Soprano Phyllis Curtin holds a special place in the pantheon of American singers. A riveting performer of opera, a respected concert artist, and a distinguished recitalist, she made her mark in the music of her own country. While adept at the music of European composers, she gave particular service to Americans, programming their works on her own recitals and participating in countless collaborative events. She remains fresh in the minds ofRead more succeeding generations for her close identification with Carlisle Floyd's opera, Susannah.
Curtin studied under bass Joseph Regneas while attending Wellesley College near Boston. In 1946, while still a student, she sang in the American premiere of Britten's Peter Grimes at Tanglewood. That same year she began appearing with the New England Opera Theater, singing such leading roles as Lady Billows in Britten's Albert Herring and Lisa in Tchaikovsky's Pique Dame. Her New York City Opera debut took place on October 12, 1953, in Gottfried von Einem's Der Prozess, given by the company as The Trial. While the opera proved unpopular and disappeared after just two performances, Curtin's performance in triple roles (Fräulein Burstner, Leni and the court attendant's wife) drew an enthusiastic response from both critics and the public. The following March 25, Curtin undertook the title role in Salome with Walter Cassel as her Jochanaan and, in the fall of 1955, she appeared in William Walton's Troilus and Cressida which played to an average attendance of 79 percent, making that otherwise ill-starred opera the hit of the NYCO's season.
Curtin's relationship with Susannah began in 1955 with the opera's premiere at Florida State University. Her Olin Blitch there was baritone Mack Harrell. In reflecting on the opera's extraordinary popularity, Curtin has cited its psychological directness. She had no difficulty with either her mute appearance in the first scene nor with the parched coloration required by later moments. She achieved a definitive interpretation without striving for Southern speech.
Over the next few consecutive seasons through 1960, Curtin added numerous roles at the NYCO including Mozart's Countess, Rosalinde in Fledermaus, Susannah (Fall, 1956), Constanze in Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio (demonstrating a stunning facility in florid music) and Katherina in Giannini's Taming of the Shrew where in Opera magazine's words, "she managed the almost impossible task of singing musically and sounding shrewish at the same time." In 1958, Curtin sang Violetta and in April 1959, returned to composer Carlisle Floyd, performing in his Wuthering Heights. In October 1959, Curtin added another Mozart role, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte.
Fiordiligi was also the role for Curtin's Metropolitan Opera debut, November 4, 1961. During her years with the senior New York City company, she also sang Rosalinde, the Countess, Violetta, Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes, Eva, and Donna Anna.
The 1960s took Curtin to other theaters in America and abroad: Chicago, La Scala, Vienna, Frankfurt, the Scottish Opera, and venues in South America. American premieres of Britten's War Requiem and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14 were other significant events on her busy calendar. In the 1970s, she rescued the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on two important occasions, stepping in at the last moment for shining performances of the War Requiem under Kertesz at the summertime Ravinia Festival, and substituting for an ailing colleague in Solti's performances of Berlioz's La Damnation de Faust.
Curtin taught at the Berkshire Music Center, the Aspen School of Music, and Yale University before becoming dean of Boston University's School of the Arts. Read less
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