Mary Beth Peil ’62 is an actress and singer known for her work on Broadway, television, and film. She has won major competitions, including the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and Young Concert Artist Auditions, and has sung leading roles with the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, and Minnesota Opera. She originated the role of Alma in Summer and Smoke and worked with Frank Galati in a PBS Great Performances program of that opera. On Broadway, Peil has received Tony nominations for The King and I as Mrs. Anna opposite Yul Brynner and for Anastasia as Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna, a role which she originated. She has also performed in Sunday in the Park with George, Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown, Follies, The Visit, and Liaisons Dangereuses. She is known for her television roles on The Good Wife and Dawson’s Creek and has appeared in such films as Flags of our Fathers, Odd Couple 2, Stepford Wives 2, and Mirrors.
What made you choose the Bienen School of Music?
I chose the Northwestern School of Music because my high school voice teacher knew of a good voice teacher. Also, Robert Gay was teaching in the opera department and Lotte Lehmann gave master classes.
Which professors influenced you most during your time at the Bienen School of Music?
Robert Gay ran and taught the opera workshop and produced at least two productions a year in addition to smaller performance opportunities. In addition to being a wonderful supportive teacher, his professional experience and success before coming to Northwestern gave his teaching relevance to reality.
Ewald Nolte taught theory and composition, but it was his role as conductor of the Chapel Choir that made him such a strong influence on me—learning to sight-read, learning the importance of phrasing, etc. He had the ability to teach musicality, which I always thought you either have or you don’t. But anyone who sang in his Chapel Choir every Thursday evening and Sunday morning ended up being described as “very musical.”
Tell us about a particular experience that impacted you during your time at the Bienen School of Music.
A career and life choice experience occurred the last month of my senior year. I was cast as Violetta in the spring production of La Traviata and, by coincidence, Boris Goldovsky (Robert Gay’s mentor and founder of The Goldovsky Opera Theatre) paid a visit. He gave a few master classes and asked me to audition for the role of Violetta in his fall national tour of La Traviata. Suddenly, I had a job and was headed directly to New York after graduation—a choice I will never know if I would have had the courage to make on my own at the time.
What lesson did you learn at Bienen that has continued to resonate with you in your career?
One thing I learned that has always stayed with me throughout my career is discipline. Voice majors were required to practice with the same amount of discipline and commitment as instrumental majors.
Top three of your Desert Island Discs (any genre)
The St Matthew Passion
The Complete Ella Fitzgerald
and/or Frank Sinatra (I know that makes 4)