed opera singer Carlo Bergonzi.

Instead, he invested the money in the stock market.

"Today, he's a serviceable house baritone in a small European opera house," Miss Duke says. "The interest in becoming a great singer just wasn't there."

Lonel Woods, a member of the Washington Opera Chorus who has also sung with the Chicago Lyric Opera and the Houston Grand Opera, agrees with Miss Duke's assessment of the state of the art.

"A lot of people are just mediocre," he says. "Singers are not encouraged to be individuals any more. In the old days, every time a singer opened her mouth you knew who they were. Now if you close your eyes you can't tell them apart. Teachers want everybody to sound the same."

The withdrawal of the Rosa Ponselle Foundation from the competition circuit has eliminated a valuable resource for young singers, but Miss Duke maintains that judges are hard pressed to find voices that merit the awards.

"There is just not the interest for opera that there once was," she says. "Neither the institutions nor the singers themselves care about producing a truly great voice."

Miss Ponselle, who came to opera at a young age after a career in vaudeville, loved the idea of opera. She had little vocal training and even less stage experience.

"All I know is that from about the age of 14, I had a fully rounded operalike dramatic voice," Miss Ponselle once said. "I was born to sing."

For those singers who aren't so lucky, vocal training is key. A good voice teacher can work to smooth out the jagged edges of the voice while developing a sense of artistic interpretation and personal style that makes a singer into a star.

But that, says Miss Duke, is precisely what is lacking among today's young singers.

Today's singers are not that young, either. In 1918, when Miss Ponselle debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in the role of Leonora in Giuseppe Verdi's "La Forza del Destino," she was just 21 years old. Jenny Lind, the "Swedish nightingale" who took New York by storm in 1850, was just 18; the great Luisa Tetrazzini, 19.

Now, according to Miss Duke, singers are well into their 40s before they can land a leading role at a major opera house.

"Many singers today are just sitting in institutions getting degrees," she says. "No one is paying the kind of attention to developing the voice that they should."

Miss Duke places part of the responsibility for such late blooming on teachers who are ill-prepared to develop their students. As a result, voices crack and talent falters.

"Athletes work out every single day," she says. "Yet institutions expect opera singers to develop with only a one-hour voice lesson a week, from a teacher who probably never quite had a career."

Miss Ponselle herself decried the state of singing in a televised interview on her 80th birthday, Miss Duke notes.

But the news is not all bad, says Dominic Cosa, chairman of the Vocal Department at the University of Maryland's School of Music.

"Our singers are doing very well," he says. "We have graduates who have gone on to sing at the Metropolitan and the major houses in Europe."

For Mr. Cosa, a professional opera singer who has soloed in roles at the Met and the New York City Opera, the perceived decline in vocal quality is simply not the case.

"That has not been my experience in over 13 years at the University of Maryland," he says. "And wherever I travel, it is the American singer who arrives on the scene the best prepared."

But for Miss Duke and the members of the Rosa Ponselle Foundation, such success is not sufficient.

"Our only hope is to give a wake-up call to the teachers and singers who are out there," Miss Duke says. "The Lord hasn't stopped creating great voices — when they are ready to sing, we'll be ready to listen."

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