OPERA NEWS - Patrice Munsel, 91, Soprano Who Found Success in Operatic and Popular Music, has Died
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9 August 2016

Patrice Munsel, 91, Soprano Who Found Success in Operatic and Popular Music, has Died

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Munsel in 1949
Opera News Archives


PATRICE MUNSEL WAS PERENNIALLY stuck with the tag of being the youngest soprano to make her debut at the Metropolitan Opera, but it would be a more fitting tribute to remember her as a born entertainer who enjoyed an unusual degree of success in both operatic and popular music. Munsel was a hard-working artist, seemingly free of pretensions. During her fifteen seasons at the Met, she became famous as a clear-voiced, high-flying coloratura soprano, with excellent diction. After she left the opera stage, she enjoyed an even longer and perhaps richer career in musical comedy. She also appeared extensively on television and even starred in a Hollywood movie. She helped to overturn the fiction that opera singers were stuffy and humorless, out of touch with the mass audience. She struck audiences as being great fun, someone they would like to know; few opera singers seemed as effortlessly likable as Munsel.

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, she made her first mark as a champion whistler — a talent she would trot out occasionally even in old age. When she was fifteen, she and her mother moved to New York to launch her opera career, which she did when she won the Met Auditions of the Air, and on December 4, 1943, at age seventeen, she made her Met debut as Philine in Mignon. There was much criticism of the company’s general manager, Edward Johnson, for hiring such a young singer—people with long memories inevitably brought up the name of Marion Talley, an unsuccessful nineteen-year-old Met debutante of the 1920s—but Munsel quickly became a house favorite, singing the meat of the coloratura repertoire, including Gilda, Lucia, Olympia, and Rosina. “We really had an ensemble in those days,” she told opera news in 2006. “It wasn’t like now, with artists coming and going all the time. We stayed in one place. We were a team.” 

"People tell me that crossover is a new phenomenon," she mused. "I crossed over in 1944."

With Rudolf Bing’s arrival as Met general manager in 1950, Munsel came to the roles that audiences cherished her in most: a lively Adele in Garson Kanin’s 1950 staging of Die Fledermaus and a witty, cagey Despina in Alfred Lunt’s 1951 production of Così Fan Tutte. In Design for Living, Margot Peters’s 2003 biography of Lunt and his wife, Lynn Fontanne, Peters quoted the director’s observation to actor William LeMassena: “Never has Despina been sung as well and certainly never acted as well. Nor will it be again.” Both productions were part of Bing’s plan to upgrade theatrical values at the Met, and Munsel’s natural high spirits lent themselves beautifully to both roles. She was such a big name that Horizon Pictures risked starring her in a biopic of Nellie Melba in 1953. Despite being directed by Academy Award-winner Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front), the result, Melba, was dull and trite, and Munsel later said that she considered its script a complete cop-out. 

Her other Met roles included Périchole, Musetta and Zerlina. Although the role was too heavy for her voice, she longed to sing Mimì in La Bohème, which she finally did for one performance in 1958. Soon thereafter, dissatisfied that the Met saw her only as a soubrette, she announced she would no longer sing there, leaving behind a track record of 225 performances in New York and on tour. 

Munsel was a frequent guest on television’s Bell Telephone Hour and the mystery guest in a 1958 episode of What’s My Line? ABC starred her in her own series, The Patrice Munsel Show, which ran for the 1957–58 season, and she guested on other series, including The Wild, Wild West. She had a club act in Las Vegas and appeared on Broadway in the 1975 revue A Musical Jubilee, with John Raitt, Cyril Ritchard, Larry Kert, Lillian Gish and Tammy Grimes. She also embarked on a decades-long career as the star of road-show musicals, including Mame, Kiss Me, Kate, Kismet and Applause — something she enjoyed as much as she had her opera career. As Mame, she was a natural: on tour, she was fond of nude sunbathing, driving around in her yellow Corvette convertible and walking her pet ocelot. She was much beloved by her colleagues: Russell Beasley recalled appearing with her in a production of Mame in the late 1970s. Cast as Older Patrick, Beasley was handed a ratty, ill-fitting costume; when Munsel saw him, she declared, “No nephew of mine would ever wear that shit!” and promptly took him shopping for a new wardrobe at Filene’s. “From that point on,” remembered Beasley, “I was hers to command.” 

Munsel married advertising and public-relations executive Robert C. Schuler in 1952, and the couple had two sons and two daughters. She also served as commercial spokeswoman for the Camp Fire Girls (baby boomers fondly remember her singing “Wo-he-lo”) and was a frequent host at New York musical events, where her daffy spirit often took the audience by surprise. One of her last public appearances was at a Metropolitan Opera Guild screening of Melba in 2011. Wearing a yellow-and-white sequin pantsuit and sporting an enormous yellow topaz ring, she still seemed Mame-like. As always, she was warmly greeted by her fans.  —Brian Kellow 

More information can be found in the Opera News Archives.

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