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Once opera great Rosa Ponselle’s protege, Virginia Gordoni now lives in her mentor’s hometown Meriden.

Once opera great Rosa Ponselle’s protege, Virginia Gordoni now lives in her mentor’s hometown Meriden.

reporter photo

MERIDEN  — Long before gracing the stage with Luciano Pavarotti, before taking music lessons from famed diva and city native Rosa Ponselle, opera singer Virginia Gordoni knew she would be a performer.

“At 3 years old, I walked over to the piano and I knew it,” Gordoni said. “I knew that I was going to somehow or other be in music.”

On Wednesday, Gordoni talked about the highlights of her operatic career, which began in the 1950s, as she looked over photos in the library of the Bradley Home and Pavillon. The former Litchfield County resident moved to the senior care facility in November following an injury and said she plans to stay in Meriden.

Gordoni sang in Italy for 25 years, performed in Verdi’s opera “Nabucco” with Pavarotti and sang for guests like Grace Kelly and Prince Phillip. Throughout her career, the soprano performed in opera houses and concert halls in Paris, Naples, Vienna and Madrid, as well as on Broadway and television.

Gordoni’s debut was at La Scala, the famed opera house in Milan, Italy. Gary Gordon, Gordoni’s husband, said the pair moved to Italy, where Virginia was encouraged to add the “i” to the end of her last name to make it sound Italian. She said she was able to change her name officially with the Italian government and has “Gordoni” on her passport. 

“We have so many stories of things that have happened that are really wonderful,” Gordoni said.

While performing in Italy, Gordoni said she had a dog named Coco that she traveled with to all of her performances. Gordon said whenever Coco heard Gordoni’s voice, she followed it. He said on the opening night of an opera production someone forgot to close the dressing room door and Coco escaped.

“Virginia was in the middle of the first act aria and all of a sudden she looked down and there was Coco,” Gordon said. “She bent down, picked the dog up and finished the aria. The audience went crazy.”

In 1954, Gordoni starred in “The Saint of Bleecker Street,” by Gian Carlo Menotti. It was then that Gordoni met city native and famed opera singer Rosa Ponselle. Gordoni said she visited Ponselle for voice lessons to prepare for the Broadway production. Gordoni would often visit Ponselle at her Villa Pace home in Baltimore, Maryland.

Ponselle “adored Virginia,” Gordon said. “She played the piano, Virginia sang and she said in Italian, ‘not only is your voice great, but you have the throat of an ox.’ ”

Gordoni still has a photo with Ponselle, which was taken during a coaching session. Gordon said when the two of them arrived at the villa, Ponselle walked down the stairs to greet them with four poodles.

“We were both opera singers and we both had sort of an operatic personality,” Gordoni said.

Now, Gordoni is the mentor. She gives lessons to a few staff and residents at the Bradley Home and hopes to perform for the residents. Executive Director Molly Savard said the residents are enjoying the lessons, but noted that it was harder work than they expected.

“I knew that (opera singing) was something that was in her past, but I didn’t know her resume. I knew part of her life,” Savard said. “Part of our admission process is to learn the highlights of everyone’s life, it’s the interesting part of what makes our community.”

Savard said Gordoni and her husband are welcomed additions to the Bradley Home community. Gordoni is grateful for the Bradley Home. 

“The people here are very, very helpful. They will stop and show you and give you any kind of information.” Gordoni said. “I’m so happy to be here at this home and to be with the city of Meriden.”
Twitter: @JenieceRoman