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Subject: Re: An Opera-L Christmas
From: Idia Legray <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Idia Legray <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 24 Dec 2017 14:34:55 -0500

text/plain (93 lines)

Some posters are already aware of this wonderful Christmas tale but for 
those who have not...

************ THE BORROWED GIFT ******************
An original, non-fiction story by Gene Prevost
(c) 2001 - J. Eugene Prevost
All world rights reserved.
Compared with the informality of current religious ceremonies, a surprise 
event on Christmas Eve in 1949 makes it seem like ages ago. The Catholic 
Church in Pikesville, Maryland was imposing with its stained glass windows 
and marble statues. The night was dark and snowy in its holiday vigil.
I was no longer an altar boy, just a young son accompanying his parents to 
Midnight Mass. Something caught my eye as I trudged through the slippery 
parking lot to the church door. A long black limousine was curbside with a 
chauffeur assisting two older women from the vehicle. Clothed in street 
length mink coats, they slowly entered the church behind me. Years ago, a 
car that big and coats that luxurious were a rarity. This sight was a”HOLY 
MACKEREL - WHO IN THE WORLD IS THAT” experience for all of us who 
witnessed it.
The High Mass was sung in Latin as the congregation read their English 
missals. The priests wore their finest ornate vestments. Smoky incense and 
blazing candles highlighted the choir as an occasional Christmas hymn was 
sung. Then a soprano;s voice, never heard before in this church, began to 
sing the Ave Maria. It had such vocal beauty, huge and rich, and totally 
different from any soprano who had sung before. Who could it be? Her 
voice had such volume and clarity with a magnificent tone. As the hymn 
proceeded, I glanced back at the elevated choir loft. In the center, with 
hands folded as she sang, was the former Metropolitan Opera diva - Rosa 
Ponselle. In the 1920's her voice had been entwined with that of the great 
Italian tenor Enrico Caruso. Her career lasted until 1937, the year I was 
born. Early retirement for opera singers probably was customary then.
The Mass proceeded past the Consecration. Reaching the Agnus Dei, a 
vocal duet began. The sound of Panis Angelicus surrounded us in perfect 
harmony, sung by two trained voices matched by birth. Rosa's soprano was 
joined with the contralto of her sister, Carmella. The vocal combination was 
Having been raised in a musical family, Saturday radio broadcasts from the 
Metropolitan Opera in New York were regularly heard in our home. 
However, that Christmas Eve night, a box radio wasn't enclosing the 
sounds we heard. These voices were live and in person, reverberating off 
every nook of the sanctuary. When the Mass ended, we scurried home with 
chills, not from the winter's night, but from the surprise musical gift these 
sisters shared with us. 
The true identity of the mysterious singers spread quickly the following 
week throughout the area. Choir members told of the surprise arrival - the 
two women appearing in the choir loft and handing the music to the 
organist. She agreed to play when asked. Rosa Ponselle lived in retirement 
at her Worthington Valley, Maryland residence. It was called 'Villa Pace.' 
Rosa gave voice lessons to the truly gifted. The fledgling Baltimore Opera 
Company benefited from her assistance. 
During the weeks that followed, soprano voices at Sunday Mass were 
critiqued by those in attendance. They wondered, "Had Rosa made another 
surprise visit?" Sadly, she had not. But the word was out. Christmas 1950 
would come soon enough. Rosa Ponselle might attend another Midnight 
That next Christmas Eve, Rosa arrived at the church alone. The commotion 
caused by the congregation during the service distracted both the Mass 
and the choir. Many had come only to hear her voice. They turned and 
stared, causing quite an upset. Later, the conservative Pastor was forced to 
take matters into his hands. After the holidays, he phoned Rosa, asking 
that she not sing at his church anymore. He blamed the disruption. Also, 
there were choir members who felt slighted having to omit their well 
rehearsed hymns. His reasoning seems like rough treatment now. Back 
then, there was no way a divorced, non-church member was going to 
monopolize Midnight Mass - not even the famous Rosa Ponselle. She had 
the God given gift of an angel's voice and must have wanted to share it 
with us. It was her way of giving a Christmas Gift to the congregation. 
Circumstances did not allow her to do so.
Old RCA recordings of her voice don't do it justice. The limited technical 
ability then couldn't capture its heavenly beauty. But its true sound at our 
church exists in my memory. I was lucky to have attended Christmas 
Midnight Mass at that little country church in the late 1940's. Scripture 
says that - ears have not heard nor eyes seen the beauty and joy of 
Heaven. That may be true, but we came close on those two Christmas Eve 
Some years later, Rosa took her vocal gift back to the Divine Giver. Now 
she freely entertains Him surrounded by a Heavenly Choir. Surely they 
welcome her as a member. 
Requiescat in 'Villa Pace' en coeli, Madama Rosa. Rest peacefully in your 
Heavenly Home. 

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