Patrice Munsel: The Met’s Youngest Diva

This opera prodigy continued to have a successful career in the theater, movies, and television.
Patrice Munsel: The Met’s Youngest Diva
Patrice Munsel in the role of Nellie Melba, in “Melba.” Munsel debuted as the Met's youngest diva. (United Artists)
Tiffany Brannan
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Today, opera isn’t a career associated with youth. Despite the fact that most lead characters are young, they continue to be played by the same singers for decades. This is especially true in the 21st century, as the opera establishment no longer takes young singers seriously. 

This wasn’t always the case, though, and the history of opera is full of accounts of excellent young singers who were lauded for their prodigious talent at young ages.

One of the most notable examples from the 20th century is Patrice Munsel (1925–2016). I first learned about this precocious soprano while researching another young soprano, Marion Talley. When Talley made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera at age 19 in 1926, she was the youngest leading singer at the Met to date. Her record was beaten by only one person, Patrice Munsel, who made her Met debut at age 18 in 1943.

Patrice Munsel on the cover of Life magazine, Feb. 21, 1944, by Philippe Halsman. (Public Domain)
Patrice Munsel on the cover of Life magazine, Feb. 21, 1944, by Philippe Halsman. (Public Domain)

Preparing a Prodigy

Patrice Munsel was born in Spokane, Washington, an only child. She later stated, “I’m sure when I emerged from my mother’s womb, and the doctor slapped me, I hit a high C and slapped him back.” By age 6, she was taking ballet, tap dancing, and artistic whistling lessons. She aspired to become a ballet and artistic whistling star.
Her first-grade teacher noticed Munsel’s “rather extraordinary voice,” but her mother didn’t take it very seriously at the time. At age 8, she gave a recital where she danced en pointe, sang, tap-danced, and whistled for an enthusiastic audience. When Munsel started listening to the Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts a couple of years later, she decided to become an opera star instead of a whistler.  

Her parents were very supportive of all her artistic endeavors, which she attributed to the fact that they “were rare individualists.” She said, “I was blessed with parents who were a bit off the wall.”

At age 15, Munsel was positively evaluated by a famous teacher, so her parents whisked her off to New York for serious vocal training. After singing a farewell concert at her school, she left her average high school life in Spokane on a train for New York with her mother.

Munsel struggled to find the right voice instructor, but once she did, rigorous training began. William Herman remained her teacher for years. She studied six hours a day, six days a week. This included two voice lessons a day, as well as piano, music theory, harmony, French, Italian, and fencing! She also went to the gym three times a week. She received opera coaching from Giacomo Spadoni, chorus master for the Met.

After two years of this intense training, Maestro Spadoni agreed with Munsel that she was ready for the Met. She competed in the Metropolitan Auditions of the Air at age 17 with the Mad Scene from Gaetano Donizetti’s Italian opera “Lucia di Lammermoor.” She described stepping on the stage for this audition “without a nerve in my body.” She won the audition and was granted a Met contract at age 17.

A caricature of the "Lucia Sextet", circa 1900. The mad scene in this opera was Munsel's audition for the Met. (Public Domain)
A caricature of the "Lucia Sextet", circa 1900. The mad scene in this opera was Munsel's audition for the Met. (Public Domain)

Metropolitan Opera Star

Munsel made her professional operatic debut at the Met on Dec. 4, 1943, at age 18. She sang the role of Philine in the French opera “Mignon” by Ambroise Thomas. This coloratura soprano role is the second female lead, but she sings the opera’s most famous aria, “Je suis Titania” (“I am Titania”). That 1943 performance featured an all-star cast, with renowned mezzo-soprano Rise Stevens in the title role, movie star James Melton as the leading tenor, and famous English impresario Sir Thomas Beecham as the conductor. This was the beginning of a successful career at the Metropolitan Opera, which lasted for 15 years.
Sir Thomas Beecham conducted Munsel's first performance at the Met. Beecham rehearsing in 1948. Culver Pictures, New York. (Public Domain)
Sir Thomas Beecham conducted Munsel's first performance at the Met. Beecham rehearsing in 1948. Culver Pictures, New York. (Public Domain)

Munsel’s first opera contract was a three-year engagement at the Met for $40,000 per year, excellent money in the 1940s. With her other singing engagements, she was earning $100,000 a year.

Her schedule was unbelievably busy, including a rigorous concert schedule arranged by manager Sol Hurok. While on a country-wide concert tour, she had to return to New York City every Sunday to broadcast her weekly radio show. Her mother, her accompanist, and her manager formed the efficient team she needed to keep her schedule in order as she eagerly rose to meet the demands of her growing fame. This included debuting in 5 roles within 12 months.

Munsel sang 225 times at the Met, playing most of the famous coloratura roles. These are the soprano parts which showcase flashy, fast technique, and impressive high notes. This included characters like Gilda in Giuseppi Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” Olympia (The Doll) in Jacques Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffmann,” Rosina in Gioachino Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville,” and the title character in Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” She played the soubrette maid role of Despina in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Cosí fan tutte” many times.

In 1950, performing in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” gave Munsel a chance to sing more lyric roles, which opened new repertoire options. Later that season, she debuted the role of Adele in Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus” (“The Bat”), replacing renowned soprano Lily Pons who had unsuccessfully tried to bargain with opera manager Rudolph Bing. Adele became one of Munsel’s most popular roles.

A Versatile Diva

Munsel’s success was a combination of natural talent, impressively dedicated training, and being in the right place at the right time. A 1987 interview with Walter Price of the Los Angeles Times mentioned that Munsel was one of many young American singers to get many opportunities because the Met couldn’t hire European singers during World War II. Although she was the youngest of all the Met singers, her voice and career did not suffer from playing challenging roles early on, as others did. In fact, she had a glorious opera career for 15 years before deciding that she’d done everything at the Met that she wanted to do.
Opera diva Patrice Munsel in 1962. (Public Domain)
Opera diva Patrice Munsel in 1962. (Public Domain)

This wasn’t the end of her adventures or her performing, however. In 1952, Munsel married media executive Robert C. Schuler. They had four children during their 55 years of marriage, which ended only by his death at 90 years old. He and the children traveled with her whenever she toured, accompanied by an entourage of pets.

Besides the opera stage, Munsel had an illustrious career on television, Broadway, and even in movies. She remains one of the most impressive operatic prodigies in the art form’s history, whose talent can still be enjoyed today in her many film and audio recordings.

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Tiffany Brannan is a 22-year-old opera singer, Hollywood historian, vintage fashion enthusiast, and conspiracy film critic, advocating purity, beauty, and tradition on Instagram as @pure_cinema_diva. Her classic film journey started in 2016 when she and her sister started the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society to reform the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code. She launched Cinballera Entertainment last summer to produce original performances which combine opera, ballet, and old films in historic SoCal venues.
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