Marguerite Piazza, a New Orleans-born opera singer who blended her lyric soprano voice with supper club showmanship, died Aug. 2 at her home in Memphis, Tenn. She was 86.
Marguerite Piazza’s funeral was held Aug. 7 at St. Louis Catholic Church in Memphis, where she has lived for the past 50 years.
The singer, who survived multiple battles with cancer and became a prime advocate for cancer prevention, died of congestive heart failure.
Well before marketing executives came up with the term “crossover artist,” miss Piazza became a pop phenomenon via the opera stage. She moved easily from the Metropolitan Opera to Broadway to television variety shows.
A glamorous beauty with a svelte figure, miss Piazza belied the stereotypical image of the well-fed opera singer. her look well matched her repertoire, as she impersonated such attractive young lovers as Musetta in “La Boheme” and Nedda in “Pagliacci.”
Her soaring voice, as well as her good looks, drew the attention of Hollywood early in her career. She was lured from the opera stage to the television screen. for several years in the early 1950s, she was a regular on the top-rated variety program “Your Show of Shows,” which starred Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca. miss Piazza regularly sang popular opera arias as well as pop standards.
It wasn’t an unusual leap at the time. In those early days of the “golden age of television,” theaters and concert halls provided much programming for general broadcasts. Variety described miss Piazza as “an opera star who knows how to please both the longhairs and the crew cuts.”
Based on the fame her TV appearances gave her, miss Piazza embarked on a new career as a nightclub singer, making appearances in Las Vegas showrooms, Havana hotspots and chic supper clubs, such as the Cocoanut Grove in Los Angeles and the Blue Room of the Roosevelt Hotel in New Orleans.
Marguerite Claire Luft was born in New Orleans on may 6, 1926, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants.
“I made my stage debut right here in New Orleans at the age of 2,” she said in a 1970 interview. “I was Cupid in a dancing school revue.”
She studied voice at Loyola University, then continued her vocal studies at Louisiana State University before heading to New York to pursue her operatic career. a teacher suggested that she adopt her mother’s maiden name so as to sound more Italian, and presumably to give her career a boost.
A week after her 18th birthday, she made her debut with the New York City Opera. As the youngest member of the then-new company, she sang the role of Nedda in Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci.” Over the next few seasons, she would appear with the company in Puccini’s “La Boheme,” Strauss’ “The Gypsy Baron” and Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” among others.
Between engagements in New York, miss Piazza returned home in 1945 to make her debut with the New Orleans Opera, singing the title role in Flotow’s “Martha” at the Municipal Auditorium. a Times-Picayune critic wrote: “miss Piazza brings to her singing a soprano voice of fine quality, particularly in the lower registers. And her natural charm and good looks are equaled only by her ability as an actress.” later that year, she also appeared in the company’s production of Humperdinck’s “Hansel and Gretel.”
Miss Piazza reached the pinnacle of her operatic career in 1951, making her debut with the Metropolitan Opera as Rosalinde in Strauss’ “Die Fledermaus.”
Entering the plush world of supper clubs in the late 1950s, she was dubbed the “first of the red-hot opera singers,” playing off of entertainer Sophie Tucker’s famous monicker, “last of the red-hot mamas.”
She would often return to her hometown in those days for appearances at the Blue Room and New Orleans Summer Pops concerts.
Longtime Times-Picayune music critic Frank Gagnard described the variety of musical styles miss Piazza brought to the Blue Room in 1961: “The soprano’s operatically inclined voice showed its uptown training, dipped into a mezzo register for blues songs, and traveled all the way to Decatur Street for some Italian folk lore. … Glamour to greasepaint to grand opera is miss Piazza’s range on the nightclub floor.”
She even was part of the halftime festivities at Tulane Stadium during Super Bowl IV in 1970, which pitted the Kansas City Chiefs against the Minnesota Vikings.
That would turn out to be one of her last major public performances. Occasional concert appearances and benefit galas would follow, but miss Piazza largely retired from the stage after she was diagnosed with skin cancer in the 1960s.
Through the remainder of her life, miss Piazza would work as a philanthropist and crusader for cancer charities, research and prevention. Performances and public appearances were usually in conjunction with fundraisers for her cause.
She would endure several other cancer battles, often using them to help raise awareness of the disease at a time when few celebrities would address their own illnesses publicly.
She was a major patron of the arts, particularly in her adopted city of Memphis, and established an annual fundraising gala to support the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, founded by her friend Danny Thomas.
In 2007, she published a memoir, “Pagliacci Has Nothing on me.”
Miss Piazza was married four times. She and her first husband divorced; she was then widowed three times. She is survived by three daughters, Marguerite Bonnett, Shirley Condon and Anna-Becky Redlich; two sons, Gregory and bill Condon; and seven grandchildren.
A Mass was said Tuesday at St. Louis Catholic Church in Memphis.
A review of a three-week engagement at the Blue Room in 1969 may have summed up miss Piazza’s appeal best: “Talent, charm and beauty will always prevail.”