To soprano Phyllis Curtin, who died Sunday at 94, a love song
Every singer must learn to die twice, Phyllis Curtin's only voice teacher, the long-forgotten Joseph Regneas, told her. Before the final breath of life comes the final breath on the stage when the singer retires.
Phyllis died the first death in 1984 when, after a discouraging recital, she realized it would be embarrassing to continue singing in public. (Other singers should be so wise.) The final death came at 94 on Sunday, after years of painful disability from rheumatoid arthritis and related ailments.
People spoke of Phyllis as a diva. She wasn't a diva. She was a singer, teacher and university dean, revered at Tanglewood for her 51 years of master classes — the last two of those years taught from a wheelchair.
In operatic life, a diva ("goddess") draws attention to herself through personality — preferably larger than life — as much as singing. Maria Callas is a classic case. In our time, Renée Fleming fits the role (never mind pop stars who appropriate the title).
Phyllis sang only what she believed in, and sang it for musical riches rather than show. One of her proudest moments was participation at Tanglewood in the 1963 American premiere of Britten's "War Requiem," a great composer's protest against the waste of war.
Many years later, Phyllis and I gave a class on the "War Requiem." We came to the terrifying section that invokes God's curse on a "great gun towering toward heaven." The liturgical Dies irae, or Day of Wrath, follows in the grinding fury of Britten's setting. When Phyllis and I tried to explain the power of this harrowing juxtaposition, we both choked up and couldn't go on.
"The words!" Phyllis would repeatedly tell her students. Listen to what the words are saying! Beauty of voice is not enough. It must convey the meaning of the text.
Beauty of voice as the primary force in Britten's protest? Only in the sense that love of all creation is the highest beauty.
Phyllis championed new music, served as a dean at Yale and Boston University, and taught and inspired hundreds of singers. Her world-renowned Tanglewood master classes sent talented singers, such as Dawn Upshaw and Stephanie Blythe, out onto leading stages. She was a beautiful person, in both senses of the word.
To say that Phyllis was a leading Violetta, Salome and Susannah only begins to tell the story. She was as dedicated to the recital as to opera. Indeed, she pioneered the idea of singing songs written to English-language texts.
She took starring roles throughout the operatic world but was never a star at the Met. Then-general manager Rudolf Bing, she would say, enjoyed her as a lunch companion but wanted only Italians in such bread-and-butter roles as Violetta and Tosca.
Intelligence and inquisitiveness were the key. She portrayed Salome as an innocent teenager rather than the usual sexpot. Carlisle Floyd wrote his "Susannah," his opera about a country girl done wrong, for Phyllis, who was born a country girl in West Virginia. It went on to become probably the most performed of all American operas.
"So it has been," she said in the 1988 University Lecture at BU, "that I have lived in the psychology, philosophy, religion, romance [and] society of artists of the past 300 years and in the world of the 20th century, occasionally and excitingly, as a collaborator or catalytic agent."
John Silber, then the firebrand president of BU, personally wooed her away from Yale, where she was dean of the School of Music, to be dean of his School for the Arts. Impressed by her intelligence, glamour and musicality, he likened her to the "eternal feminine" principle that rules Goethe's "Faust," leading humanity on to the heavenly heights.
Ned Rorem, who composed for her and accompanied her in recitals, once said: "For her — rare creature — the composer comes first."
Critics and musicians are (or should be) species apart, so I didn't get to know Phyllis personally until she retired from singing and became a full-time educator in 1984. Even then, the connection was Phyllis' husband and advocate, Gene Cook, who fell for her back in the '50s while photographing her for Life magazine. (A wit and enemy of bad singing, he once dismissed a famous early-music soprano as a "tweety-bird.")
As many others found, it was a wonder to sit in on her in on classes and witness the transformations taking place in her "kids." More than ever after Gene's death in 1986 and her 1991 retirement from a 10-year deanship at BU, her Tanglewood summers were the joy of her life.
She settled in her Great Barrington home and continued to teach at BU, at home and afar. Music, teaching, family, books, wildlife, poetry, dogs, the cheapness that increasingly passes for culture in contemporary life: Our conversations went on and on, even when she was to ill to get out of bed.
For company in her retirement, Phyllis had her daughter, Claudia d'Alessandro, who shared the spacious house with her. Her two poodles, Winnie (for Winnie the Pooh-dle) and Oliver, were always nearby until, one by one, they died. Fields stretched away outside the windows. Books piled high on the living room table.
But arthritis and other ailments took an increasing toll. Phyllis, who could scamper across the stage with the stolen watch in "Fledermaus," had to miss more and more Tanglewood concerts, even those by her students. It grieved her deeply when, in 2015, she also had to give up her classes.
Even before then, celebrations took on a valedictory feeling. In 2011, Tanglewood threw an early 90th-birthday party by having 16 of her past and present students sing Vaughan Williams' "Serenade to Music" in her honor at the Tanglewood-on-Parade gala. A spotlight picked out a smiling, waving Phyllis in the applauding audience. On the actual birth date, Dec. 3, she came home from the hospital for a day to be feted by family and friends on her 90th.
In one of Mahler's songs, the singer, who has renounced the world, lives "in my heaven, in my love and in my song." For those who knew her as singer, teacher or friend, Phyllis lives on in her heaven, her love and her song.
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