Carol Neblett, Soprano at the Met and City Opera, Dies at 71

Carol Neblett, Soprano at the Met and City Opera, Dies at 71


Playing a courtesan trying to seduce a monk, Ms. Neblett, in a scene at the end of the first act, shed her robe and briefly sang nude. By 1973, onstage nudity was beginning to lose its shock value — the musical “Hair,” for instance, had completed a four-year Broadway run the year before — but Ms. Neblett’s exposed moment generated plenty of news media coverage nonetheless.

“If I had been smarter, I would have controlled the publicity,” she said afterward in an interview with The New York Times. “Photographers were hanging from everywhere and got funny angles and things that the audience never saw — like pubic hair. Even the city’s strippers were there.” She added, “I’d do it again, but differently.”

The headline on the Times article was “What Do You Say to a Naked Prima Donna?”

Puccini, Tosca: Act I Love Duet (Jaume Aragall and Carol Neblett) Video by suffisance

Carol Lee Neblett was born on Feb. 1, 1946, in Modesto, Calif., into a family that seemed to preordain a musical career. Her father, Norman, was a piano technician, and her mother, the former Annette Brown, was a personal assistant to the violinist Jascha Heifetz. Her grandmother Leona Neblett played chamber music with Heifetz and began teaching her granddaughter the violin when Carol was 2.

As the family story goes, Carol was asked to play for Heifetz; she became flustered and began to sing instead. Heifetz recognized her singing ability and encouraged her thereafter.

Ms. Neblett took private lessons from William Vennard, a professor at the University of Southern California, and attended El Camino College for a year, but while still a teenager she was invited to join the Roger Wagner Chorale. She made her Carnegie Hall debut with that group at 19.

The impresario Sol Hurok, who presented many notable entertainers, took her onto his roster and encouraged her to try opera. Her City Opera debut in 1969 impressed Allen Hughes, who reviewed the performance for The Times.

“Although the part of Musetta does not reveal a great deal about the breadth of a soprano’s ability and artistry,” he wrote, “Miss Neblett’s performance suggested that she might have considerable operatic potential.” He also became the first of many critics to comment on her physical beauty.

“Since she is good-looking as well as talented,” he wrote, “she would appear to have a promising future ahead of her.”

Almost 20 years later, in 1988, when she performed her first Aida with Opera Pacific, Martin Bernheimer of The Los Angeles Times wrote, “Tall, lithe and eminently sympathetic, she must be one of the most attractive — and most formidable — Aidas in history.”

Her looks, she found, were one of those blessing-and-a-curse things. The Chicago Tribune cited her in a 1987 article on women’s body image.

“Carol Neblett, a soprano with the New York Metropolitan Opera, finds that the same media that helped her get to the top also makes her self-conscious, that she’s competing with her own body, she says,” the article reported. “Frequently reviewers may comment, ‘Ravishingly beautiful … with a voice to match,’ as opposed to the other way around.”

In any case, she worked steadily for decades, making her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1979 in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman.” Harold C. Schonberg, the critic for The New York Times, found a lot to detest about that production, but not Ms. Neblett’s performance.

“The surprise of the evening was Carol Neblett, making her debut as Senta,” he wrote. “She is no newcomer to New York and she has done some fine work at the City Opera, but never has she unleashed so powerful and commanding a voice.”

Photo

Carol Neblett in her Metropolitan Opera debut, as Senta in Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman,” in 1979. The New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg called her “the surprise of the evening,” adding, “Never has she unleashed so powerful and commanding a voice.”

Credit
Metropolitan Opera

Ms. Neblett sometimes drew less than favorable notices, especially in the 1980s. James Roos of The Miami Herald found her Fiora in “L’Amore dei Tri Re,” the seldom-performed Italo Montemezzi opera, at the Greater Miami Opera in 1984 unconvincing.

“Her capitulation,” he wrote of the character, “her death by strangling and that formidable exit, slung jangling over the shoulder of her murderer, the blind king, can catch you by the throat. But not this time. For Carol Neblett’s Fiora is synthetic. She misses the drama of the second act by miles.”

Ms. Neblett realized the problems.

“I was not singing well for a long time,” she told The Los Angeles Times in 1988, adding: “I had gotten into some bad vocal habits. Also, I saw myself on television and didn’t like the way I looked while singing.”

She thought of retiring, she said, but with the help of a new vocal coach she recommitted herself and continued performing.

Ms. Neblett’s first marriage, to the cellist Douglas Davis, ended in divorce in 1968. In 1973 she married the conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, who at the time was leading the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. The New York Times pronounced them “music’s newest Supercouple.” They were divorced in 1979. She married Philip Akre, a cardiologist, in 1981; they divorced in 2004.

In addition to her son, Ms. Neblett is survived by a daughter, Adrienne Akre Spear; a sister, Gail Naegle; a brother, Bradley; and four grandchildren.

For the last 13 years Ms. Neblett had taught at Chapman University, where she was an artist in residence.

Though she stopped performing on major opera and recital stages in 2005, she did sing occasionally thereafter. In 2012 she even made her stage musical debut in a production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” at the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles, playing a secondary part that gave her one duet.

“When she began singing,” Carol Jean Delmar wrote in her review for Opera Theater Ink, “everyone in the audience knew they were hearing something special.”

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