Patrice Munsel, 91, soprano who became Met star as teen
NEW YORK — Patrice Munsel, a coloratura soprano who as a teenager became one of the Metropolitan Opera’s youngest stars and later crossed over into television and musical theater, died Aug. 4 at her home in Schroon Lake, N.Y. She was 91.
Her death was confirmed Wednesday by her daughter Heidi Schuler Bright.
Ms. Munsel was 17 when, in March 1943, she won a Met contract and $1,000 after tying for first place in the eighth annual Metropolitan Auditions of the Air, a precursor to the Met’s National Council Auditions, a program to discover promising young opera singers and nurture their careers.
By November, Ms. Munsel had signed a three-year contract with the impresario Sol Hurok for a guaranteed $120,000. On Dec. 4, at 18, she made her Met debut as the temptress Philine in Ambroise Thomas’ “Mignon,” wearing a good-luck ring and a crown lent to her by the soprano Lily Pons.
The audience gave Ms. Munsel a standing ovation of several minutes. The critics were generally less kind.
“For this part her voice is neither sufficiently big, or developed, or brilliant enough,” critic Olin Downes wrote in The New York Times.
“In plain words,” he said, “she was cruelly miscast, in this, one of the most exacting roles in the coloratura soprano’s repertory.”
More than 40 years later, in a Los Angeles Times interview, Ms. Munsel said simply, “I didn’t have a clue as to what the part was about.”
She performed a total of 225 times at the Met, excelling as the maid Adele in Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus” and earning praise from Downes for her “virtuoso singing” and “very amusing acting.” He declared her born for the role “by personality, wit, temperament.”
Rudolf Bing, the company’s general manager during Ms. Munsel’s tenure, is said to have called her “a superb soubrette.”
But Ms. Munsel had given up touring the moment she became engaged to Robert C. Schuler, an adman turned television producer, whom she married in 1952. Not long after returning from their summerlong European honeymoon, she did a star turn on movie screens as Dame Nellie Melba, the 19th-century Australian soprano, in the 1953 biopic “Melba,” produced by the Hollywood legend Sam Spiegel.
From there, she strutted her way into the Las Vegas nightclub scene, peeling off a voluminous silk skirt mid-aria at the New Frontier in 1955 to reveal a halter and bejeweled pink capris. Two years later, Ms. Munsel embarked on a television career with “The Patrice Munsel Show,” a variety series on ABC, joining guests like Eddie Albert, Andy Williams, Tony Bennett, and John Raitt in a mix of light opera and pop, though she admitted to hating “double-entendre lyrics.” It was canceled after one season.
Ms. Munsel last performed at the Met in 1958 as Mimi in “La Bohème,” a role she had long coveted. She then focused on motherhood, traveling, and musical comedies, performing splits in the 1965 Lincoln Center Theater presentation of “The Merry Widow” and occasionally turning productions of “The Sound of Music” and “The King and I” into family affairs with her four children.
Besides her daughter Heidi, she leaves two other children: another daughter, Nicole Schuler, and a son, Scott Schuler, as well as two grandsons and two great-granddaughters. Her husband, who in 2005 chronicled his 50-year marriage to Ms. Munsel in the book “The Diva & I: My Life with Metropolitan Opera Star Patrice Munsel,” died in 2007. Their son Rhett Carroll Schuler died in 2005.
Patrice Beverly Munsil was born on May 14, 1925, in Spokane, Wash. (She later changed the spelling of her surname to Munsel at the Metropolitan Opera’s request.) Her father, Dr. Audley J. Munsil, was a dental surgeon; her mother, Eunice Munsil, was a homemaker and an accomplished piano player.
She began studying ballet and tap at 6. But it wasn’t long before listening to Met radio broadcasts convinced her that her true destiny was to become an opera star. By 15 she had moved with her mother to New York, where twice-daily voice lessons were supplemented with piano, harmony, theory, French and Italian classes, as well as fencing lessons and gym workouts three times a week.