Advertisement
Share

OPERA, POP, VEGAS: MUNSEL DID IT ALL

“I hope this isn’t going to be one of those interviews where all we talk about is opera,” says Patrice Munsel as she greets a visitor in her penthouse on Central Park West.

Munsel, one of the leading coloratura sopranos of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1940s and ‘50s, is dressed in a skin-tight pink and aqua designer exercise suit. Although she celebrated her 62nd birthday this month, she looks startlingly young. The figure is superb, as is the skin.

Later, when she switches clothes at a photographer’s request, she dons a long sweater which barely covers the essentials. The still fine legs remind one of the splits she used to perform in “The Merry Widow.” She looks like she probably still can do them.

Advertisement

To her opera career, she brought pert good looks, charm without cutesy mannerisms and a wide-ranging voice with a particular warmth at mid-range. Most other coloraturas in those pre-Callas/Sutherland days had top notes and little else.

When she signed her Met contract at age 17, she became the youngest singer ever to appear in the house. She freely admits to some problems involving her debut as Philine in “Mignon” in 1943:

“I didn’t have a clue as to what the part was about.”

Those were the war years and with European talent closed to him, Met General Manager Edward Johnson endangered the careers of many promising young Americans by throwing them into parts that threatened too much too soon. That Munsel arrived and went on to a career of distinction is a tribute to her own training, stamina and, she says, the devoted support of her parents.

Asked if the stories were true that she had a typical, pushy stage mother, the soprano flares up.

“Bull.”

Actually, the lady said more than “bull.”

“I grew up in Spokane,” she continues, “and I knew what I wanted by the time I was 12. I belonged on stage and I knew it. When I was 7, I gave a recital en pointe , threw in some tap dancing, sang and even whistled. I kid you not, there was a classical whistling teacher in Spokane.” She laughs.

“I knew it was going to be opera, though frankly, I loved dancing as much as singing. We moved to New York at great sacrifice to my family. Mother handled everything. I only got into trouble when I went to Frank La Forge, Lily Pons’ accompanist, who called himself a teacher.

“He damn near killed me. Fortunately, I found a great teacher in William Herman, who helped Jan Peerce and later Roberta Peters.”

Following her debut, Munsel was thrown into virtually every role in the coloratura repertory with varying degrees of success. One particular favorite was the Queen in an English-language version of “Le Coq d’Or.” Although Virgil Thomson noted in the Herald-Tribune, “She is a little young for Oriental seduction scenes,” he and others praised her singing, her obvious flair for the stage and her diction.

She was hurt by that review, nonetheless. “I really thought I was quite sexy,” she recalls. “Even though it was crazy that I was at the Met at my age, I otherwise had a perfectly normal life, including the sex one. I dated a boy at the Yale Drama School and when things got heavy at the Met, I’d run up to New Haven to be with him. No one knew me there. I’d help out, iron costumes, that sort of thing.

“Johnson was always nice to me, but he was really ineffectual. His assistant, Frank St. Leger, ran things. He came on to me. That didn’t work, so he tried my mother. That didn’t work, either. Otherwise, I had no particular problems with the men around the theater.

“The one I wished had made a pass at me was (Ezio) Pinza. My God, what an animal! I suppose I scared him because of my age. Later, Siepi took over his roles, and he was a gorgeous teddy bear.”

A turning point in Munsel’s career, though she says she doesn’t remember it as anything special, was a “Don Giovanni” in 1950 that Fritz Reiner conducted.

“I really remember that performance for the fact it was the first time I wore contact lenses on stage. (Before that,) I was really blind, couldn’t see the conductor and I would never look at the prompter in any event. Conductors usually followed me, but Reiner wouldn’t, so I got the lenses the day of the performance. I was in agony.”

Agony or not, it was the first time Munsel got away from the usual coloratura chirps and sang a real lyric part. The critics and public were delighted.

Rudolf Bing in his first season as manager wanted to mount “Die Fledermaus.” He offered the classic soubrette part of Adele to Lily Pons. Used to the old ways when she was the one accommodated, Pons asked Bing to change his schedule so she could go on a concert tour. Munsel was given the part.

That decision gave the younger singer a complete triumph. She took most of the critical and public honors. On the basis of that Adele, Time magazine planned to give her a cover story.

A possibly apocryphal story, often repeated, quotes Pons’ response to Munsel’s success: “She eez wonderful. I always said she should do zee Broadway.”

At around that time something else happened that proved more important to Munsel. Through a close friend, the actress Joan Caulfield, she met her future husband, Robert Schuller, the son of the man who had put the Mars candy bar on the market.

“He was the first man I had met that I knew I could stay with forever,” she says simply. “He was 6 feet 4 and extraordinarily attractive. He was not about to be Mr. Munsel. Oh, well, we might use my name to get a better table at a restaurant, why not?” she says with a wink. They were married in 1952.

After another big success as Despina in a new “Cosi fan Tutte,” Bing offered her the title role in “La Perichole,” a production she would have all to herself, or so she thought.

Her director and co-star was to be Cyril Ritchard.

“Cyril was a darling, but he never could separate the actor from the director,” she recounts with steely humor. “I thought it might be fun in the second act if Perichole would join the ballet and turn it into sort of a flamenco romp. Cyril thought it would even be better for him.

“Then at the final curtain he told me excitedly that I would exit off into the sunset with my lover on a donkey. I wasn’t knocked out by the idea, but there were possibilities. What he didn’t tell me until the dress rehearsal was, while as I was going out on my ass, he could come center stage on a white horse as the curtain fell.

“I was furious with myself that I didn’t go straight to Bing and protest. After all, mine was the title role. I should have protected the character. Perhaps I was just too beaten down at that point.”

That experience and another illustrious one that happened a few seasons earlier may have planted the seed of the important decision to leave the Met.

“I had asked Bing for Mimi in ‘La Boheme.’ Ljuba Welitsch (the great Salome and her erstwhile colleague in “Fledermaus”) had asked for Musetta. He didn’t want to give either of us the parts, so he decided in that sadistic way of his to put us both in the same performance.

“Now, I was not about to be part of a circus like that. Ljuba was notorious. Rise (Stevens) and I had to physically restrain her from pushing us aside during “Fledermaus” curtain calls. Anyway, I refused. It was not true, as Bing implied in his book, that I fled the country.

“I was there for the performance, and it was as outrageous as I had known it would be. You never heard such cheering, booing, whistling, laughing from an audience. I finally got my Mimi in 1958, one only.

“Although (Massenet’s) Manon might have been nice, I knew I had no more worlds to conquer at the Met. Bing would think of me only as a soubrette. The only other things I wanted to do were Tosca and Butterfly, but I was vocally unsuited to them, of course.” She says this with no obvious trace of regret.

Munsel did her final opera performances in 1960, for Lawrence Kelly in Dallas. He mounted a new production for her of Monteverdi’s “L’Incoronazione di Poppea.” And that was it.

“We all have choices in life. The Met had been a focus, not an end-all. I had not had a free season in 15 years. I wanted to have some fun. I had the children, and Bob and I wanted to travel. We had always been social, and I enjoyed it,” she says.

“Also, I didn’t really switch vocal gears. I had sung pop music from the beginning. I had my own TV show for a season, singing both pop and opera (“The Patrice Munsel Show”). I had done Las Vegas. It was nothing new for me, as a lot of opera people thought.

“I toured in musicals and loved it, ‘Rose Marie,’ ‘Merry Widow,’ ‘Song of Norway,’ ‘Kiss Me, Kate,’ ‘Mame.’ Angela Lansbury and I switched houses while she was doing ‘Mame’ in New York and I was doing ‘Merry Widow’ in Los Angeles. Edwin Lester (founder and longtime impresario of the Los Angeles Civic Light Opera) was wonderful to me then.

“Richard Rodgers wasn’t nice at all. He tried to take credit for Lester’s work when we moved to Lincoln Center. Those L.A. days helped make up for how crushed I was when the critics killed me years before after a ‘Lucia.’

“I had received 13 curtain calls after the Mad Scene. Johnson told me it was the finest Lucia I had sung. . . .”

Munsel begins to pose for the photographer on her huge, elegant bed.

“I go to the opera very rarely these days,” she says. “When opera is great, it is the most wonderful art form in the world. When it’s not, it’s pretty gruesome, and Bob’s not that much of a fan. I only hear from friends what’s going on at the Met these days.

“I did see the ‘Fledermaus’ telecast this year. What that director (Otto Schenk) did to Judith Blegen as Adele was unspeakable, even worse than what Cyril did to me.

“I wonder who was doing what to whom. What kind of a nutty production was that? The music in German, the dialogue in English? They had the most wonderful English book and lyrics by Howard Dietz and Garson Kanin. As one says, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’

“But then I guess I don’t know what’s chic at the opera anymore.

“One thing I certainly don’t know is how opera singers are publicized anymore. A few years ago I saw Jon Vickers in something or other that blew me away. I saw Teresa Stratas on Broadway in ‘Rags.’ Of course, she had no material to work with, but she was fantastic. Why aren’t they household names?

“As for me, I don’t think about age, which everyone in this country seems to. Lillian Gish, Helen Hayes and Jolie Gabor are the youngest women I know. They’re always looking for new things, new experiences. My husband and I continuously look for a musical vehicle for me. But what musicals are they writing?

“We saw ‘Starlight Express’ in London. It’s about railroad cars. Now, I ask you,” she sputters. “If anyone would come up with a musical version of ‘Sunset Boulevard,’ I’d kill for it, I’d go to Broadway in a minute.”

In the meantime, she will appear in a new production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” at the new Worsham Theater in Houston in June. One thinks of her as an ideal Phyllis, but she will be doing the movie star, Carlotta, with her paean to survival, “I’m Still Here.”

“I’ve been very lucky,” she says proudly. “My marriage is great. My husband and I see things the same way. My two boys and two girls are wonderful, never any problems. Perhaps it’s because they were never left with nannies. We took them with us.

“The one thing in the world I can’t imagine is being bored.”


Advertisement