Coda: An American Original
Neway, a star on Broadway and in the opera house
Brooklyn, NY, September 30, 1919 — Corinth, VT, January 24, 2012
OPERA NEWS Archives
A dramatic soprano whose singing was invested with pathos as well as power, Neway spent most of her professional life performing new American works — a career strategy that was unusual then and that would be an impossibility now. She made her reputation when she created the role of Magda Sorel in Gian Carlo Menotti's The Consul on March 1, 1950. Menotti's opera, the tragic story of a beleaguered wife and mother battling an inhumane bureaucracy in an unnamed European city, opened at Philadelphia's Shubert Theater and then moved to Broadway, where it ran for 269 performances. In TheNew York Times, Brooks Atkinson said that Neway, then thirty years old and at the peak of her vocal prowess, "gave the fullest interpretive value to every note and every word, whether it was of sustained melody or graphic recitative." On opening night — and at most succeeding performances — Neway stopped the show cold with Magda's principal aria, "To This We've Come." She won the 1949–50 Donaldson Award for best actress in a musical for her devastating performance, which remains definitive. Neway recorded The Consul for Decca and sang Magda in London and Paris, as well as in the New York City Opera premiere (1952), five NYCO revivals and a 1960 television film. Neway's working association with Menotti continued for the rest of her career, encompassing several more of his operas and the 1970 world premiere of his first play, The Leper, in which she played the Queen.
Born in Brooklyn and raised on Staten Island, Neway made her Broadway debut in 1942, in the chorus of La Vie Parisienne with the New Opera Company, a forerunner of New York City Opera. She studied singing privately and at Mannes College and appeared with the Robert Shaw Collegiate Choir and other choral groups before making her professional opera debut in 1946, as Fiordiligi in Così Fan Tutte at Chautauqua Opera. When Benjamin Britten's The Rape of Lucretia had its U.S. premiere in a short-lived Broadway run in the 1948–49 season, Neway shared the role of the Female Chorus with Brenda Lewis. For the rest of her career, Neway — who once referred to herself as "a hybrid" — moved between the worlds of opera and the commercial theater.
Neway joined New York City Opera in 1951, as Leah in the world premiere of David and Alex Tamkin's The Dybbuk, an engagement that confirmed her status as one of American opera's most in-demand singing actors. Other City Opera firsts for Neway included the company premieres of Wozzeck (Marie, 1952); Mark Bucci's Tale for a Deaf Ear (Laura Gates, 1958); Carlisle Floyd's Wuthering Heights (Nelly Dean, 1959); Lee Hoiby's The Scarf (Miriam, 1959); and The Turn of the Screw (The Governess, 1962), as well as the Mother in the world premiere of Hugo Weisgall's Six Characters in Search of an Author (1959). Neway's standard-repertory assignments at NYCO, where she sang until 1966, included Santuzza, Madame Flora in The Medium, the Mother in Amahl and the Night Visitors and Herodias in Salome.
Throughout the 1950s, Neway was active in concert, recital and opera in Europe as well as in New York. She sang Gluck's Iphigénie en Tauride with Carlo Maria Giulini at Aix-en-Provence in 1952 and spent two seasons at the Opéra Comique in Paris, where her successes included Tosca and Katerina in Alfano's Risurrezione. In 1955, she sang the Grandmother in the world premiere of Raffaello de Banfield's Una Lettera d'Amore di Lord Byron in New Orleans. At the Brussels World's Fair in 1958, Neway created the Mother in the world premiere of Menotti's Maria Golovin, a role she also sang on Broadway, on television and at the NYCO premiere in 1959. Two other 1959 premieres for Neway were Geraldine in Samuel Barber's A Hand of Bridge at the Spoleto Festival and the Mother Abbess in Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music on Broadway. For her work as the Mother Abbess, which included eight performances a week of the showstopping "Climb Ev'ry Mountain," Neway received a Tony Award for best featured actress. Neway played her part with warmth and dignity sufficient to make audiences (and critics) ignore the fact that she was almost six years younger than her Maria, Broadway star Mary Martin.
Neway's acting was based on detailed character work, then considered rare among opera singers. It made her a natural for television, where her credits included Verdi's Lady Macbeth (1953) and Mme. de Croissy in Dialogues of the Carmelites (1957) for NBC Opera Theatre; the title role in Ezra Laderman's Sarah for CBS (1958); La Madrecita in Tennessee Williams's Ten Blocks on the Camino Real for NET Playhouse (1966); and Nettie Fowler in Carousel (1967) for Armstrong Circle Theater, as well as several variety shows. Although her stage appearances gradually grew less frequent during the 1960s, Neway was Mother in the 1963 Off-Broadway flop Morning Sun (Fred Ebb's first musical); Mollie in the world premiere of Carlisle Floyd's one-act comic opera The Sojourner and Mollie Sinclair (Raleigh, NC, 1963); Lady Thiang in Music Theater of Lincoln Center's revival of The King and I (1964); the title character in Hoiby's Natalia Petrovna in Washington (1965); and Britten's Governessat San Francisco Opera (1966). She returned to SFO as Begbick in Mahagonny in 1972.
Neway had the looks, the temperament and the talent for conventional stardom, but it seems that she wasn't especially eager for celebrity status. What Neway wanted was to do good work — whether the music at hand was by Menotti, Barber or Rodgers and Hammerstein. And good work is exactly what she did.