Death of a sought-after American soprano, 71

The international soprano Carol Neblett died on Thanksgiving Day.

After her City Opera debut at 23 as Musetta in La Bohème, she was a company stalwart for ten years before the Met came knocking. Carol went on to sing at all major houses, forming a notable partnership on stage and on record with Placido Domingo.

Claudio Abbado chose her for his recording of Mahler’s second symphony. Her signature role was Minnie in Puccini’s Fanciulla del West.

Born in Modesto, California, and graduating from UCLA, she returned later in life to the golden west to be artist in residence and voice teacher at California’s Chapman University.

She was married first to the cellist Douglas Davis, then to Kenneth Schermerhorn, music director of the Milwaukee Symphony, and thirdly to a cardiologist, Phillip Akre. She had three children.

Early on, she shocked America by playing Thais in the buff, accusing agile photographers of snapping pubic hair that she kept hidden from the audience. The New York Times splashed its feature with the headline ‘What do you Say to a Naked Prima Donna?’. It’s a finely calibrated piece of writing by Steve Rubin, who was never lost for questions, and a good insight into the rise of an all-American artist. And the headline was not unwarranted: she did a topless shoot in the bath for Paul Slade and would flourish pictures of her tempestuous Thais.

Those were the 70s, a more innocent era.


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  • She was a wonderful Minnie. I saw her in the earlier ROH performances in January 1978 also with Domingo on what I believe was Domingo’s birthday.

    • We were colleagues at the NYCO where I saw her performing many times, and last I saw her was in Torino performing La Fanciulla del West with Placido; it was a great performance by both colleagues. We will miss her.RIP.

  • Completely out of taste showing her partially clothed and mentioning her ‘naked ‘ performance, don’t you have any moral scruples ????

    • You are right to be protective of this beautiful lady but having known her personally and as a friend she would not be offended by that but rather proud of her youthful beauty. She was a kind and beautiful and generous great lady she taught my daughter to be an exceptional opera singer and also shared her friendship with us. She was larger than life and as real as they get. And what a voice !!! What a talent !!! I am sad beyond words ….

    • Since when is the human body in bad taste? Obviously Ms. Neblett chose to present herself in that manner and (IMO) should be proud of the results. A poor singer in the buff would be a sin, but a very good singer, absolutely not. Morality has nothin’ to do with it.

      • Of course the human body is beautiful but IT is in bad taste to remember this great singer because of one performance where she was contracted to perform partially naked. This is not the manner in which she should be remembered.

    • She was beautiful & those who are beautiful SHOULD be naked!!!!! I get so sick & tired of FAT LADY jokes in opera.

  • “Claudio Abbado chose her for his recording of Mahler’s second symphony.”

    Well, yes, except that Abbado recorded Mahler’s 2nd a few times. Therefore the sentence ought to read: “Claudio Abbado chose her for his Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording of Mahler’s second symphony.”


    • Abbado’s commercial Mahler 2s

      Chicago SO & Chorus, Carol Neblett, Marilyn Horne, DGG
      Vienna PO, Arnold Schoenberg Choir, Cheryl Studer, Waltraud Meier, DGG
      Lucerne FO, Orfeón Donostiarra, Eteri Gvazava, Anna Larsson, DGG

  • She also sang Semirama by Respighi…a real killer role. ..I was her double in Italy…and have nice memories of this special lady..

  • A lovely woman. I have very nice memories of her from childhood. A bit sad that outside all the fine singing, this article focussed on the fact that she stripped on stage.

    Two memories from that Fagioni production at CG when it was new:

    1) the gasp from the audience when she drew the ace from her garter and threw it on the table;

    2) Sir Isiah Berlin walking up to Sir John Tooley in the Crush Bar afterwards, saying: ‘Congratulations, John! You’ve succeeded in making the third rate second rate’.

  • She was an outstanding Contessa in Nozze di Figaro as well as a Musetta in Boheme. I did both with her. She will be missed.

  • I will always remember her for the sweetness of her smile and the beauty of how she cared for those she loved. I will remember her for the time I spent as her boyfriend in high school and for the brief time we reconnected later in life. May her memory continue to always be a blessing to her friends and family who loved her not only for her beautiful voice but for her unbounded generosity and compassion. Rabbi Les Scharnberg

  • She and my late husband connected in the classroom. He was a grad student and she an undergrad. I believe she took music theory class from him.

  • I saw her in Salzbourg , in 1976 , in Mozart’s ” La Clemenza di Tito ” ( J . Levine conducting and Tatiana Troyanos as Sesto ) . She was the best Vitellia I have ever heard . I have the live recording ( ORFEO – Festspiele Dokumente ) and when I listen to these splendid cd , I can see her again in her sumptuous costumes . She was really so beautiful ! I am quite sad to read that she is dead .

    Patrice . an old French admirer .

  • Her Marietta in Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt can also stand as a monument to her artistry & vocal as well as physical beauty. May it resound through the years!
    Don O’Connor

    • Thank you for your reply . I quite agree with you . I did not saw her Marietta in Korngold’s ” Die Tote Stadt ” and I think she did not perform this role out of the States , did she ? But there is – thank God – the wonderful RCA recording !

      Patrice Babin

  • I sat next to Carol in Redondo Highschool choir for two years. Over the years thought of her often. This morning at 6 am I dreamed I should google her. Now I know why. RIP Princess. Susan Huntington

  • It was my extreme good fortune to have sung in the San Francisco Opera chorus when Carol swept through as Elettra in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production of Mozart’s IDOMENEO. Unforgettable . I still hear her lush timbre . An extraordinarily gifted artist with wit and earthy sensuality not to be matched. THANK YOU Miss Neblett

  • In the summer of 1982, I was to enjoy a performance of Un ballo in maschera with Placido Domingo and Margaret Price during a stay in San Francisco. Domingo cancelled to do filming of the Zeffirelli film of Otello and within the same week, Price cancelled as well. Was I in for a surprise when the replacements were announced. Carlo Bergonzi, Carol Neblett, Silvano Caroli and Fiorenza Cossotto. It was, and still is the most exciting Ballo I have ever attended. Thank you, Ms. Neblett for your artistry. R.I.P.

  • I met Carol at high school summer music camp in Idyllwild, California. My friends in the choir and I knew she was going to be famous, and we enjoyed following her career from afar. So sad to read this news.

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