Soprano Phyllis Curtin has performed on opera stages and in concert halls around the world. She sang with Aaron Copland, recorded with Leonard Bernstein, and her performing career included La Scala, the Met, Tanglewood, the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony, the Vienna State Opera, Carnegie Hall, and so on…but it all began unassumingly in Clarksburg, West Virginia, where Phyllis Curtin sang at school and church, but didn’t particularly stand out.
"I would sing, but not with any thought of being a singer. I played in orchestra and I sang in the glee club. And those just seemed in our house to be normal things to do. No one was going on and on about doesn’t that girl have a nice voice, but I could sing easily. It something that I liked to do, but I didn’t ever think about being a singer particularly."
A musical career was still far from her mind when she then went to Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where she studied political science. She sang, as an elective, but music was still just a hobby.
"When I graduated, any girl in 1943 could get almost any job, some she wouldn’t be able to get 20 years later, but every young man was off to the war, so I stayed in Boston, worked for something called the war production board, and continued to take lessons with this same lady who taught in Boston. I began to discover how exciting how all that literature that I was working on, so I kept trying to find more and more about it."
Music then took center stage in her life. She studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and began attending the famed music festival Tanglewood, where the Boston Symphony spends their summers.
"It was absolutely marvelous, there I was with the Boston Symphony orchestra all around and wonderful singers in this program, and it just happened in my life, one thing led to another, and the next thing you know, I was singing professionally. I made my debut with the New York City Opera in 1953, but I had been doing recitals and things like that before."
The New York City opera was just the first milestone in a career that spanned decades, and wasn’t limited to just opera.
"Oh, I do the whole lot. I love being in the opera; I’m a good actress, and had a lovely time, but I never wanted to only do opera. I adore song recitals; it’s an entirely different kind of art. Then there’s so much lovely repertoire for soprano and symphony orchestra; then there’s chamber music, and I tried to have a career doing all of those arts."
Here she is performing “Luonnotar” by Jean Sibelius with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic in 1965.
"Luonnotar was Finnish, and I knew nothing of Finnish, but my husband who was always quick at things like this, called the local consulate, and said did they have someone who could help me with the language, because I was going to open the philharmonic with Mr. Sibelius’s music, and they sent a lovely lady who came to me every day for two weeks and we worked on Finnish and Swedish, and that’s how that came to be, and it was recorded.
"And that was wonderful, but I knew Mr. Bernstein from years at Tanglewood, we both were there and I sang with him frequently, and it was wonderful; we had a grand time making music."
She also recorded Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, and songs of Aaron Copland and Ned Rorem with the composers at the piano. She made her name singing Mozart and Tchaikovsky, while also championing contemporary American art music, most notably Carlisle Floyd and his Appalachian opera “Susannah.”
In 1983, Curtin retired from singing and continued her musical career as a respected teacher and vocal coach. She taught first at Yale, and then at Boston University, where she was also Dean of the School of Fine Arts. Curtin’s interest in teaching has been with her throughout her life.
"I learned what it was you could get from teaching when I was 9 years old. I took dancing lessons in Clarksburg, and my dearest friend did not. And I would come home from my lessons, and then I would try to show her everything I did and what the teacher did. And I discovered that it was a wonderful way to understand it even better yourself, if you tried to teach somebody else what it was. "
Teaching helped Curtin continue singing longer than most other opera singers.
"And always I had somebody that I was working with. I found that it deepened my understanding, kept me in much better shape. For myself, I might have had a couple of bad days, cause I would say 'oh well.' I was just a little tired or something, but when you’re teaching, you’re not going to take any time out for any of that. And so it kept me in marvelous vocal condition. It made me look at the art in a much deeper way, to help somebody find their way into it. It deepened my knowledge, and to this day,I am absolutely fascinated with working with other singers."
At 87, Phyllis Curtin continues to teach and coach music in Boston. She lives in the mountains of western Massachusetts, which reminded her of home.
"I am an ardent West Virginian. My husband would be terribly amused. We’d be somewhere in the world, and I’d say, 'doesn’t that really look just like West Virginia.' It’s a major central part of life, and where I grew up."
"It’s the hill country that I just adore. And nothing else is to me as emotionally profoundly loving as that countryside in West Virginia, all over the state. And after all, here I am living in the Berkshires, and that’s the upper extent. So it’s just part of my make-up, part of my soul, if you will, part of my body, and I love it. "