AS BARBARA RONDELLI-PERRY stood on the mezzanine walkway of McCray Hall, she couldn’t help but remember the significance of the place where her career in music first began.
“I have so many memories of McCray,” said Rondelli-Perry, a 1960 alumnae who has enjoyed an incredible career as a globally recognized opera singer. “I’ve seen a lot of facilities, and this building ranks up there with anything I’ve seen. It’s beautifully done.”
After nearly 15 years traveling and performing across the world – and more than three decades as a professor of voice at the University of Toledo – Rondelli-Perry recently returned to PSU for her Half-Century Club reunion and to visit the family farm where she grew up. Along the way, she shared memories of an exciting career as an internationally acclaimed operatic soprano who performed in a dozen countries on three continents, appearing with major opera companies, TV, and radio stations across the world.
Born in Chicopee, Kan., to a German-Italian family, Rondelli-Perry had an early start at music, taking the stage at McCray for her first full recital at only 16 years of age.
“My mother taught me to play piano and sing,” she said of the years before she began studying with PSU’s Judy Bounds Coleman. “By the time I was 14 or 15,
I knew voice was for me.”
It wasn’t long before she realized how rare her gift was. At PSU’s former Carney Hall, she performed the lead in several works including “Old Maid and the Thief,” “Brigadoon,” “La Boheme,” and “Telemachus.” She also performed with the Inspiration Point Opera Workshop in Arkansas, being cast as a soprano Carmen (“to the chagrin of all the mezzos who wanted the part,” she said with a smile) in Bizet’s opera “Carmen.”
Perhaps her first big break, however, was when she won third prize at the national auditions for the National Federation of Music Clubs, an accomplishment that allowed her to make a professional recording that helped land her a concert tour performing for the U.S. Information Service.
It wasn’t long before Rondelli-Perry received notification that she had become the first PSU graduate ever to receive a Fulbright Scholarship to attend the Royal Academy of Music in London.
“Nobody thought I would get it,” she said. “But as the granddaughter of immigrants, I worked hard.
In 1960, at the tender age of 20, she boarded the Queen Elizabeth for the five-day journey to England where she studied with the noted British soprano Dame Eva Turner. Rondelli-Perry began winning voice awards at the academy and performed in an opera tour in her spare time.
With school behind her, Rondelli-Perry came back to the United States, finishing as a finalist at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera auditions. But in 1964, she returned to Europe to perform at an opera house in Germany – the beginning of her professional career.
During the mid 1960s, she performed as many as six major roles each year for opera houses throughout Germany and in Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, and London.
“This whole time, I was doing so many concerts, performing in major operatic roles and guest performing in other opera houses when people would fall ill. I would travel on the train system and go wherever they needed me to go. I sang Elsa in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” and the first Rhine Maiden in the “Ring of the Nibelungen.” I learned the role of Sieglinde in four days when one of the sopranos fell ill. It was one of the biggest thrills of my life. I wouldn’t try to do that now, but at the time I knew I could.”
Of her nearly 100 operatic and oratorio roles, her favorite role is one she performed not only in Europe, but also in the United States at the New York City Opera and in Honolulu: Madama Butterfly in the famed Puccini opera.
“From one language to another, it is as though you’re a pianist and someone has moved middle C,” she said, her eyes lighting up. “But you still have to play the piece.”
In the late 1960s, she traveled to South Africa, where her first husband was an opera and orchestral conductor. She took a break from opera, performing occasional concerts. She opted to return to the U.S. in 1974. With an infant daughter in tow, she accepted a position at the University of Toledo, seeking stability for her new focus in life. There, she fell in love with her students, many of whom went on to accomplish vocal fame in their own right.
As years passed, her students weren’t the only ones she fell in love with.
A widow by this time, she met Dr. Richard Perry, the university’s associate vice president for academic affairs emeritus and a professor of higher education, who was taking voice lessons from one of her former students.
Accompanying her to the reunion this past May, Perry delighted in his wife’s reminiscing. Music, he said, brought them together.
It was a work ethic. My father was always adamant that nothing should be just given to you. So it was a tremendous day when I got the letter.”
“I attended a dinner party at her house where I was surrounded by professional singers. They warned me I would have to sing for my supper,” he recalled with a laugh. “I find singing to be a great comfort. To me, if you can feel the song and are true to it, it becomes an expression of your very soul.”
Her voice, he said, is as wonderful as one who has only read about her experiences might imagine. Fans in Toledo were able to hear it as recently as April, when Rondelli-Perry was featured as part of a voice recital at the Toledo Art Museum’s Great Gallery.
“Her voice is heavenly indeed. I’d like to say it’s arresting,” he said, watching her move among the crowd at the reunion. “No one has her repertoire. But I’m not just impressed with her. I am in love with her. She is my passion.”
With retirement on the horizon, Rondelli-Perry said she was pleasantly surprised last year when a man from Carthage, Mo., contacted her. He had purchased a collection of old LPs which included an original recording of her very first recital at McCray Hall 54 years ago, and wanted to know if he should return it to her.
“I opened them and it was like I was pulling back the curtain of time,” she said. “I was very moved. It was as though I was there again.”
To hear a sample of that recording, visit the PSU’s online press and media center at www.pittstate.edu/pr.