Renowned soprano and longtime Tanglewood teacher Phyllis Curtin passes away at 94
GREAT BARRINGTON — Phyllis Curtin, the renowned soprano and longtime Tanglewood teacher, died yesterday at her home on Seekonk Road. She was 94 and had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and circulatory ailments.
Curtin, at one time a star in some of the world's leading opera houses, taught her master classes at Tanglewood for 51 years before debility forced her to retire in 2015. The classes attracted students from around the world and graduated two new generations of opera and singers and recitalists.
Audiences knew the glamorous young singer best in such operatic roles as Verdi's Violetta and Strauss' Salome, but she was proudest of her role as a pioneering recitalist, championing American music, contemporary music and music to texts in English at a time when such things were not the custom.
Curtin retired from the stage in 1984 after a four-decade career as an internationally touring artist. By then, she had already begun a two-decade second career in academic deanships, first at Yale and then at Boston University.
Summing up her life in a 1988 lecture at BU, where she served for 10 years as dean of the School for the Arts, she said:
"Performing brought me every good thing of my adult life, and some of my youth Performing brought me my husband, took me and us to far parts of the world with all the attendant surprises. It livened up our parental skills as we tried to do our best by careers and family. It certainly added breadth and depth to my knowledge of people and their cultures. It made me know what a real republican, lower case, I am. It has kept me endlessly curious."
Critics praised Curtin for intelligence rather than vocal acrobatics. In his book "The American Opera Singer," Peter G. Davis wrote that the "purity and silvery sheen" of her voice were "adapted to an amazing variety of styles."
Composers were similarly impressed. Making a distinction between singers who draw attention to themselves and those do it for the music, Ned Rorem, who composed for Curtin and accompanied her as pianist in recitals, called her "the most intelligent soprano I've ever known."
Phyllis Smith was born on Dec. 3, 1921, to church musicians in Clarksburg, W.Va., a town of about 30,000. She took the name Curtin from her first husband, whom she divorced after nine years.
Though she sang in a church choir while growing up, she majored in political science at Wellesley College, taking singing lessons on the side. Graduating in 1943, she did wartime work in Boston and found her way to Boris Goldovsky, who ran a Boston opera company and was starting up a pioneering opera program at Tanglewood.
In 1946, she spent the first of three Tanglewood summers as a student singing in Goldovsky's Tanglewood productions. Among them, in 1946, was the American premiere of Benjamin Britten's momentous "Peter Grimes," with the young Leonard Bernstein conducting. Goldovsky became a lifelong influence on her.
Curtin made her New York recital debut in 1950 and New York City Opera debut in 1953. It was at City Opera that the young beauty attracted the attention of Gene Cook, who had been assigned to photograph her for Life magazine. They were married in 1956 and remained close until his death in 1986.
Curtin's growing international career, which extended to appearances in Vienna and Buenos Aires, led only briefly to the Met. Former general manager Rudolf Bing, she liked to recall, enjoyed her as a lunch partner but preferred Italian singers in such roles as Violetta and Puccini's Tosca.
Violetta was nevertheless among Curtin's signature roles, along with Mozart's Fiordiligi, Strauss' Salome and Carlisle Floyd's Susannah. Floyd composed his "Susannah," one of the most performed of all American operas, for her.
Meanwhile, Curtin was also focusing on recitals, premiering new music as well as singing standard song repertoire. Aaron Copland, whose Emily Dickinson songs were a favorite of hers, was among the many composers with whom she worked.
In 1963, while at Tanglewood as a soloist in the American premiere of Britten's pacifist "War Requiem," she began her celebrated series of Tanglewood master classes. She was named an artist-in-residence the next year and looked forward to her Tanglewood classes as the highlight of her year. Among the noted graduates are Stephanie Blythe, Dawn Upshaw and the rapidly rising Angela Meade and Layla Claire.
As Tanglewood became a regular summer gig, Curtin and her husband, who were then living in New York, bought a country home on Seekonk Road. It became her full-time residence in 1999. She shared it with her daughter, Claudia d'Alessandro, and her beloved poodles, Winnie and Oliver, until their death.
The Tanglewood classes launched a teaching career that took Curtin to Yale in 1974 as dean of the School of Music and then to BU in 1981 as dean of the School for the Arts. BU's then president, the fiery John Silber, personally recruited her from Yale.
"She is not only a gifted artist but a very intelligent, learned person," he recalled a few years later. He wasn't looking for a bureaucrat for the job, he said, but for a leader with vision and artistic discrimination.
Curtin retired from BU in 1997 but for several years continued to teach there as well as in her home and abroad. Tanglewood feted her with a 90th-birthday tribute at the Tanglewood-on-Parade gala in 2011. Sixteen of her past and present students sang Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" in her honor.
In addition to her daughter, Curtin leaves three grandchildren.