Walt Disney gave opera diva Mary Costa her first professional singing job, playing the voice of Princess Aurora in his 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty. Only 22 at the time, she later recalled, “I really had no experience, but by the time the movie was released, I was singing in the opera. It was a very fast, exciting time for me.”
Born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on April 5, 1930, 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, Hazel and John, and soon won a Music Sorority award as the outstanding voice among Southern California high school seniors.
While studying for the concert stage, the glamorous blue-eyed blonde performed with Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy on radio and with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis on stage. In 1952, she attended a party with her future husband, director Frank Tashlin; she happened to connect with the right people, and soon found herself auditioning for the part of Disney’s Princess Aurora.
Within hours of her audition, Walt called Mary at home. The lyric soprano, with an agile coloratura range, won the role of Sleeping Beauty; her graceful voice helped make “I Wonder” and “Once Upon A Dream” Disney music classics.
Mary went on to become “one of the most beautiful women to grace the operatic stage,” according to the New York Times. She performed in 44 operatic roles on stages throughout the United States and Europe; these included the title role of Massenet’s Manon at the Met, and the lead in La Traviata at the Royal Opera House in London. She also appeared with many of Hollywood’s big names, including Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra, and Jack Benny.
Among other highlights of her career, Mary was honored when Jackie Kennedy asked her to sing at a memorial service for her husband, former U.S. President John F. Kennedy, which was telecast throughout the world from the Los Angeles Sports Arena in 1963. Nine years later, she starred in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer feature The Great Waltz, depicting the life of Austrian composer Johann Strauss. To this day, however, Mary still considers Sleeping Beauty to be the finest moment of her career.
“Of all the operatic roles I’ve performed,” she said, “Sleeping Beauty is special to me because it’s the one that keeps me close to young people.”
Mary has dedicated her time to inspiring children and teenagers, giving motivational talks at schools and colleges across the country. She has also served as an ambassador for Childhelp USA, which ministers to the needs of abused children.