Patricia Neway, ‘Sound of Music’ Tony winner
By Emily Langer,
Patricia Neway, a dramatic soprano who excelled in avant-garde operas and on Broadway, where she won a 1960 Tony Award for her performance as the Mother Abbess in the original production of “The Sound of Music,” died Jan. 24 at her home in East Corinth, Vt.
She was 92 and had congestive heart failure, said her niece Michal Twine.
Ms. Neway was a rare type of singer — one with the classical training and raw vocal strength to meet the demands of opera as well as the acting talent and appeal required to succeed in musical theater.
In the 1950s and 1960s, she was a featured singer at the New York City Opera. More broadly, she became known as a leading performer of 20th-century composers such as Gian Carlo Menotti.
Her signature role was Magda Sorel in Menotti’s opera “The Consul,” which won the 1950 Pulitzer Prize for music. The work follows Magda, the wife of a political dissident, as she seeks asylum and becomes trapped in the nightmarish bureaucracy of an unidentified European dictatorship.
Arturo Toscanini, the celebrated Italian conductor, reportedly was present at one of Ms. Neway’s auditions for the show and kissed her hand in admiration.
The opera premiered in Philadelphia in 1950 before moving to Broadway for a run of 269 performances. Ms. Neway’s rendition of the key soprano aria, “To This We’ve Come,” drew ecstatic reviews.
“It is not often one experiences such a sense of shattering reality in the opera house,” wrote New York Times music critic Ross Parmenter after a New York City Opera revival production in 1960.
To play the part of Magda, Ms. Neway said that she unleashed her own memories of red-tape entanglement. At age 11, she was hit by an automobile, and her father sued the driver.
“I didn’t know what was false and what was real anymore,” she told the Times in 1950. “I hated it — all — lawyers, judge, jury, all the tricks and waiting and delay.”
Ms. Neway appeared in other Menotti operas, including “The Medium” as Mme. Flora, and in modern works such as Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck” and Benjamin Britten’s “The Turn of the Screw.” Besides her audio recordings, she appeared in a 1960 television broadcast of “The Consul,” which was released on DVD in 2004.
Ms. Neway won the Tony for best featured actress in a musical for her work in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “The Sound of Music,” which started its years-long Broadway run in 1959.
Ms. Neway played the wise Mother Abbess, who in the soaring number “Climb Ev’ry Mountain” encourages the would-be nun Maria (played by Mary Martin) to venture outside the abbey.
“As an actress she has the personal kindness that brings dignity to the part of the Mother Abbess,” wrote Times theater critic Brooks Atkinson after the premiere. “Her warm-toned, disciplined singing voice makes the music overwhelming.”
Patricia Mary Neway was born Sept. 30, 1919, in Brooklyn. She pursued a career in music at the encouragement of the mother superior at her Catholic high school, her niece said. She graduated from Notre Dame College on Staten Island and studied at what was then the Mannes Music School in New York.
Her first marriage, to Morris Gesell, ended in divorce. Her second husband, John Francis Byrne, died in 2008 on the couple’s 40th anniversary. Ms. Neway had no immediate survivors.
Ms. Neway advocated operas with English librettos.
“Opera is theater — musical theater — but still theater,” she told the Times in 1950. “It’s ridiculous to put on opera when the audience doesn’t know what the singers are singing about.”
With her first husband, who was also a singer, she worked on English translations of Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and other canonical European operas. At Carnegie Hall in 1959, she performed a concert of James Joyce’s works set to music.