Turner Classic Movies
Costa, Mary
Written by Diana Saenger   

mary_costa.jpgMary Costa, internationally acclaimed operatic soprano, was the singing and speaking voice talent for Disney's 1959 Sleeping Beauty. Born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1930, in her early teens, Mary's family relocated to Los Angeles, California, where she completed her high school education and entered the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to study with the famed maestro, Gaston Usigli.   Between 1948 and 1951, she appeared with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the Bergen radio show.   She also sang with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in concerts at UCLA, and made numerous commercials for Lux Radio Theatre.

In conjunction with the 2008 release of the 50th anniversary Sleeping Beauty; the Platinum Edition DVD Costa was generous enough to agree to a telephone interview from her home in Tennessee. The sweetness and joy she infused into her iconic character still reins in her voice. She is a great interview and eagerly answered these questions.

Q. How Did Walt Come To Know About You?

Mary Costa: A friend invited me to a dinner party at the begging of my career. While there, people gathered at the piano to sing. When the song, "When I Fall in Love," was played, I sang it very softly. Walter Schumann came up to me and introduced himself as the music director at Walt Disney studios. He said they were looking for the voice for Sleeping Beauty and were almost ready to shell the production. He asked me to audition at 10 the next morning. I was living with my mother, an aunt, and three cousins in Glendale. My father had passed away during my senior year in Glendale High School. So my aunt and cousins moved out from Knoxville, Tennessee. My mother drove me over that morning.

Q. How Did The Audition Go?      

Mary Costa: Well I was very excited that I would meet Walt Disney. However, I was told he didn't want to meet with me as he would have to study anyone who would play the part to get his own take on the character before meeting them. As soon as I left the sound booth they expressed interest in me but were concerned about my Tennessee accent.

"What accent?" I asked.

Marc David said in an English accent, "Do you think you can talk like this?"

And I said in the accent, "Oh yes, I could."

He asked, "How did you do that?"

I replied, "Because my daddy and I always imitated everything, and we loved doing an English accent. We did that most of all. They wrote a page of dialogue for me in 10 minutes, and I also did the speaking voice. I assured them I had song in several languages and could do it.  The next morning our phone rang and it was Walt Disney. He told my mother, "I think you've been hiding our princess!"

Q. At what point of the process were you brought in?

Marc Davis & Mary Costa
Mary Costa: When I started the vocals the pictures were on the animation boards. So I had to work closely with Marc Davis, who became a good friend, Eyvind Earle and others. Every time I recorded Marc was there sketching me on the sound stage. There were other models for the dancing parts, but the character looked a great deal like me.

Q. What Does It Mean To You That This Movie Has Become A Beloved Treasure?

Mary Costa: I'm very honored to have been a part of Sleeping Beauty. Every time I see the film it feels like the first time; it's done so well. I met so many great people while working on this film.

Q. How Do You Feel About the Efforts Of Disney In Keeping The Film In The Spotlight?

sleepingbeautypubstill.jpgMary Costa: I can't believe it's the 50th Anniversary. Every time it's released it's more wonderful. I love that fans of the movie can now share it with their children. And there are so many things that every age can play with on the extra features. I think Walt Disney must have a smile on his face as the new technology has produced amazing quality. Even  the tapestry design is incredible. The artists who worked on the sound made it so beautiful you can hear the core of the voice talents and it brought tears to my eyes. They also captured the personalities  of those godmothers terrifically. They were so warm. Eleanor Audley, who played Maleficent  and also did the voice of the wicked stepmother in Cinderella, was a petite woman but sounded as if she was nine feet tall. Verna Felton was very funny.

Q. Did You Get Any Special Advice From Walt?

Mary Costa: I had two weeks from the time of the call until I was to begin rehearsal. Walt had told me to understand who Briar Rose was and how she feels, and to let the woods caress me. He said put all the colors you have in your head and paint with your voice. He was a great mentor. He was a perfectionist had established work   ethic that traveled with me throughout my life to be the best I could be.

Q. You've Worked With Some Real Classics. Were You Appearances On Radio Shows With Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy Strictly Work Or Were They Really Fun To Be Around?

Mary Costa: "Every one including Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis, Sammy Davis Junior and were all such wonderful unique personalities. Working with great comics like Don Knox and Jim Nabors was so fun.  


In 1958, Mary was called upon to substitute for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at a gala concert in the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by Carmen Dragon. Because of her glowing reviews from that performance, she was invited to sing the lead in her first fully staged operatic production, "The Bartered Bride," produced by the renowned German producer, Carl Ebert, for the Los Angeles Guild Opera. Ebert later requested that Mary appear at the Glyndebourne Festival, where she made a stunning debut. Following these triumphs, Leonard Bernstein deemed her, "perfect," as the leading lady for his "Candide," which had both a United States tour and a London season. Costa received acclaim from critics and public alike, both in the United States and Europe.

Her appearance at the Vancouver Festival in 1959 brought her to the attention of eastern critics, who dubbed her the "new soprano star on the horizon." The San Francisco Opera then engaged Costa for several operas, and she immediately became a favorite leading soprano with the company. Impresario Sol Hurok signed Mary to an exclusive contract, and remained her manager until his death.

In 1961, Costa recorded "La Boheme" for RCA Victor from the stage of the Rome Opera House. This recording was re-mastered and re-released in 1998, and was awarded the RCA Victor Red Seal CD release of the month. The original recording has been used in music schools across the country as an example of a high standard of artistic singing. Later in 1961, Mary sang her first "Manon" in Cincinnati, followed by an appearance at the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden, where she sang in "La Traviata," the opera in which she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera on January 6, 1964.

Costa's Metropolitan Opera debut received one of the season's greatest ovations and engendered enthusiastic praise from critics. It is considered one of the most outstanding debuts of an American singer in the history of the company. Mary performed a number of leading roles with the Metropolitan in succeeding seasons, including Massenet's "Manon," her favorite role. She was subsequently chosen by Samuel Barber and Gian-Carlo Menotti to recreate the title role of "Vanessa" in a new production of the Barber opera. Jacqueline Kennedy attended the opening night gala production and came backstage to congratulate Mary on the success of the performance.

One of Costa's favorite remembrances was being chosen by Igor Stravinsky for the role of Anne Trulove in the San Francisco Opera's production of the new work, "The Rake's Progress," which, prior to its opening, included an unforgettable three weeks of private vocal coaching in the Stravinsky home. Also considered a special occasion was the invitation to perform in the world premier of Norman Dello Joio's "Blood Moon," and the Western Hemisphere production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

Among Costa's fondest and most treasured memories, was receiving a personal request from Jacqueline Kennedy to sing for the John F. Kennedy Memorial Service. The President and Mrs. Kennedy had been following the career of the diva for many years, and Costa had long been an admirer of President and Mrs. Kennedy. The service was telecast throughout the world from the Sports Arena in Los Angeles.

In 1964, Costa was invited to London to film the BBC's highly acclaimed television productions of "La Traviata," "Faust," and "The Merry Widow." English critics acclaimed her "the definitive Merry Widow," and the productions have since had several annual re-broadcasts throughout the United Kingdom.

Mary's choice to sing at the Bolshoi Opera in 1970, during her first tour of Russia, was

"La Traviata" and the Russians loved her. She made such an impact on the audiences that she was asked to extend her two-week trip to thirteen weeks in order for audiences all over Russia to hear her. This was an unprecedented triumph for an American singer.

In 1971 at the request of Leonard Bernstein, Costa sang the lead in a revival of "Candide," which opened the opera house at the new Kennedy Center in Washington. She performed the role for an extended run. In 1972, Costa returned to film, and flew to Vienna to star in Andrew L. Stone's feature film, "The Great Waltz," singing the role of the wife of Waltz King, Johann Strauss, Jr., for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe. Her personal flair and natural affinity for Viennese music resulted in many highly acclaimed Viennese concerts across the USA. In 1973, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Music from Hardin-Simmons University.

Prior to his resignation in 1974, President Nixon invited Costa to the White House for a command performance at a State Reception for the Prime Minister of Singapore.

Costa impressed television audiences throughout her career with guest appearances on many shows, such as Bing Crosby's Christmas Show on NBC-TV. She also appeared on Frank Sinatra's "Woman of the Year" Timex Special for NBC, where she was honored, along with Juliet Prowse, Lena Horne, and Eleanor Roosevelt, as women of the year. In 1972, Sammy Davis Jr. asked Mary to appear on his first NBC Follies. Among his other guests that evening, were Mickey Rooney and Ernest Borgnine. Mary performed a blues selection with Sammy, backed up by one of her favorite performers, Charlie Parker. Her other television credits include appearances on the Academy Awards, and the shows of Jim Nabors, Johnny Carson, Merv Griffin, Della Reese, Joey Bishop, George Burns, Don Knotts, Diana Shore, and many others.

Another highlight of Costa's life was in 1975, when she joined the Metropolitan Opera on its historic tour of Japan, singing "Musetta" in "La Boheme," delighting Japanese audiences. She opened the season at the Metropolitan in 1977, receiving high critical acclaim.

During the beginning of her operatic career, Mary studied voice with the great Metropolitan Opera tenor, Mario Chamlee. Fritz Zweig, famed assistant conductor to the great composer, Richard Strauss helped Mary prepare her recital, concert and operatic repertoire, which included forty-four opera roles.

In1984, Costa took a sabbatical from traveling and performing in order to care for her ninety-year old mother, who had begun to need more extensive attention. During this period, Mary became involved with the Palm Beach Opera, donating her time to help judge opera auditions and speak at various local charity benefits on their behalf. She also served the opera in the capacity of a consultant and advisor to aspiring singers.

In 1993, after the passing of her beloved mother at 101 years of age, Mary returned to her hometown of Knoxville, TN, to establish a permanent residence. She immediately became affiliated with the efforts of Childhelp USA, and subsequently was asked to become one of their National Ambassadors, an honor that she graciously accepted.

In November of 1993, Mary was chosen as one of the "Women in the Performing Arts," an award presented to her in Washington, DC at the opening of the National Museum of Women in the Arts. Costa was also given a position as an Honorary Lifetime Member of the Board of the Knoxville Opera Company. In this capacity she has, along with other responsibilities, served as an advisor to the board and a mentor to young performers at the University Of Tennessee School of Music.

In the latter part of the 1990's, Mary divided her time between personal appearances for the Disney Corporation, and a demanding schedule of motivational speaking engagements.  In 1998, Tennessee Governor Don Sundquist presented the Tennessee Achievement Award to her for her contribution to the arts and her constant inspiration to young people throughout the country. And in the same year, she was asked by Governor Sundquist to be one of the individuals to choose the music for a Classical CD that is presented to every child born in the state of Tennessee. In 1999, she was the recipient of the coveted Disney Legends Award. Much of her motivational enthusiasm was, and still continues to be, directed toward primary, secondary and college level students. The Disney Corporation has afforded her the opportunity to raise funds on behalf of various charities, including Childhelp USA, Read Across America, and Signal Centers of Chattanooga, all of which benefit children in need.

In 2000, Costa was selected as the Tennessee Woman of Distinction by the American Lung Association. And in April of 2001, she was one of 38 honorees chosen by the Metropolitan Opera Guild for Distinguished Verdi Performances of the Twentieth and Twenty-first centuries.

In August 2002, Costa was recognized, along with a panel of other Disney legends and performers, when the newly-digitized Disney classic, "Sleeping Beauty," opened to a large crowd of enthusiastic fans at the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles. The distinguished panel was interviewed by an ABC affiliate spokesperson, who asked questions of the panel members about the making of the original movie, and their personal experiences with Walt Disney. Rhett Wickham, a critic who covered the event, wrote, "[The panel] delivered some very articulate and often moving observations on the film. Chief among these was Mary Costa, whose true grace makes it seem for all the world like she has some angelic key-light that follows her."

On February 5, 2003, Costa was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve on the National Council on the Arts from 2003 through 2006. According to a spokesperson for the National Endowment for the Arts, "The National Council on the Arts advises the Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts on agency policies and programs and also reviews funding guidelines and applications for grants. The Council members are chosen for their widely recognized knowledge of the arts, their expertise or profound interest in the arts, and their record of distinguished service or achievement in the arts." Costa's nomination was confirmed by the U. S. Senate and she was sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor in April of 2003. In speaking about her new responsibilities with the National Council on the Arts, Mary commented, "Throughout the years, I have had many mentors who helped further my career. Without their assistance, I would not have been able to accomplish numerous goals that were important in my life. I now have the opportunity through the National Council to be a mentor to deserving artists who are seeking to achieve their destiny. This is a wonderful chance for me to return to others a portion of that which was so generously given to me."

In 2004, John Mauceri, noted conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, extended a personal invitation to Mary to perform at the Hollywood Bowl in a musical extravaganza paying tribute to a truly Great American icon, the inimitable Walt Disney.  Maestro Mauceri requested that Mary present a narration taken from the 1942 animated film, "Bambi," with background accompaniment of the Edward Plumb orchestral suite provided by the Bowl Orchestra. The concert was performed for sell-out audiences on both August 20 and 21, and delighted cheering fans of all ages.

On November 2, 2007, Costa was inducted into the Knoxville Opera Hall of Fame. She launched the inaugural Knoxville Opera season in 1978, starring as Violetta in La Traviata. The following season she appeared in the title role of The Merry Widow. Costa has remained a crucial advocate for Knoxville Opera at both the state and national level.

In December of 2007, Costa received an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts Degree from Carson-Newman College, a liberal arts college located in Jefferson City, Tennessee. Costa is the first individual in the college's 157 year history to have been awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts.

Costa bio by Disney PR

Photo credits: Walt Disney Pictures

Review of Sleeping Beauty; the Platinum Edition





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