An uncommon woman, an uncommon life
BY LINDA DeNICOLA
Like an opera in three acts, the libretto of Lois Hunt’s life is dramatic and colorful, but for the most part, without the tragedy and duplicity that makes opera so melodramatic.
The first act — growing up in Pennsylvania and developing her powerful lyric soprano voice — also includes winning a prestigious prize that allowed Hunt entrée into the highest echelon of the opera world, the Metropolitan Opera. For five years, from 1949-53, she sang lead parts before crossing over into legitimate theater.
There is no intermission before the long second act begins when she meets Earl Wrightson and teams up with him as a musical theater duo who travel all over the country. They stay together as a couple until he dies in 1993, in their Oyster Bay, N.Y., home.
In most operas, the story ends when a leading character dies. In some ways, Wrightson’s death is an ending for Hunt. She never performs again. After a five-year intermission, she redefines her life.
The third act has her settled in an original, flat-roofed Bauhaus home in the small western Monmouth County community of Roosevelt, across the street from her son, Councilman Jeff Hunt, and near the large extended family of her daughter-in-law, Jessica Hecht, whose relatives were among the first 200 residents to settle in the 2-square-mile borough.
"I was an only child, but I’m surrounded by family now," Hunt said.
A small woman, she is still elegant, with a vibrant speaking voice and a joie de vivre that must have been at the heart of the girl who became the woman who sang "Musetta" from "La Boheme," "Lauretta" from "Gianni Schicchi," "Adele" from "Die Fledermaus" and "Papagena" from "Magic Flute" at the Met when she was still in her early 20s.
Hunt’s career spans more than 50 years.
"I starting singing when I was very young and immediately went on the road," she said. "The Academy of Music in Philadelphia was my shrine. I used to sneak out of high school to go there."
She was a young woman when she had her concert debut at the Barkley Hotel in 1946 and had been singing professionally for three years when she won the prestigious Metropolitan Opera’s Audition of the Air in 1949.
"That was a major event in the country," she said. "Smaller things were important in those days."
Hunt said she was encouraged to audition by the assistant manager of the Metropolitan Opera.
"They knew me because I made my opera debut in Central City, Colo., in Fidelio in 1947."
She sang the part of Marzellina, the daughter.
"The staff and conductor were from the Met [Metropolitan Opera]. People at the Met kept track of new singers. They looked for integrity as an artist," she said.
Not only did she perform live at the opera house, but she also was in the Metropolitan Opera’s first television production of "Die Fledermaus" in 1953, directed by Garson Kanin.
While she was singing at the Met, Earl Wrightson, a baritone, was making a name for himself with his own television shows, the "At Home Show," which followed the "Arthur Godfrey Show" on CBS, and the "American Musical Theater."
"I was a soprano at the Met at the time. He invited me to sing on the ‘At Home Show.’ "
The two got along so well that she became a regular guest star.
Around that time, Robert Q. Lewis was starting a daily TV variety show and was looking for two singers.
"He hired us, and we did that for 2 1/2 years, from 1953-56, five days a week, and a radio show on Saturday mornings," she said. "In those days, there was a demand for us across the country. We got a lot of exposure singing about town. We were traveling all of the time. We began to concertize in winter and do musicals in the summer in tent theaters all over the country."
The list of musical theater productions in which she had major roles includes "Brigadoon," "Carousel," "Desert Song," "Fiddler on the Roof," "Gigi," "The King and I," "A Little Night Music" and ‘South Pacific."
She was working on the Lewis show when her son was born.
"My mother lived with us and took care of Jeff all of the time," she said. "She was a violinist and taught him piano and sports."
Hunt’s mother, Bertie, was always supportive of her daughter’s singing career.
"She was a chief cheerleader, supporter and chauffeur," Hunt said. "She came to every class, every lesson, and drove me to every rehearsal for a lot of years."
Hunt started studying voice in junior high school in the late 1930s. Her last tour, with Wrightson, was in The Sound of Music in 1979-80.
"We did 97 cities in six months, 198 performances," she said. "We were the only two members of the cast whose understudies never went on. We were consummate professionals who took great pride in our professionalism and integrity. We wanted the music to be right. The orchestras were so happy to have our music in front of them. Our music was rich and lush."
"All I knew was music," she added. "It was my fun, my life, my work. I never went on vacations. I was having fun all of the time. There was a lot at stake."
Hunt never needed amplification — not in her long singing career, nor in her interesting life, and certainly not on stage at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City or at the many other opera houses where she performed before crossing over to legitimate theater.
After making the decision to focus on musical theater, she sang in classical and pop concerts over the radio and on television, and in churches and synagogues.
"I did a lot of oratorio," she said. "I love singing in church. We sang in the Great Auditorium in Ocean Grove," she added.
Hunt and Wrightson also sang in Canada and did two around-the-world Rotterdam cruises. They have recorded over 45 albums with Columbia and RCA. But one of the highlights of her career was singing at the White House during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency and in the Johnsons’ home at "The Elms," when Johnson was vice president.
Hunt wrote about that experience in the Roosevelt newsletter.
She and Wrightson were starring at the Blue Room of the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C., when they received a phone call from Liz Carpenter, Lady Byrd’s social secretary, asking them to perform at a luncheon in then-Vice President Johnson’s home.
The luncheon was for the wives of Japanese cabinet ministers who would be attending a meeting at the White House.
The evening before the performance, they were invited to see the room where the luncheon was to be held and to join Lady Byrd for a drink. The First Lady said the vice president was upstairs in the bedroom with a bad cold, but that he wanted to meet them.
"Mr. Vice President was indeed upstairs in his green bedroom, in his green silk pajamas with his initials, LBJ, embroidered from just below his shoulder to just above his ankle," Hunt said, laughing at the fact that the first time she met the man who was to become president of the United States, he was in his pajamas.
That was only the first of a number of singing engagements when Mrs. Johnson needed some "classy entertainment," Hunt said.
Hunt and Wrightson made the "audience feel as comfortable as warm hands," one reviewer wrote in the Palm Beach Daily News. The show was titled, "On the Lighter Side," and the reviewer said that they were "hams of premier quality."
Hunt’s son and daughter-in-law have a game the family plays in the car when they go on trips.
"They name a city and I have to come up with a story," she said. "I’ve been in so many of them [cities]."
But living for so long at such a high pitch has worn her out.
"It was very demanding, very tiring and extraordinarily exhilarating," she said.
"I knew 60-odd roles by the time I stopped singing in 1987. I loved it all. I loved the atmosphere and the people. I loved communicating with all of those people. I was a big proponent of opera in English.
Hunt and Wrightson — or Wrightson and Hunt, as they were always billed — shared music and their lives.
"I loved working with Earl," Hunt said. "We respected each other as artists so much."
She misses her beloved Earl Wrightson a great deal, but she is tired now and content to listen to the music of her friends and family and, on occasion, to listen to her own exceptional recordings with Wrightson.
The libretto for the third act says to picture Lois Hunt at home. She has added a large, light, plant-filled music room onto the back of her house in the woods to hold the piano that her daughter-in-law uses to give lessons. Her daughter-in-law is playing the piano, and her son is sitting next to his mother on the comfortable couch, listening.
It is December and one of Hunt’s beautiful sequined gowns is draped over a round table for Christmas, and another is wrapped around the bottom of a Christmas tree. She is content to be at home in her small town.
The third act is unfinished. Hunt is surrounded by friends, family, flowers, cats, a "granddog" and the deer that come up to her back door for the corn that she buys for them.