Mary Costa (born April 5, 1930) is an American opera singer and actress. Her most notable film credit is providing the voice of Princess Aurora in the 1959 Disney animated film Sleeping Beauty. Costa is an operatic soprano.
Costa was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on April 5, 1930, where she lived for much of her childhood. She is of Italian descent and was raised Baptist. She sang Sunday school solos at the age of six. At Knoxville High School (Tennessee), she sang in the chorus. When she was in her early teens, her family relocated to Los Angeles, California, where she completed high school and won a Music Sorority Award as the outstanding voice among Southern California high school seniors. Following high school, she entered the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music to study with famed maestro Gaston Usigli. Between 1948 and 1951, she appeared with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on the Bergen radio show. She also sang with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in concerts at UCLA, and made numerous commercials for Lux Radio Theatre.
In 1952, after meeting people at a party with her future husband, director Frank Tashlin, she auditioned for the part of Disney’s Princess Aurora, the Sleeping Beauty, in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959). Walt Disney called her personally within hours of the audition to inform her that the part was hers. In 1958, Costa was called upon to substitute for Elisabeth Schwarzkopf at a gala concert in the Hollywood Bowl, conducted by Carmen Dragon. Thanks to glowing reviews from that performance, she was invited to sing the lead in her first fully staged operatic production, The Bartered Bride, produced by the renowned German producer, Carl Ebert, for the Los Angeles Guild Opera. Ebert later requested she appear at the Glyndebourne Festival, where she debuted.
Costa went on to perform in 44 operatic roles on stages throughout the world, including Jules Massenet’s Manon at the Metropolitan Opera, and Violetta in La Traviata at the Royal Opera House in London and the Bolshoi in Moscow, and Cunegonde in the 1959 London premiere of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide. In 1961, for RCA, she recorded Musetta in La bohème, opposite Anna Moffo and Richard Tucker, with the Rome Opera House Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Erich Leinsdorf.
Among roles which she sang for the San Francisco Opera, she was Tytania in the American premiere of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1961), Ninette in the world premiere of Norman Dello Joio’s Blood Moon (1961), and Anne Truelove in the San Francisco premiere of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress. She made her Metropolitan Opera debut as Violetta in La Traviata on January 6, 1964.
Costa impressed television audiences throughout her career with guest appearances on many shows, such as Bing Crosby’s Christmas Show on NBC-TV. She appeared with Crosby and Sergio Franchi on The Hollywood Palace in 1970. She also appeared on Frank Sinatra’s Woman of the Year Timex Special for NBC, where, with others, she was honored as one of the Women of the Year. In 1972, Sammy Davis Jr. asked her to appear on his first NBC Follies, in which she performed a blues selection with Sammy, backed up by Charlie Parker.
Jacqueline Kennedy asked her to sing at a memorial service for her husband, U.S. President John F. Kennedy, from the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1963. She sang for the inaugural concert of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in 1971. In 1972, she starred in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer feature The Great Waltz, depicting the life of Johann Strauss II. Additional movie credits include The Big Caper (1957) and Marry Me Again (1953).
Having retired from acting in her 70th year in 2000, Costa has dedicated her later years to inspiring children and teenagers, giving motivational talks at schools and colleges across the country. She is also a celebrity endorser for child abuse. She continues to do promotional appearances for Disney, most recently for the Blu-ray release of Sleeping Beauty and the 50th anniversary of the film.
In 1989, she received the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Licia Albanese Puccini Foundation. In November 1999, she received the Disney Legends Award, and her handprints are now a permanent part of the Disney Legends Plaza at the entrance to Disney Studios. In 2000 she was selected as the Tennessee Woman of Distinction by the American Lung Association. And in April 2001, she was honored by the Metropolitan Opera Guild for Distinguished Verdi Performances of the 20th Century. In 2003 she was appointed by President George W. Bush to the National Council on the Arts, where she served until 2007. In December 2007, she was awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree by Carson-Newman College in Jefferson City, Tennessee. On November 2, 2007, she was inducted into the Knoxville Opera Hall of Fame. Earlier she had launched the inaugural Knoxville Opera season in 1978 as Violetta in La Traviata.
In 2012, Costa served as the commencement speaker at Pellissippi State graduation ceremony. On November 10, 2014, she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Humane and Musical Letters from the College of Arts and Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville. In 2014, Costa was named one of the YWCA Knoxville’s Tribute to Women Honorees during the 30th anniversary celebration. On March 17, 2015 she was a recipient of Tennessee’s 2015 Governor’s Arts Award. On her 86th birthday, Costa wrote an open letter to her fans thanking them for their support. She also announced that she would no longer directly reply to fan-mail, but she would continue to sign autographs and meet fans at events while also focusing her efforts on working with young children.