Alabama Academy of Honor

Nell Rankin

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.