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Lily Pons (April 12, 1898 – February 13, 1976) was an 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.
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.
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, "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."
Born as Alice Joséphine Pons 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.
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. In 1925, encouraged by soprano Dyna Beumer and 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.
Pons successfully made her operatic debut in the title role of Léo Delibes' Lakmé at Mulhouse in 1928 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.
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 André Kostelanetz.
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 Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman, Philine in Ambroise Thomas's Mignon, Amina in Bellini's La Sonnambula, Marie in Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment, the title role in Delibes' Lakmé, the Queen in Rimsky-Korsakov's The 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 Traviata, which she sang at the San Francisco Opera. Another role Pons learned, but decided not to sing was Melisande in Debussy's opera "Pelleas 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, Covent Garden in London, La Monnaie in Brussels, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, the Chicago Opera and the San Francisco 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 died of pancreatic cancer in Dallas, Texas, aged 77. Her remains were brought back to her birthplace to be interred in the Cimetière du Grand Jas in Cannes. Her nephew, John de Bry (son of her sister Juliette), an archaeologist living in Florida, is her sole surviving relative in the United States; his sister, Florence de Bry Mini, who lives near Paris is Lily's last direct relative in France.
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 and given the simple title, For Lily Pons.
Boston and Maine Railroad was buying a new class of locomotives in the 1930s. The railroad had a contest for school kids to name the new engines. The winning suggestion for engine 4108 was "Lily Pons".
The cartoon The Woods Are Full of Cuckoos caricatures Pons as "Lily Swans".
In the late 1930s she made three movies for RKO; there is a large legacy of recordings, mostly on the RCA Victor and Columbia labels, many of which are available on CD.
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