The Graceful Elinor Ross

Elinor Ross was a great American singer and one of the few, true dramatic soprano voices of her time. Her career began at the top, singing demanding, leading roles with some of the most important colleagues of her generation. She was acclaimed in the leading opera houses of Europe (particularly Italy) and South America. In 1970, she was called, on three days’ notice, to make her Met Opera debut as Turandot with no stage rehearsal. The performance was a triumph!

If Ross is not as well known today as she deserves to be, it is because one day in her 40s, as she was entering the decade in which her dramatic voice would reach its true prime, she awoke with her face paralyzed, a result of Bell’s palsy. In her words “Goodbye, career, overnight!”

After extensive surgery and painstaking retraining, she did return to singing (her voice in remarkably fine condition), though not to opera. Her return was a 1996 concert presented by the Giulio Gari Foundation, preserved to hear and enjoy on YouTube, luckily, as are some of her remarkable operatic roles, including the Met debut.

I recently spent a wonderful afternoon visiting Ross in her beautiful New York City apartment. She is an extremely warm, wise, strong, and intelligent woman who tells it like it is. She is terrific company!

“I was born in Florida and I sang everyplace,” Ross says, beginning at the beginning. “Anytime there was anything to be sung in Tampa—any church, any synagogue, anything—I did it! I grew up in a household where my grandmother, mother, and aunt all spoke Italian and Spanish. Those were the magic languages! I wasn’t supposed to understand anything, but I was exposed to them.

“Frank Garcia was a friend of my father’s and had been a violinist in the orchestra that accompanied Rosa Ponselle and her sister on their Vaudeville tours. When he heard me sing, he said, ‘It’s a wonderful voice!’ They got me recordings of Ponselle and, listening to her, I decided I wanted to be an opera singer.”

This was a significant career shift for Ross. “I initially wanted to be a doctor,” she says. “My parents wanted me to get an education. They thought I sang wonderfully well, but who in the world gets to be a singer from Tampa, Florida? Who even knew the words ‘opera singer’?”

Ross entered college, majoring in medicine—but after only a few months, the pull of singing was too strong. “Every time they had something to be sung in the music department, they called me,” she remembers. “They told me I had talent, and I believed them. They said, ‘Go to New York and get a good voice teacher.’”

And that’s exactly what she did—moved out on her own and rented a room. “My mother came to NYC about six months later and she said, ‘What happened to the velvet in your voice? You sound terrible!’ She got desperate and found the editor of Musical America. I don’t know how in the world she got to him, but my mother was a mother! He said the best voice teacher in New York is William Pierce Herman. [Musical America’s editor] picked me up in a taxi—which was a very big deal—and took me to Mr. Herman’s. When I sang for Mr. Herman, he thought I had a great voice and he agreed to take me as a student.”

Ross had a lesson every single day with Herman, even if only a brief one. He was one of New York’s leading teachers, and among his other students were Roberta Peters and Nedda Casei, who to this day are life-long friends of Ross (as was Anna Moffo until her death). “He taught me as a mezzo, because a dramatic soprano needs a strong mezzo voice,” Ross recalls.

Herman was not only their voice teacher, but he exposed his young students to language, repertoire, recordings, and performances. Ross even studied Pilates. Not just Pilates, but with Mr. Pilates himself! “At that time, [he was] an impoverished man, working only with dancers,” Ross says.

“We were just very lucky to have these great people with whom to study everything,” Ross continues. “Most of them were refugees from Germany or France or wherever . . . wonderful people, knowledgeable and with hearts. It was a great time.”

Ross also fondly remembers going to Patelson’s, the now closed and greatly missed music shop on W. 56th St., where she found free or big-discounted tickets to all of the great recitals at Town Hall and other venues. Ross also got standing-room tickets every night for the Old Met. “We heard great performances,” she recalls. “I’ll never forget Ljuba Welitsch as Salome. I walked out of the theater transfixed!”

Welitsch had a rare voice that combined a dark, rich color with a thrilling upper register. “That’s hard work!” comments Ross. “Mr. Herman had taught Patrice Munsel, Roberta Peters, and a lot of coloraturas. He made us all be very agile. We had to do violin studies—Vaccai, Marchesi. We had to do all kinds of instrumental studies. So when you have to do a violin study, you suddenly learn to sing very rapidly, and you repeat and you repeat until you get it. That’s all!” Ross’ incredible performance as Bellini’s Norma, thankfully preserved on video, perfectly illustrates that she, indeed, “got it!”

Ross’ very first performance on any stage was in the extremely demanding role of Leonora in Il trovatore with the Cincinnati Opera, an important summer company, alongside colleagues from the Metropolitan Opera. “I got a wonderful review,” she remembers. “Then, a few months later, Eileen Farrell, who was singing Trovatore with Chicago Lyric Opera, got sick. I’d sung two performances of the role in Cincinnati and the third time I’d walked on any stage, it was in Chicago with Björling, Simionato, [and] Bastianini. And there was little ol’ me from Tampa, Florida, up on that stage singing!”

But American opera houses did not immediately open their doors to Ross. There was at the time something of a bias against home-grown singers in the U.S. “Wine, cheeses, and singers all had to be imported!” Europe and South America, however, welcomed her, including all the important theaters of Italy—La Scala, Palermo, Florence, Bologna, Verona, Caracalla and, particularly, La Fenice in Venice. She remembers colleagues such as Fiorenza Cossotto and her husband Ivo Vinco with special fondness and says that baritone Giuseppe Taddei “was like a daddy to me.”

Such friendships were welcome since Ross almost always traveled alone, except for summer tours when her young son was out of school. She still remembers the pangs of separation, especially when her son was ill or had an accident. Her first husband was a lawyer and unable to travel. Even more difficult was the fact that her husband had a serious heart condition. He accompanied her to Milan once, but the long flight took such a toll that he was immediately hospitalized. For the next six weeks, she spent her days at the hospital as nurse, cook, and advocate, then her evenings onstage at La Scala as Santuzza. They finally arrived back in the States on a Sunday, both physically and emotionally exhausted.

That Wednesday, the call came from the Met, asking her to make her debut three days later as Turandot, a role she had not sung in over a year. Although completely wiped out, she knew that she must accept. For two days she rehearsed in a room. Her tenor, Corelli, “didn’t show up!” She had never been on the Met stage or seen the set until the moment she set foot on it. Nor had she worn the heavy costume or the elaborate headdress. Her entrance was on an enormous staircase which, of course, she had never set foot on.

“My toes did a lot of work that night, feeling for each step,” she recalls. “The director, Nathaniel Merrill, was in the wings saying, ‘Walk here, go there.’ It was terrifying, but you do it!”

Her debut was a tremendous success but, unfortunately, not shared by her husband. His condition was considered too delicate to bear the stress of attending. Her dear friend Nedda Casei reported the performance to him via telephone. Sadly, he died a few weeks later. Throughout Ross’ career, moments of greatest success were accompanied by moments of personal tragedy (her second husband fell seriously ill while she was on a tour in Japan).

These events created a shift in her career. With her son in his teen years, she chose to base her activities more in the U.S. She appeared regularly at the Met for the next nine seasons, having great success in such roles as Aida, Lady Macbeth, Gioconda (“What a hoot and a holler!”), Tosca, Amelia, and Santuzza. She sang with major orchestras in Verdi’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, and Rossini’s Stabat Mater. For German repertoire, she often sang “The Immolation Scene” and she enjoyed performing Fidelio with Lorin Maazel. She was preparing the role of Isolde—a magnificent prospect—when struck with the sudden attack of Bell’s palsy.

Though physically limited, Ross is a tremendously vital woman who is keenly interested in emerging young singers today. She is an active, familiar, and well loved favorite at many opera-related events. She is much in demand as a judge at competitions, where she maintains a balance of high standards and fairness to singers, having been one of them for so long.

Ross has three grandchildren: one the grandchild of her second husband and two the daughters of her son and his partner. They all enjoy a warm, close relationship, and she enjoys her occasional opportunities to babysit or go on movie dates immensely. “I should not be that much of a proprietress, should I?” Ross asks with a twinkle in her eye.

And why not? Three of Ross’ greatest roles are a strong, courageous, indomitable woman; a truly great singer; and a proud, doting mother and grandmother. And she balances them all with true grace, warmth, and dignity.

Ken Benson

Ken Benson has been a leading manager of singers for 30 years. He also gives consultations and seminars in repertoire, auditioning, and career direction. See www.kenbenson.us.