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17 January, 2012

Miss Muriel Smith, the black American mezzo-soprano, who died in Richmond, Virginia, on September 13 at the age of 61, will be remembered in this country [UK] for her Carmen in the Covent Garden revival of 1956 as well as for her lieder singing, and she was also familiar as a star in musicals.

(Photo: Arthur Strong)
(Photo: Arthur Strong)
Muriel Smith was born in New York and, after leaving school, studied for three years at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia where she was a pupil of Elisabeth Schumann. At 19, while still a student, she was invited by the impresario Billy Rose to create the title role in the Broadway musical Carmen Jones. After obtaining leave of absence from the Curtis Institute she was to remain with the show for the four years of its run, from 1943 to 1947.

Later she trained as an actress at New York’s Actors’ Studio and had some straight dramatic parts as well as playing opposite Alfred Drake in a revival of the musical The Cradle Will Rock. In 1948 she made her operatic debut as Carmen in New York.

She became well known to London theatregoers when she spent the five years from 1949 at Drury Lane, singing in the musicals South Pacific and The King and I.

In the 1950s she was also highly estimated on the concert platform as a singer of lieder and in 1957 she made her first appearance in the British operatic stage when she sang the title role in the brilliant revival of Carmen at the Royal Opera House.

Muriel Smith in a scene from the film 'The Hurricane'  (Photo: Huston Rogers)
Muriel Smith in a scene from the film 'The Hurricane' (Photo: Huston Rogers)
From 1957, after the race riots in Little Rock, Arkansas, she devoted herself to Moral Re-Armament and starred in the musical The Crowning Experience, based on the life of Mary McLeod Bethune, the pioneer black educator. She toured with this throughout the world and also starred in the film, which ran at the Warner, Leicester Square.

Other London appearances were those at the Westminster Theatre in Voice of the Hurricane (1961) and High Diplomacy (1969). She also sang on television the first of Yvonne Littlewood’s Sunday Concerts on the fledgling BBC 2.

Latterly she had returned to the United States, where she continued her appearances on the concert platform.

This obituary first appeared in The Times, 17 September 1985

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