Nell Rankin

Born: Jan. 3, 1926 Montgomery, AL

At the Zurich State Opera in one year she gave 126 performances in 16 roles. Joined the Metropolitan Opera in 1951.

Source: Alabama Music Hall of Fame

Nell Rankin (January 3, 1924 – January 13, 2005) was an American operatic mezzo-soprano. Although a successful opera singer internationally, she spent most of her career at the Metropolitan Opera where she worked from 1951-1976. Rankin was particularly admired for her portrayals of Amneris in Verdi's Aida and the title role in Bizet's Carmen. Opera News said, "Her full, generous tone and bold phrasing, especially in the Italian repertory, were unique among American mezzos of her generation.[1]

Born in Montgomery, Alabama, Rankin was raised in a musical family. Along with her mother, father, sister and brother, Rankin grew up playing various musical instruments. She began performing at the age of four on the radio by singing for commercials.[2] As a teenager she studied voice with Jeanne Lorraine at the Birmingham Conservatory. In order to pay for her lessons with Lorraine, Rankin rented the Huntingdon College pool and spent her summers teaching the children of Montgomery to swim. Helen Traubel visited the conservatory to perform a recital in 1943 while Rankin was a student. Determined to succeed in an opera career, Rankin went backstage and persuaded Ms. Traubel's accompanist, Coenraad Bos, to hear her sing. On Bos's advice, she moved to New York City to continue her studies with Karin Branzell. Her sister Ruth Rankin, a soprano with similar ambitions, moved with her.[3]


Rankin made her professional recital debut at Town Hall, in a joint recital with her sister in March 1947. This was followed by her operatic debut as Amneris in a production of Aida at the Salmaggi Opera Company in Brooklyn, with her sister in the title role.[3]

Rankin joined the Opernhaus Zürich in 1948 where she made her debut as Ortrud in Wagner's Lohengrin. She stayed with the company for two years and sang 126 performances with the company during her first year alone. In 1950 she joined Theater Basel where she performed Amneris in Aida and Dalila in Saint-Saëns's Samson et Dalila. That same year she became the first American singer to win the first prize at the International Music Competition in Geneva, which raised Rankin's profile in the opera world; she soon received invitations to perform at many of the world's best opera houses.[2]

In 1951 she debuted at the Teatro alla Scala, the Vienna State Opera, and the Metropolitan Opera, all in the role of Amneris in Aida. That same year she recorded the role of Suzuki in Puccini's Madama Butterfly, opposite Renata Tebaldi, for Decca Records and was a soloist in La Scala's production of Verdi's Requiem under Victor de Sabata, with Renata Tebaldi, Giacinto Prandelli and Nicola Rossi-Lemeni. In 1953, she made her debuts at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and the San Francisco Opera, both in the title role of Bizet's Carmen. She also had the honor of giving a solo recital for Queen Elizabeth II in honor of her coronation.[4] Also in 1953, she gave her first solo recital in New York City at Town Hall. The New York Times said of her performance, "Not only is Miss Rankin's a voice of power and range, but it is as warm as the red color of the dress she wore. Her voice is beautifully trained so that it flows purely and evenly no matter how long sustained or how quickly stated."[5]

In a 2002 Opera News interview, Rankin said that the single most memorable musical event in her career took place in 1952. Her husband was in the Air Force in North Africa, and she was engaged to give a solo concert on the Mediterranean coast, in an open-air theater forty miles outside Tripoli. "Imagine", says Rankin, "Libya was still a kingdom then, and King Idris had a piano flown in from Egypt, while an American cruiser was stationed near the shore to illuminate the stage. The whole thing was unreal and unforgettable."[2]

Although Rankin made appearances with several major companies throughout her career, she spent most of her time in New York City performing at the Metropolitan Opera between 1951 and 1976; there she sang the role of Carmen, the Princess di Bouillon in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, Madelon in Giordano's Andrea Chénier, Santuzza in Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, Marina in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Giulietta in Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, Herodias in Richard Strauss's Salome, Maddalena in Verdi's Rigoletto, Azucena in Verdi's Il Trovatore, Princess Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo, Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera, Brangäne in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Gutrune in Wagner's Götterdämmerung, Fricka in Wagner's Die Walküre and Ortrud in Wagner's Lohengrin among others. Her last performance with the company was as Laura in Ponchielli's La Gioconda on April 16, 1976.[6]

Other notable performances in Rankin's career include the starring role in CBS's television production of Carmen in 1954 and several productions at La Scala, including the role of Cassandra in Berlioz's Les Troyens in 1960. She made her Lyric Opera of Chicago debut in 1959 as Princess Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo.[7] She also appeared at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples as Adalgisa in Bellini's Norma in 1963. In 1971 she appeared as Carmen in the very first production made by the Lyric Opera Company of Long Island.[8] She also appeared at the Teatro Colón, Bellas Artes Opera in Mexico City, the Liceu in Barcelona and a score of other companies in Europe and North America. She was an admired recitalist and concert singer throughout her career.[9]

After she retired from the Metropolitan Opera, Rankin devoted herself to teaching, first at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, from 1977 to 1984, and then privately in New York City until she retired in 1991.[9]

Rankin made few commercial recordings during her career. Although she was under contract with the Decca label, many of her recording projects fell through for various reasons, and her only Decca recording is Suzuki in Puccini's Madama Butterfly with Renata Tebaldi in the title role. A number of notable live recordings have only recently become available on CD. Among them is a 1951 recording of Rankin's Amneris in Aida that was conducted by Herbert von Karajan for radio broadcast in Vienna, a recording of Verdi's Requiem at La Scala from that same year, and the 1960 La Scala production of Berlioz's Les Troyens.[1] A famous "pirate" recording of hers is a 1958 performance of Aïda in Mexico City, with Rankin as Amneris and fellow singers Anita Cerquetti, Flaviano Labò, Cornell MacNeil, Fernando Corena and Norman Treigle.


In 1952 Rankin married Dr. Hugh Clark Davidson, M.D.. They were married for fifty-three years until her death of polycythemia vera, a bone marrow disease, in 2005. She died at Cabrini Medical Center in New York City.[3] The Davidsons had no children.

Rankin did claim to have owned an exotic pet. In a 2002 Opera News interview, she recalled, "I became fascinated with a pet jaguar I discovered one day walking down the street in New Orleans. Eventually I talked his owner into selling him to me. His name was King Tut. We all became very much attached to him and watched him become a featured character in two movies. My husband and I even decided to take him to the Met once as a 'negotiating tool.' I don't think we really intimidated Bing, but he felt distinctly uncomfortable."[2]



1^ a b Opera News January 18, 2005

2^ a b c d Opera News April 2003

3^ a b c New York Times January 19, 2005

4^ USA Today

5^ New York Times January 12, 1953

6^ Metropolitan Opera Archives

7^ Lyric Opera of Chicago Archives

8^ New York Times November 28, 1971

9^ a b Opera News April 2005, vol 69, no. 10

Source: Nell Rankin - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia




The following biographical sketch was compiled at the time of induction into the Academy in 1976.

Nell Rankin, the internationally-acclaimed mezzo-soprano, sang more leading roles than any other mezzo in the history of the Metropolitan Opera Company.

Born in Montgomery in 1926, Miss Rankin began her voice training there, and in her early teens sought out the help of Madame Jeanne Lorraine, a former European opera star living in Birmingham. To earn the money to pay for her lessons she rented the Huntingdon College pool and spent her summers teaching the children of Montgomery to swim.

In 1943 when Miss Rankin was 17, she received her first real break. Helen Traubel came to Montgomery to sing, and the determined Miss Rankin went backstage to audition for Miss Traubel's accompanist, Coneaad v. Bos. His verdict was that her voice was good but not yet good enough, and he offered her the chance for further coaching if she came to New York. A period of intense and dedicated study followed, and in 1947, when coaches judged that she was ready, she made her debut at New York's Town Hall.

No contract offer was forthcoming from the Met, but she continued to study and to sing until 1948, when she sailed to Switzerland, where the Zurich Opera Company was reported to be recruiting young singers. Unexpected and unannounced, she was nearly turned away with the explanation that all the singers needed for the coming season had been hired. But she insisted on auditioning anyway and sang the role of Amneris in Aida, which she had learned in German especially for the occasion. This time a contract was forthcoming, and she immediately became a diva for the Zurich Opera Company.

Despite her stardom in Europe, she was still unknown in the United States. To become recognized here she was determined to win the Concours de Musique, an international contest that no American singer had ever won. Overcoming stiff competition, she took first prize in her category. World fame and a stunningly successful career followed. Milan's La Scala engaged her as its leading mezzo for the 1951 season; Italy selected her to sing Verdi's Requiem on the fiftieth anniversary of the composer's death. And in November, 1951, at the age of 25, she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, again singing the role of Amneris.

Her subsequent career included roles as Maddalena in Rigoletto, Azucena in Il Trovatore, Ortrud, in Lohengrin, recognition as the "greatest Carmen of our time," and stardom at the Met, Covent Garden, and La Scala. Critics all over the world acclaimed the "exceptional intelligence and rare beauty" of her voice and the "formidable technique and exciting stage presence" that she brought to her performances. According to one commentator, she "lived her roles with remarkable intensity," using her voice to act for her through its warmth, its range, and its power of coloration. The State of Alabama has honored Miss Rankin repeatedly. In 1957 the legislature passed a joint resolution to congratulate her on her victory in the Concours de Musique and to recognize her as the first "cultural ambassador of the State...for the year 1957 and thenceforth." And in 1972 the board of the State's newly created American Arts Hall of Fame voted to make her a member of its first class. On that occasion she was honored for her achievements as an artist and was described as "one of Alabama's proudest exports." The legion of Miss Rankin's friends and admirers would agree that the description fits her exactly.

Nell Rankin died January 13, 2005, at the age of 81.

Giuseppe Verdi: Aida, Herbert von Karajan, Wiener Symphoniker, Dragica Martinis, Lorenz Fehenberger, Nell Rankin, Giovanni MalaspinaEileen Farrell In New Orleans (Scenes from La Forza del Destino and La Giocanda), Eileen Farrell





Subscribe to Newsletter

Rick Carter Radio - All Alabama Music

Accepting submissions and adding them daily. Artists can send their songs in MP3's to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. One song per email. Graphics and song and artist info should be included of course.

This space
for rent!

This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.