Knoxville native and entertainer Mary Costa has shared the stage, screen, and airwaves with many Hollywood greats. She landed the lead role in a Disney animated feature at just twenty-two and was the star soprano in some of the world’s most prestigious venues.
However, it’s her newly bestowed Honorary Doctorate of Humane and Musical Letters from UT that Costa places at the top of her list of accolades.
“I feel like this is the crowning touch to my career and to my life, because I am one true Tennessean,” she said when accepting the degree. “I have never been to a place in this world as beautiful as East Tennessee and where the people are so incomparable.”
Costa is a critically acclaimed coloratura soprano who has performed at the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House in London, and the Bolshoi in Moscow and has recorded with the Rome Opera House Orchestra and Chorus. Yet she is best known for her iconic role of Princess Aurora in Walt Disney’s Sleeping Beauty (1959).
Chancellor Jimmy G. Cheek presented Costa with the honorary degree at a November 2014 event in the Natalie L. Haslam Music Center. The entertainer spent the evening surrounded by many of her closest friends and music enthusiasts.
In sharing her words of thanks, Costa spoke of her great love for her East Tennessee. Though her family moved from Knoxville to Los Angeles during high school so that she could pursue her dream, she always knew she’d come home.
During my career, I have worn all of the beautiful costumes, diamonds, and tiaras and I have enjoyed every moment of it. But, again, I tell you that I am a true Tennessean and I don’t know when I have ever felt as royal,” she said.
Cheek said Costa’s contributions extend far beyond her storied performances.
“Mary has had an extensive and varied career. Not only is she a musician and entertainer, but she’s known regionally and nationally as a cultural ambassador and an advocate for the arts, education, young musicians, and at-risk children,” said Cheek.
Costa graduated Glendale High School and attended the Los Angeles Conservatory of Music, which is now the California Institute for the Arts.
Early in her career, she happened to meet the Disney musical director, Walter Schumann, at a large dinner party. He and some of the guests had gathered around a piano to sing.
Upon hearing Costa’s voice, he was significantly impressed, and asked if she would come to the Disney Studios the following day to audition for the role of Sleeping Beauty.
The next day, her mother drove her to the audition. “I kept looking for Walt Disney and later found out he had been standing behind a screen listening to me,” Costa said.
On the ride home, her mother asked if she had enjoyed the audition. Costa told her, “It was the best time I have ever had. But, I didn’t get to meet Walt Disney.”
Later that afternoon, Disney called her house and spoke to her mother.
“He said ‘Mrs. Costa, I think you have been hiding the Princess Aurora in your home in Glendale. May I please speak to her, because I want to offer her the role of Princess Aurora in Sleeping Beauty.’”
Disney had spent three years trying to cast the lead role and had almost shelved the project prior to meeting Costa.
Although challenging for a twenty-two-year-old, Costa knew the audition was a chance of a lifetime. Throughout her childhood, her teachers and friends had helped her to truly believe in her talents.
“When I was a little girl, I was shy about singing. I just sang in my sandbox and I would see my mother watching from the window. Then I started to sing a little bit in elementary school, and my girlfriends would tell me—‘you really can sing.’”
Often teachers and friends would ask her to sing for the class. “My classmates would call out songs they would like to hear, and I would sing for about ten minutes with them just sitting around me,” Costa said.
The gifts my childhood friends gave me were love, kindness, encouragement, and sensitivity. I knew that I could trust what they said to me because they would always give me an honest answer,” she said.
“Those were tremendous gifts, and I really believe that if I had not had them, I would not be here accepting this award today.”