All too often a singer’s fame does not correspond with his or her actual musical mastery. The Clarksburg, West Virginia-born soprano Phyllis Curtin (born 1921) is a case in point. Although she enjoys legendary status at Yale and Boston Universities, where she taught for many years, Curtin’s lengthy singing career was hampered, (as Peter G. Davis recounts in his well-documented American Opera Singer) by being forced out of a promised starring role in a New York City Opera production of Handel’s “Julius Caesar,” after the more influential Beverly Sills twisted arms to obtain it. However, posterity is offering some belated rewards to Curtin in the form of a series of fascinating reissues on CD and DVD, which show her artistry at its peak.
The most recent of these is VAI’s release of a 1963 televised performance of Britten’s “War Requiem” from Tanglewood, in which the statuesque Curtin sings the Latin portions of the Requiem with womanly warmth and dignity. As the soprano soloist in Britten’s “Requiem,” Curtin is vastly better than the unbridled Slavic-accented yowlings of Galina Vishnevskaya as conducted by the composer himself on Decca. On Phyllis Curtin in Recital, another recently issued live recording from VAI, also from 1963, the soprano performs a variety of songs and arias by European and Latin American composers, from Gluck and Tchaikovsky to Alberto Ginastera. Her utter directness and conviction is wholly admirable, while her ability to communicate emotion in foreign languages is exemplary. Her English diction is no less fine in VAI’s CD Phyllis Curtin Sings Copland & Rorem, although the characterful Aaron Copland songs on this CD necessarily overshadow the weak-as-water banalities of the ever-puerile Ned Rorem. VAI has also cobbled together a CD of previously unreleased material, Phyllis Curtin—Opera Arias (1960-1968) including music by Mozart, Verdi, and Puccini.
Taken together, these interpretations construct the image of a singer of great poise and even majesty, of gleaming intelligence and devotion. Two years ago, as part of a convocation address which she delivered at the Northwestern University School of Music, Curtin observed: “Working with composers on new music I learned how to look at Bach freshly and at all music as newly alive, and, as well, much about my own time I never dreamed of!” She advised the listening students: “Serve your composers. Don’t present only the dead ones to your audiences.” She added as an example of her longtime generosity of spirit: “At Tanglewood, I have insisted that my classes be open to anyone walking by. Visitors have to sit in the back of the hall, and I direct nothing at all to them. Some stay a little while. Some come back, and often, year after year…. Some, I learn, have even made financial contributions to the vocal program.” New York’s movers and shakers in the classical world (especially at pricey locales like Carnegie Hall) would do well to imitate this kind of openness.