Awake and Sing
After attending the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music in the late 1940s, Mary Costa’s career spanned more than 35 years. She sang arias at Covent Garden and the Met; crooned popular tunes on television specials; and appeared opposite a wide range of stars, from Bing Crosby to Luciano Pavarotti. Yet when asked to define herself, she simply says, “I was a singer. I loved to express myself with my voice. It didn’t make any difference what or where I was singing, or how large or small the audience, as long as I was singing I was happy.”
To millions of fans, however, the blonde lyric coloratura soprano is an iconic figure thanks to one special role: the voice of Princess Aurora in the classic animated Disney film, Sleeping Beauty (1959). And that’s just fine with Costa. The film, about a princess who falls under the spell of an evil fairy before she is awakened by “true love’s kiss,” continuously attracts new young audiences who are charmed by her Aurora, especially her rendition of the film’s signature tune, Once Upon a Dream.
Named a Disney Legend in 1999, Costa recently re-entered the spotlight with the spring release of Maleficent, the Disney live-action film starring Angelina Jolie. The film is based on Sleeping Beauty but told from the point of view of that mean fairy. Many reporters interviewed Costa, and they all wanted to know what she thought of the new version. “It’s a very good movie,” she says. “The concept and perspective are totally different than the original film’s, which makes it new and interesting. No one could have played the part of Maleficent better than Angelina Jolie. I thought she was absolutely magnificent!”
From Tennessee to Tinsel Town
Before she could become Aurora in 14th century Europe, Costa first had to venture to Los Angeles in the 1940s. Growing up as an only child in Knoxville, Costa was singing at a very early age. “My mother says that I came out vocalizing and never stopped. I loved to see how high I could sing. During my childhood, my parents would often bring people around to hear me. I began taking voice lessons when I was 12. I was so fortunate that singing just seemed to come naturally for me.”
During a family vacation in Los Angeles in 1946, Costa, who was 16 at the time, performed at a dinner party at her aunt’s home. A guest was impressed by her singing, and told the Costas that if they moved to Los Angeles, she could arrange singing lessons for Mary at the Los Angeles Conservatory, which, years later, would merge with Chouinard Art Institute to become CalArts. The family returned to Knoxville, packed their bags and moved to Glendale, where Mary enrolled in Glendale High School as a junior, taking classes there in the morning and studying music at the Conservatory in the afternoon.
Learning the Fundamentals at the Los Angeles Conservatory
For two years, Costa studied with the conductor and teacher Gaston Usigli, learning how to sing in Italian. “I learned how to work with a maestro, studied scores, and watched the older students to observe how they handled their voices,” she says. “By the end of the first year, I was given an aria from The Barber of Seville to sing in a recital. I loved every minute of it.” In her senior year, she won a Music Sorority Award for the outstanding voice among Southern California high school seniors, and her career quickly took off.
With the help of an agent, Costa contracted to sing in numerous commercials for Lux Radio Theatre, performed with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the Bergen radio program, and also sang in live shows with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. In 1952, her agent sent her to a Hollywood party so she could meet people who might help with her career. At the party, she heard a group casually singing around a piano, so she joined in with them on a song she knew well, Victor Young’s When I Fall in Love.
Afterwards, the musical director of Walt Disney Studios, who had been leaning in to hear her sing, literally bumped noses with her when she turned around. He said that Walt Disney had been searching three years for a voice for the Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty, and asked if she would audition the following morning.
On a giant soundstage at Walt Disney Studios, Costa sang for composer George Bruns, legendary Disney animator and Chouinard alum Marc Davis, and writer Winston Hibler. At one point, Costa says, they stopped her. “Marc Davis said, ‘Don’t panic. We’re just a little concerned about your Southern accent. But we thought if [British actress] Vivien Leigh can portray a Southern belle in Gone With the Wind, then a Southern belle can portray a British princess,’” Costa recalls.
Later in the afternoon, following Costa’s return from the studio, the phone rang and Costa’s mother answered. “It was Walt Disney,” Costa remarked. “He said to my mother, ‘Mrs. Costa, I think you’ve been hiding the Princess Aurora in your house in Glendale.’” Disney had been on the audition stage for at least part of the time, standing behind a screen.
In those days, animators began their work only after the sound had been recorded, so for the next three years, working sporadically, Costa spoke and sang her lines, developing a close relationship with Disney throughout that time. He called her after every recording session, both encouraging her performance and instructing her on how to immerse herself in the part.
“He told me to imagine what it would be like to sing in a forest,” she says, “or what it would be like to live with fairy godmothers. He said, ‘Everyone is blessed with a unique set of colors in their mind, so let your imagination soar, capture all those colors, drop them to your vocal chords and paint with your voice.’”
At the same time that she was playing Aurora, Costa did commercials for Chrysler and also sang on television variety shows. On one show, Shower of Stars, she met Jack Benny, who referred her to the famous tenor, Mario Chamlee, with whom she began studying. Chamlee connected her with conductor Fritz Zweig, and together they shaped her into a professional opera singer. “Musically, Zweig prepared all of my roles, and as I worked with Mario Chamlee, my voice became stronger,” she says.
Costa’s Opera Career Takes Off
Costa’s big break in opera came in 1958, when she substituted for the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, who was too ill to perform at a Hollywood Bowl gala concert. The reviews were glowing, leading to other roles and positive reviews. Soon she had an international career, singing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and the Royal Opera House in London, among many other major venues.
After her debut at the Glyndebourne Festival in 1958, The Times of London called her “The Golden Girl of Opera.” In 1959, she played Cunegonde in the London premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide, and in 1961, Musetta in an RCA recording of La bohème, with Anna Moffo and Richard Tucker. She also regularly performed with the San Francisco Opera, including as Tytania in the U.S. premiere of Benjamin Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Anne Truelove in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. Although she speaks with a Southern accent, Costa, who has a gift of storytelling, says that her accent was never an issue in her singing or acting. Her father, of Italian descent, loved to do impersonations, and Costa inherited that talent. “My daddy and I would practice accents all the time,” she says. “And since singing came so naturally to me, it was much easier for me to learn the technical aspects of vocal performance.”
A Versatile Singer
Throughout her operatic career, she continued to sing popular songs on television specials, including Frank Sinatra’s Woman of the Year Timex Special in 1960 and Bing Crosby’s Christmas show in 1971.
“No matter what I was singing, I was serious about everything I did,” she says. In 1963, at the request of Jacqueline Kennedy, she sang at the Los Angeles memorial service for President Kennedy. In 1972, she co-starred in the MGM feature film, The Great Waltz, the life story of Johann Strauss.
Costa stopped singing professionally in 1986 to take care of her aging mother. Since then, she has regularly spoken in schools and appeared at charitable events. Whenever she is invited to Disney functions, she is delighted to interact with fans, both new and lifelong, who love Sleeping Beauty. When asked what distinguished her voice from others, she tells a story about meeting Roy O. Disney, Walt’s brother and the co-founder of Walt Disney Productions (and CalArts), at a dinner party in the 1960s. “Roy said, ‘Walt knew you were the voice of Princess Aurora after hearing just one phrase. He felt that your voice came from your heart, and you had an eloquence of expression.’”
Despite her career singing on opera stages around the world and her performances on television, Costa seems most proud of her work, more than 50 years ago, in Sleeping Beauty. “Sleeping Beauty is filled with such beautiful music, and I feel blessed to have been a part of it. Aurora came from my heart. Look at all the people Aurora has allowed me to meet through the years. I continually receive letters from people who express to me how Sleeping Beauty has impacted their lives, and their compliments have impacted my life. So, I really don’t think of them as fans; I regard them as friends.”