Remembering Phyllis Curtin – Opera Singer, West Virginian


Phyllis Curtin died yesterday at the age of ninety-five. You can’t say her death was a surprise, but I’m sad all the same. It’s good though, to remember who she was and what she was to American music.

Phyllis Curtin was an operatic and concert soprano. Summers were spent teaching at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony. She held important faculty positions at Yale, and later directed my alma mater, the School for the Arts at Boston University (sadly for me, after my time).

Phyllis Curtin sang opera in New York,  Paris, Vienna, Buenos Aires and all points in between. She was an elegant Mozartean, but her greatest operatic roles came from a later period. That I never saw her in the theater as Richard Strauss’s Salome or in the American opera Susannah by Carlisle Floyd are two of my regrets. What other Salome was such a gorgeous woman offstage, with a voice that easily sliced through  the brutal orchestration? What other singing actress turned on a dime to perform the gentle but ultimately tough Susannah Polk?

She may have have denied that Susannah was written expressly for her, but the fact remains that every other soprano sings this role in her shadow. Susannah is a girl from the hills of West Virginia, and that’s where Phyllis Smith was born (Clarksburg, W.Va.) “I never wore shoes until I was twelve years old”, she once said. She gave this writer and extended interview in her home in the Berkshires some years ago. I’ve been checking my notes.

“I graduated from Wellesley. When I began my stage work, my professors told me they were very surprised. ‘We thought you’d end up running the local chapter of the League of Women Voters, or something like that.”

That could have happened. Instead, Curtin sang with the New York City Opera, the Metropolitan, at La Scala in Milan and all over  the U.S. She gave the American premiere of Britten’s War Requiem. Not forgetting she was one of the  “Nieces” in the first performances of that composer’s Peter Grimes.

Her artistic legacy is not in opera, except for Susannah. It is in the work she did with living composers, Carlisle Floyd, Aaron Copland and Ned Rorem among them.  She sang new music. Her voice and her notoriety provided instant audiences for many a premiere and subsequent performances. A Phyllis Curtin  performance was about beauty, scrupulous musicianship, class, and communication. She insisted on communication. In whatever language she sang, we in the audience knew what was going on.

I never studied with the lady. I did sneak in to her Tanglewood classes over the years. “Don’t be afraid onstage” she said to one young singer. “Be afraid out there.”

I’ll enjoy listening to he recordings over the next few weeks.  She never recorded an opera but there are plenty of “off air recordings”: Don Giovanni from Chicago. Susannah from New Orleans. There’s a Tosca from Los Angeles where she stands up (sings up?) wonderfully to Franco Corelli.  Cosi fan tutte and The Love of three Kings from NBC TV. As far as I know, we don’t have Salome or La traviata more’s the pity. But if opera isn’t your thing, any three minute song by Poulenc, Faure, Villa-Lobos, Rorem, Copland, Floyd or any American composer of the last fifty years will do. Like Judy Garland, she sang ’em all.

Christopher Purdy is a classical host on WOSU in Columbus.