An Interview With Mary Costa

Posted on: 31 October 2008 by Gareth Hargreaves

The voice of Sleeping Beauty’s Princess Aurora discusses her beloved film, the five Ds and working with Walt Disney.

Fifty-five years ago, there were just two Disney princesses.

Snow White and Cinderella had each captured audiences' hearts and asserted the animated feature as a significant art form. Then along came Sleeping Beauty, which Disney and his studio had been considering for film treatment for many years.

What helped move the project from development to production was the discovery of Mary Costa singing around the piano at a dinner party in California.

Singing had already brought Mary success at the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, on Edgar Bergen's radio show with Charlie McCarthy, in commercials, and in UCLA concerts with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis.

But being hand-picked by Walt Disney himself to play Princess Aurora would secure the then 22-year-old Costa a place in cinema history.

Though Mary would go on to have a long and successful career as an opera singer of international renown, perhaps her biggest claim to fame has remained her vocal performance as the radiant songstress friendly to forest creatures.

That credit has been in the public eye this month, since Disney have released Sleeping Beauty: 50th Anniversary Edition on DVD and Blu-ray to coincide with the film’s 50th anniversary.

This week we were lucky enough to catch up with the original Sleeping Beauty herself, Mary Costa.

While her operatic career has taken her all over the globe for various performances and accolades, Mary would be the first to recognise the special enduring appeal of her Disney movie.

Sleeping BeautyFifty years on since its first screening, Mary isn’t surprised to see Sleeping Beauty's still a global success.

“It’s amazing, absolutely magical and I’m so delighted and excited. I’m not at all surprised we’re still talking about Sleeping Beauty because from day it was going to be an almost perfect tale, one of Walt Disney’s best and I’m glad the film has warmed so many people’s lives.”

“I’m very excited by the new release. I think this new version of the movie is exactly the way Walt Disney wanted it to be. With all the new technology, the film is now being seen exactly as Walt would have wanted.”

Growing up in Tennessee, Mary showed her musical ability at an early age, singing Sunday School solos at the age of six. At 14, she moved to Hollywood with her parents and soon won a Music Sorority Award as the outstanding voice among Southern California High School seniors.

In 1952, after attending a dinner party with her future husband, director Frank Tashlin, 21-year-old Mary found herself auditioning for the part of Disney's Princess Aurora - a story she relishes in telling.

“I was at a dinner party and there was a piano playing with a couple of girls sitting down singing quietly in the corner,” she says.

“I asked if I could join in, so I perched at the end of the stool and joined the little choir as everybody went about their business.”

“When the set came to the famous song by Doris Day When I Fall In Love, I sang as loud as I could. I loved opera music growing up and this was my favourite song, I couldn’t keep my love for the song in so I just let it go.”

Her eye-catching performance at the piano certainly impressed the crowd.

“The musical director of the Disney studios was there and approached me afterwards. He asked, if I would come to sing for them the next day and so my mother drove me over."

“There were a lot of people and I wanted to meet Walt Disney so much. The singing went very well, but then they asked me, if I could do something against my very southern accent - Sleeping Beauty was British and they were concerned about my strong southern accent.”

“As a child and a family we all loved the British accent and we imitated it for fun around the house. And so I answered in a proper way and convinced the directors that a southern American girl could talk like a real princess.”

Despite the outstanding vote of confidence, Mary knew only one person’s opinion mattered and he was no where to be seen.

“I was desperate to meet Walt and when I finished singing I looked for him everywhere but I couldn’t find him.”

In fact, Walt Disney was listening to the auditions behind a black screen and within hours of her performance, the world-renowned producer was on the phone to deliver some good news.

“I lived in Glendale at that time, with my mother and my cousins. We were all expecting calls and when the phone rang, my mother took it and stood there, with her mouth wide open,” Mary says.

“Walt Disney was on the line and asked, in a very humorous way, if I wanted the part. My mum was whispering, 'It's Walt Disney,' and as I got to the phone, I sounded like a 4-year old girl, saying, 'Hello Mister Disney, yes, I would like to do this part.'”

“My knees where shaking and as soon as I got off the phone, we all started screaming, it felt spellbinding, magical and it really felt like a dream.”

Mary built up a great working relationship by phone with Walt and the Disney founder reserved some of his highest praise for Mary during one telephone call.

“I didn't really have very much vocal training. Everything was natural, because that was my first major part. I talked to Walt Disney on the phone so often because he didn't want to be influenced by my personality and person.”

“He gave me so many directions and I got to know him and he would tease me and everything all on the phone. One day I said, 'Would you tell me please why you chose my voice? I know you've heard many beautiful voices. Why did you choose me?' And he said, 'Because your voice was like an extension of speech. It was not puffed up and you didn't put extra colour into it. You just sang with a warm tone from your heart. It intrigued me because it was like you just stopped talking and started taking it at a higher register. It was like an extension of speech.'"

“Walt said to me one day, 'Has it always been your dream to be a singer?' And I said, 'Yes, it has been.' And he said, 'And a dream starts with a D.' And I said, 'Yes, a D.' And then he said, 'You know what you have to add? Three more Ds. You have to have dedication, determination, and discipline to wrap it up.'"

“And that's what he had in all of his films, in everything he decided to do. He was meticulous and a perfectionist.”

“I had learned through Disney that you should be in no competition with anyone else, only with yourself. Because if you imitate, that's poor. Everyone has a God-given gift and if you've been given the gift of singing, you must do it the best you can do it. You must not be a copy of anyone else.”

“So I was sitting watching some Disney films and I thought the fifth D would be Disney himself, Walt Disney himself. Because he really established that work ethic and it travelled with me throughout my career. I sang 44 roles and never heard anyone sing any of the parts that I did. So that was what I could do with myself.”

Walt DisneyEventually Mary did meet Walt in person and it’s a moment that will be with her forever.

"It was really a one-on-one on the telephone for a long, long time. It was over seven months. We talked a lot and it's very strange because I really got to know him and he got to know me. Now I think it was almost better because I wasn't kind of awed by his presence, and I think it was the same with him."

"One day, I had just finished recording and I had a very big scene coming up in a couple of days. I looked over on the soundstage and there he was. And I had talked to him so much that I just ran over and gave him a big hug. We had a really sweet conversation. When I talked to him on the phone, he would never hang up and say goodbye, he would say, 'Don't catch a cold!'"

"When I went over to him the first time I met him, he said, 'I wanted to come and wish you some luck. You're going to do Once Upon a Dream and that's my favorite melody. Don't catch a cold!' And I said to him, 'You always say 'Don't catch a cold!' And because I wanted to make him laugh, I said, 'A bird doesn't sing because it's happy, it's happy because it sings. And that's the way I am!' And he said, 'Ok, Happy Bird. Just don't catch a cold.' That was so funny." 

"I used to call him Mr. Disney and he said, 'Until you can call me Walt, I'm going to call you Happy Bird.' Then one day I call him Mr. D and he said, 'No, no. 'Walt'.' So finally after that, I did call him Walt."

"He was always such a tease and had such a sense of humour. In the beginning, he didn't really want to go in front of the cameras. Then when he got there, he was just wonderful. He was a truly amazing character to work with."

Away from Sleeping Beauty, Mary's enjoyed some astonishing highlights during her singing career with one reigning supreme.

"First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy asked me personally to sing at John F. Kennedy's memorial. That was such a memorable experience. At the time, it was like I was moving through a dream. It was at the sports arena in Los Angeles and it was packed, and those people were so grieved that they could hardly breathe. It was just a sea of sad faces.

"And I had to learn the Libera Me from the Verdi Requiem in three days. I didn't want to look in my book to sing it, so I started immediately when she requested that I sing," Mary says.

"She and the President had heard me singing The Star-Spangled Banner on the Academy Awards and they had heard some other things that I had done. She asked my manager if I could do it, and I was so honoured to do that. I learned it with my coach, and I sang it with my head up."

"I didn't know that they had recorded it and that it was sent on television to Russia and all over the world. And so this last year, I was presented with it from a friend who got it from the Kennedy Library and I am just so thrilled to have it.

"Then the following year, she came backstage to see me and the Metropolitan Opera and thanked me. It was such a delight to meet her. She was very, very lovely and feminine and she spoke very softly, almost a whisper. That would probably be the most memorable experience."

Now at the age of 78, Mary is loving life more than ever and even more so with the latest batch of Disney blockbusters hitting the big screen.

“Walt’s legendary work has been passed on and it’s still an incredible joy to watch Disney movies past and present. I feel extremely privileged to be a part of the movie and it brings a tear to my eye when I start thinking about him and his work.”

“I may be getting old but I’m thankful to Disney, I’m thankful for my voice and I’m thankful that I’m still healthy. I’ve had an amazing career but without Disney and without that dinner party I could still be an unknown in Glendale today.”

Sleeping Beauty DVDSleeping Beauty: 50th Anniversary Edition is available at all good DVD stores for £19.99 or online at Amazon for £12.98.

Were you a Sleeping Beauty fan? What’s your favourite Disney movie?

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