Milestones: Jun. 8, 1981

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DIED. Rosa Ponselle, 84, the "Caruso in petticoats" whose rich, soaring voice and compelling stage presence enabled her to reign from 1918 to 1937 as the first American-born and -trained star of the Metropolitan Opera and established her as one of the great dramatic sopranos in operatic history; of a heart attack; in Stevenson, Md. Celebrated for such roles as Bellini's Norma, Verdi's Aïda and Ponchielli's La Gioconda, Ponselle combined prodigious coloratura technique with a voice that ranged seamlessly from glowing chest tones to a ringing high C. When she appeared in London in 1930 in Montemezzi's L 'Amore Dei Tre Re, portraying a wife who loved another man, Critic Ernest Newman wrote that on hearing her first note "any divorce lawyer would have granted the husband a decree nisi." The daughter of a baker named Ponzillo, who had emigrated from Naples to Meriden, Conn., she teamed with her sister to form a teen-age singing duo in vaudeville, where Tenor Enrico Caruso discovered her. She made her Met debut opposite Caruso in Verdi's La Forza del Destine. After leaving the Met, she continued to perform for concerts, radio and recordings, and served for a period as artistic director of the Baltimore Civic Opera. She spent her last years in splendid retirement at her home outside Baltimore, Villa Pace, where she held court for visiting singers, students and buffs.

DIED. Soong Ch'ing-ling, 90, a vice chairman of the People's Republic of China and the widow of Sun Yatsen, who founded the Chinese Republic in 1911; of leukemia; in Peking. Born to an illustrious Chinese family and educated in America, Ch'ing-ling, who married Sun in 1914, was the second of the three legendary Soong sisters (Ailing married the wealthy banker H.H. Kung in 1914; Mei-ling married Chiang Kai-shek in 1927). A staunch revolutionary who condemned the split between Chiang's Kuomintang forces and the Chinese Communists in 1927, she survived the purges of Mao's Cultural Revolution but was not granted full-fledged membership in the Communist Party until last month, when it was clear that she did not have long to live.

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