Recently I’ve been studying the score of Mozart’s opera Cosi fan tutte and chose my companion to be a 1954 EMI recording, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. I love Maestro Karajan’s recording of the complete Beethoven symphonies and knew that this particular Cosi is regarded as one of his most successful Mozart endeavors on record. The cast includes Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Nan Merriman, Rolando Panerai, Leopold Simoneau, Lisa Otto, and Sesto Bruscantini.
Today, while driving, I had just listened to the Fiordiligi-Dorabella duet, “Ah, guarda, sorella” when my two-year-old requested Sleeping Beauty. I reluctantly switched out CDs, trading my opera for a compilation CD of “Disney’s Greatest” and fast-forwarded to track fourteen: “Once Upon a Dream.”
I immediately realized the similarity in operatic style to the Elisabeth Schwartkopf singing I had just heard. (Perhaps my toddler heard it too which prompted her to request “Once Upon a Dream?”) Perusing the record jacket, I learned that Disney produced his classic movie, Sleeping Beauty, in 1959 and that Mary Costa sang the part of Princess Aurora. But who was Mary Costa?
As it turns out, Mary Costa was an internationally acclaimed soprano who studied at the Los Angeles Conservatory in the late 1940s and began her career singing and doing commercials on radio. Walt Disney himself discovered Costa, but soon after her Sleeping Beauty gig she replaced Elisabeth Schwarzkopf for a gala concert at the Hollywood Bowl and went on to sing leading roles in major opera houses all over the world. She toured with Leonard Bernstein as his Candide. She sang leading roles in Manon, La Traviata, La Boheme, Vanessa, The Rake’s Progress, and Faust. She made her Met debut in 1964 and sang there many times throughout a long career that included appearances at the Glyndebourne Festival, the Bolshoi Theatre, and the San Francisco Opera.
Costa cantored at John F. Kennedy’s memorial service at the invitation of Jaqueline Kennedy.
Sleeping Beauty was a fine singer, to say the least. Mary Costa ultimately left the stage in 1984 to care for her aging mother, but continued a portfolio career that included adjudication, speaking engagements, arts activism, and television appearances.
Here’s a clip of the radiant Mary Costa singing the Jewel Song from Faust in 1962.