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Carol Neblett, 71, Metropolitan Opera star known for sensual portrayals of heroines

By Harrison Smith Washington Post 

WASHINGTON — Carol Neblett, a red-haired, fiery-voiced opera singer who performed with Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo, became a star soprano of the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s and appeared in the buff for a headline-grabbing staging of ‘‘Thaïs,’’ was found dead Nov. 24 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 71.

Her daughter, Adrienne Akre Spear, said the cause was not immediately known.

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Ms. Neblett was a supremely confident and, to many critics, supremely talented singer and actress, known for her charming, often sensual portrayals of comic characters and dramatic heroines.

‘‘My whole life functions on love,’’ she told the New York Times in 1974, describing the impulse that drove her performances onstage as well as her marriage to conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, who was music director of the Milwaukee Symphony at the time of the interview.

‘‘I’m a love object and a love subject. Whatever I do on this earth comes from needing to be loved and wanting to return it.’’

Ms. Neblett played the title role of Puccini’s ‘‘Tosca’’ more than 400 times by her count, including a 1976 Lyric Opera of Chicago production opposite Pavarotti, and became well known for her interpretation of the saloon-owner Minnie in Puccini’s ‘‘La Fanciulla del West,’’ performing alongside the tenor Domingo at Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee celebration in 1977.

She had been a headliner since the age of 23, when she appeared as Musetta in the New York City Opera’s 1969 production of ‘‘La Bohème.’’ In a decade-long association with the company, she played roles that ranged from the dancer Marietta in ‘‘Die tote Stadt,’’ by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, to the dual parts of Margherita and Elena in Arrigo Boito’s Faustian drama ‘‘Mefistofele.’’

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‘‘She seems likely to be our next candidate for international celebrity,’’ New York Times music critic Donal Henahan wrote in 1973, assessing Ms. Neblett’s star turn in a City Opera production of ‘‘Ariadne auf Naxos.’’ ‘‘Her sumptuous spinto soprano has never sounded so firmly under control, and so seamlessly produced.’’

Indeed, Ms. Neblett went on to perform with the Met in New York for more than a decade, making her debut as Senta in a 1979 production of ‘‘The Flying Dutchman’’ that reimagined Wagner’s seafaring opera as a dream.

She seemed to struggle at times with control of her tone — critics sometimes described a shakiness in her upper register — and later said that the intensity of her early career led her to develop vocal problems, including shortness of breath and a sometimes wobbly delivery.

Still, she developed a wide following with performances on Johnny Carson’s ‘‘Tonight Show’’ and feature stories in magazines such as People, which christened her ‘‘the world’s sexiest soprano’’ in a 1975 profile.

The attention was triggered in part by her history-making performance in a 1973 New Orleans production of ‘‘Thaïs,’’ a sexually charged French comic opera. Appearing as the title character, a medieval courtesan, Ms. Neblett disrobed while singing the final song of the first act — marking the first time an opera singer displayed full-frontal nudity, according to the Grove Book of Operas.

‘‘I would not have dared to do it had I not established myself as a good singer with a good voice,’’ she told the Times. ‘‘But if I had been smarter, I would have controlled the publicity. 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. But it was an artistic scene, valid in the opera, and it should be done. I’d do it again, but differently.’’

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

Carol Lee Neblett was born in Modesto, Calif., on Feb. 1, 1946, and grew up in Redondo Beach, Calif.. Her father was a military aviator who flew in the China-Burma-India theater during World War II and later worked as a piano tuner; her mother was an assistant to violinist Jascha Heifetz.

Ms. Neblett said she began playing the violin at 2, taught by a grandmother who had performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and switched to singing only at the suggestion of Heifetz, who found her vocal skills more promising than her talent at the fiddle.

She studied under noted voice teacher William Vennard before touring with the Grammy-winning Roger Wagner Chorale. Impresario Sol Hurok, who had championed opera star Marian Anderson, persuaded her to become an opera singer and landed her a pivotal audition with the City Opera.

Her City Opera debut in 1969 impressed Times critic Allen Hughes.

“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.”

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 make 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.”

Her marriages to cellist Douglas Davis, Schermerhorn, and Philip Akre ended in divorce. Survivors include a son from her second marriage, Stefan Schermerhorn of San Rafael, Calif.; a daughter from her third marriage, Spear of Coronado, Calif.; a sister; a brother; and four grandchildren.

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.