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Phyllis Curtin

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Phyllis Curtin in 2010
Phyllis Curtin in 2010

Phyllis Curtin (née Smith; December 3, 1921 – June 5, 2016) was an American classical soprano who had an active career in operas and concerts from the early 1950s through the 1980s. She was known for her creation of new roles such as the title role in the Carlisle Floyd opera Susannah, Catherine Earnshaw in Floyd's Wuthering Heights, and in other works by this composer.[1] She was a dedicated song recitalist and retired from singing in 1984. She was named Boston University's Dean Emerita, College of Fine Arts in 1991.[1]

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  • ✪ NEA Opera Honors: Phyllis Curtin on Carlisle Floyd
  • ✪ Renée Fleming sings "Ain't it a pretty night" from Susannah
  • ✪ Susannah 2014-15 [Highlights]


Well, the first time we met was at Aspen where Carlisle had studied piano in the seasons before with Rudolf Firkusny and I simply was at Aspen and I had a phone call and there was Carlisle Floyd and he said that he had heard that I did a lot of new music and he had written this opera and could he bring it and show it to me. And I said "Please do because you'll have to help. I have been singing so much new music all summer I have no discretion left." And so, he came to my house and we read through all of Susannah. And it just was right there as normal as could be to me - the show, the person, the everything. And so, I called Mack Harrell, who was there, and said "Mack, this has happened can we come and play it to you?" And by the time the afternoon was over Mack and I both fell in love with this piece. Carlisle called his dean back at Florida State University and said that we had enjoyed this piece and his dean said, "Well, if you can get them to sing it, we'll give you a performance." And that's how we all met. We did Susannah first in Tallahassee. Then, when Mack and I went back to New York, we decided to sing it for a few people. One person, who ran a wonderful opera enterprise said, "But Phyllis, there's no boy meets girl in this piece." That took care of that one. But eventually we sung it to Eric Leinsdorf who lived near to Mack. And he liked it a lot. And that's how it got to the City Opera and...because for one season, Mr. Leinsdorf ran City Opera. And so that's how we got to City Opera. However, Mack was in Europe and couldn't do it and that's when Norman Treigle came in. And that's how we got started with Susannah. We sang it a lot of places -- did he tell you -- even Brussels in the World's Fair? Oh, it was very easily accepted. It's not a difficult thing to grasp in any way at all. It's all right there. It really, I would say, exemplifies what real opera is. You realize the story, everybody is there in the music. It's a remarkable coming together of people and music. And there's nothing in it that is off-putting in this day and age when people like to say about contemporary music all the curious things they do. But it's an easy piece. And I don't mean to suggest that's there anything ordinary about it. But it's available, and passionately so, in the music for every stretch of the way. So I don't think there was ever an audience that didn't react to this nicely. We were in a curious period with composition about that time. Carlisle's opera was largely being called by all kinds of people "a folk opera." Now why a folk opera? That text, that story, the center of it fits any number of societies in any number of ways. And so that sometimes to me seemed to me sort typical American Northeast and the South. Carlisle was a Southerner. Most of the composers and all that I knew were sort of Northeast. It was as if this was just somehow not in the same culture at all. It was a very peculiar attitude, but it struck very much to home a lot of the time. Well, it was sort of dismissed because it was a folk opera. Well, it's not a folk opera any more than Cavalieri Rusticana is a folk opera or Peter Grimes for heaven's sake. So that was annoyance to me. It also didn't fit, I suppose, into a lot of contemporary styles of composing at that point. It was a little in other kinds of music that I did, whether it was chamber music or song stuff. There were the far-out ones, and there were the neo-romantic ones, and it was like a civil war. If you sang this, you couldn't do that, and there was a big divide there. And that affected it to a degree, though when you think about one of the few others that was going around -- there was the Ballad of Baby Doe and there was hardly anything peculiar or strange or far-out about that. But I was not seeing, nor was anybody much, contemporary American opera. So it came along, but it's been fascinating - it's never stopped being played. Well, it was as easy as could be. Sometimes, people have asked to come and coach it with me and I say there's no reason to do that. It's all right there. If you read the story, if you hear the music, the music fits her every inch of the way and all you have to do listen and she emerges easily from there. You had asked if Carlisle helped me - your word was "build" - the role, and I thought, you know I never thought about building a role in my whole life. But she is just there, and I understood her or moved into her so easily. Now it may be that that's a part of the world that I grew up in myself. I was born in West Virginia, raised there, not so far away from that whole area of the Appalachian region and all the rest. But she is just as true as can be all the way through. There is nothing mysterious to look for. It's so genuine. So absolutely right on as a person that you don't have to search around for anything. But you have to make her Susannah. I would say the two arias - I never even considered them arias - "Ain't It a Pretty Night" is perhaps one of the most natural expressions of anything that I ever sang. "I just sat down on the porch and ain't it a pretty night," and it just goes on from there. It is a genuine and as real for anybody in the world, I think. And then the other one, "I sing it to myself when I'm sad and lonely." It says just that. And it hits a particular, emotional depth in a way that we all recognize that is going on, but we have something else that helps it go that is quite different. And that song is a little that way. And, I remember particularly at City Opera there was a memorial evening for Norman Treigle after he had died and Mr. Rudel asked if I'd sing "Ain't It a Pretty Night" and I said "No, I would rather sing he other one, 'The Trees on the Mountain' because of the many, many times we did that opera together. He's always in the background when she sings it if you remember that. And, "That's a right sad song, Susannah, don't look as if it would do you much good." So that night I sang that and I sang it to Norman. And it still gets me. So that's the reality of those things. Well, I will give you a little funny example, which is not like that, when we did it in Brussels. My husband had a friend, a correspondent in Europe, and she came with a friend of hers who was a correspondent from Moscow. And he had had some trouble before and was being very careful about what he did and said once out of Russia. But he did come back stage, and he did say to me -- and then he vanished almost immediately and nobody saw him again -- that this was the kind of thing he wished we could show in Moscow because it certainly exists there. Now, we're talking then about the Soviet Union. And the crux of the story hit him right in the middle about that. So, I don't know. It's very interesting. Something about the story itself and the business of revivals and all of that, well, that was a big part of American life. It was when I was growing up. They went on in my hometown a lot. And so I understood that culture, but that's not the point of the story. So I can't answer that question about what makes an American composer. I'm more baffled by it all the time. Wuthering Heights came about in a very nice way. Carlisle and I had become really very fast friends and one day I was working on something or another and I thought, well now Mozart wrote all those concert arias for various ladies who were singing. So I wrote to Carlisle and I said I want a concert aria. I was about to do a second Town Hall recital and I thought it would be fun to have a concert aria. And so he said, sure, he'd do that. And when it came, it was that section out of Wuthering Heights where Cathy says to Nelly "Nelly, have you never had strange dreams?" And then she goes on in the course of this to tell her why she's decided to marry Edgar Linton. But it winds up "...but Heathcliff is more myself than I am and no more like Edgar Linton than fire from ice." And so he delivered my aria to me and I sang it in my recital and there were various opera people at that recital and one of them happened to be John Crosby. But a number of people said "How's the rest of the opera?" And I said "There is no opera, it's just my piece." But Crosby did then commission Wuthering Heights for Santa Fe. And Carlisle has my aria right there in the second act. And that's how that came about. And that's how I got asked to sing it. Carlisle and I never worked at it much. There really hasn't seemed to be a need to. We have understood each other, I think, remarkably well. I don't remember - of course all of this is a long time ago - I don't remember any time when we had any disagreement about a single solitary thing. And in Wuthering Heights there was only one place - I was trying to think about that early this morning - Celia is a very normal lady. Which is the only thing that makes it a little hard sometimes to play somebody that has no neuroses. And there was one little stretch that seemed to me about a third in the music too high. It made her for her character, to me, seem a little on the strident side. And just after reading it though once, I felt that way and I mentioned it to Carlisle and he said "That's true. You know, when I hear it in my head I hear it lower." So he rewrote that and as far as I could tell you in any of those pieces that’s the only thing that ever came up at all. And we have always found absolute unanimity in what we were doing in any of those things together which is marvelous. Well, I think, as should happen to all artists, we grow, we change, and in I hope a lot of respects we get richer all the time in what we have. Now there's a lot of Carlisle I haven't heard now. I haven't heard the recent operas. He sent me a tape of Cold Sassy Tree, so I've heard it, but I've never seen it. Actually, I've only heard Of Mice and Men and never seen it. But I would say that what has happened would seem to me to be a rather rich thing in the development of any major composer - and that is that his vocabulary gets wider. The musical language that he has has become more varied, more interesting - and that happens. I mean it happened to everybody I can think of who has really hung on as a really important composer. And his language has changed a great deal. And it's all been very interesting to me. It's all so sort of Pollyanna for me I'm afraid. We never had anything that I can remember except of sheer delight in doing whatever it was we did. When he would come and be with us and stay with us and we would rehearse at the piano and all, we just found an exhilaration in doing what we did together. And that's a very positive and wonderful thing. Things go much faster that way. But I don't remember, as I say, any time when we had any kind of a disagreement or I really don't like that or couldn’t we do this this way. I seemed to simply fall into his music very easily. I guess I'd put it that way. And apparently, I fell on the right side. Because I don’t recall his fussing at me about anything. But we just had a good time. You found out what an enjoyable guy he is, how easy to get on with. And we just had a wonderful time together. He and my husband and his wife, Kay, we had a lovely, lovely time. And when we made music together it was - I could put it in one word - the most natural thing we did. His music and my singing it, I guess, which is wonderful.


Education and early career

Born Phyllis Smith in Clarksburg, West Virginia, Curtin studied singing with Olga Averino at Wellesley College where she earned a bachelor's degree in Political Science. She pursued graduate studies in vocal performance under Boris Goldovsky at the New England Conservatory. In 1946 she made her professional opera debut with Goldovsky's opera company, the New England Opera Theater, as Tatyana in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.[2][3] She took the surname Curtin from her first husband, whom she divorced after nine years.[4]

She sang several other roles with the company over the next seven years, including Countess Almaviva in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro (1947). In 1950, Curtin performed in the inaugural year of the Peabody Mason Concerts in Boston. In 1953 Curtin joined the roster of principal sopranos at the New York City Opera at the invitation of Joseph Rosenstock. She made her debut with the company on October 22, 1953 portraying three roles (Fraulein Burstner, Frau Grubach, and Leni) in the United States premiere of Gottfried von Einem's The Trial.[5]

She remained committed to the NYCO through 1960, where her roles included Alice Ford in Falstaff, Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann, Countess Almaviva, Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Frau Fluth in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Katharina in Vittorio Giannini's The Taming of the Shrew, Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande, Norina in Don Pasquale, Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, Violetta in La traviata, and the title role in Salome. She sang two roles in operas by Carlisle Floyd with the NYCO that she had previously created in their world premieres: the title role in Susannah (which she sang at Florida State University for its 1955 world premiere) and Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights (which she sang at the Santa Fe Opera for its 1958 premiere).[citation needed]

She sang the role of Thérèse in the American premiere of Francis Poulenc's Les mamelles de Tirésias at Brandeis University in 1953. She returned to Brandeis two years later to portray the title role in Darius Milhaud's Médée.[1]

In 1956 she toured the United States with the NBC Opera Company as Countess Almaviva with Walter Cassel as the Count, Adelaide Bishop as Sussana, and Frances Bible as Cherubino. In 1957 she sang the role of Elena in Christoph Willibald Gluck's Paride ed Elena with the American Opera Society. In 1958 she sang Susannah at the Brussels World's Fair. In the 1959–1960 season she sang two roles with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company: Rosalinde and Susannah. In 1959 she made her debut at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. She also made appearances at the Aspen Music Festival, the Cincinnati Opera, the Tanglewood Music Festival, and appeared in concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and The Little Orchestra Society during the 1950s.[6]

Later career

After the close of the 1959–60 season, Curtin left the employ of the NYCO, although she would continue to perform as a guest artist with the company up through 1964; she returned for performances in 1975 and 1976. She sang Fiordiligi for the NBC Television Opera Theatre in 1960. She sang several roles at the Vienna State Opera from 1960–61, including Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Fiordiligi, Salome, and Violetta. In 1961 she made her debuts at the Oper Frankfurt, the Staatsoper Stuttgart, and the Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi. She made her first appearance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1965 and her debut at the Seattle Opera in 1969. In the same year she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne.[7]

In 1966 she appeared in the world premiere of Milhaud's La mère coupable at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. In 1968 she sang Mimì in La bohème at the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company with Richard Tucker as Rodolfo and Ron Bottcher as Marcello. Other guest appearances included performances at the Scottish Opera (as Marguerite in Faust and Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes) and La Scala.

Curtin made her Metropolitan Opera debut on November 4, 1961 as Fiordiligi to the Ferrando of George Shirley, Dorabella of Rosalind Elias, Guglielmo of Theodor Uppman, Despina of Roberta Peters, and Don Alfonso of Frank Guarrera. She returned frequently as a guest artist at the Met, appearing in such roles as Alice Ford, Countess Almaviva, Donna Anna, Ellen Orford in Britten's Peter Grimes, Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Rosalinde, Salome, and Violetta. Her last Met appearance was on July 6, 1973 in the title role of Giacomo Puccini's Tosca with Enrico Di Giuseppe as Cavaradossi and Ignace Strasfogel conducting.

The soprano appeared at the Teatro alla Scala in 1962, in Cosí fan tutte, opposite Teresa Berganza.

Personal life

She married Philip Curtin, a history professor, in 1946. In April 1954 Life Magazine devoted three pages to pictures of her, describing her "long-limbed, lush-voiced and intense" account of the Dance of the Seven Veils in Strauss's Salome. Soon afterwards her marriage was dissolved. In 1956 she married Gene Cook, a photographer with Life Magazine. He died in 1986.[4] The couple had one child, Claudia Madeleine, born 1961.


She died at her home in Great Barrington, Massachusetts on June 5, 2016, aged 94, having suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and circulatory ailments. She was survived by her daughter, Claudia d'Alessandro.[4]


Curtin taught at Yale University and was Artistic Advisor at the Opera Institute at the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Music, where she held a Deanship of the Schools for the Arts, as well as Artist-in-Residence at the Tanglewood Music Center where she taught voice for more than fifty years.

From 1979–83 she worked as the master of Yale's Branford College, making her the college's first female master, despite Branford fellows asking Yale to choose a "real master" instead.[8] Curtin was dean of Boston University’s College of Fine Arts from 1983 to 1991, and founded its Opera Institute in 1987. As professor Emerita at Boston University's Opera Institute, Curtin taught a series of masterclasses at the school each semester.[1]

Video and audio recordings

In 1995, VAI released, on compact discs, the 1962 performance of Susannah, from New Orleans, which co-starred Norman Treigle and Richard Cassilly. VAI and other record companies have released other CDs featuring Curtin. In 1988, Kultur published a video cassette recording of the 1968 The Bell Telephone Hour program, "Opera: Two to Six".

She can be seen in staged excerpts from Faust and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. VAI later released several Bell Telephone Hour DVDs featuring Curtin. In 2007 VAI released a DVD featuring Curtin in the soprano role (i.e., the Latin text) in Benjamin Britten's harrowing War Requiem. This 1963 performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Erich Leinsdorf at Tanglewood was the work's American premiere.[1]


  • In 1976, President Gerald Ford invited her to sing for a White House dinner honoring West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.[6]
  • Curtin served on the National Council for the Arts, and in 1994 was designated a U.S. Ambassador for the Arts, a new honor given former council members.[6]
  • She received Wellesley College's Alumnae Achievement Award and BU's College of Fine Arts Distinguished Faculty Award. She also held a number of honorary degrees in music and the humanities, including an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters from West Virginia Wesleyan College awarded in 1985.[6]
  • The Paley Center for Media in Manhattan showed the 1956 NBC-TV production of Così fan tutte on January 19, 2008, 50 years after its original 1958 airing. Curtin sang Fiordiligi in this production. The screening was followed by a conversation with the soprano and music critic Martin Bernheimer.[6]
  • In 2017, a portrait of her was unveiled at a dining hall in Branford College, which previously only had portraits of men.[8]


  1. ^ a b c d e Boston University College of Fine Arts Archived 2015-07-22 at the Wayback Machine,; accessed July 18, 2015.
  2. ^ Profile,; accessed August 20, 2014.
  3. ^ Profile,; accessed July 18, 2015.
  4. ^ a b c "Phyllis Curtin, soprano – obituary". The Telegraph. June 20, 2016.
  5. ^ Olin Downes (October 23, 1953). "VON EINEM'S 'TRIAL' HAS DEBUT IN U. S.; Opera Based on Kafka Novel Is Sung at City Center – Miss Curtin in 3 Roles". The New York Times.
  6. ^ a b c d e Interview with Phyllis Curtin by Bruce Duffie, August 24, 2003; accessed August 20, 2014.
  7. ^ Glyndebourne Opera Archive
  8. ^ a b "Branford unveils portrait of the college's first female master". Retrieved 2017-04-12.
This page was last edited on 23 September 2019, at 01:38
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