Soprano Phyllis Curtin
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Soprano Phyllis Curtin was born
in Clarksburg, WV, on December 3, 1921, graduated from Wellesley
College, and in 1946 appeared at famed Tanglewood Music Center under
Leonard Bernstein and with the New England Opera under Boris Goldovsky.
She made her debut with the New York City Opera in 1953, where she sang
both classical and modern repertoire, including all major Mozart
heroines and many new works. Life magazine devoted three pages of
photos to her seductive ‘‘dance of the seven veils’’ in Richard
Strauss’s Salome in 1954. The following year she premiered the title
role in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which she later sang at the Brussels
World’s Fair in 1958, followed by leading roles in premieres of Floyd’s
Wuthering Heights and The Passion of Jonathan Wade. More than 50 new
works were written expressly for her, including operas by Darius
Milhaud and Alberto Ginastera and a song cycle by Ned Rorem. She also
sang with the NBC Opera Company on television and on tour. Curtin made
her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1961 and developed an international
reputation with performances at the Teatro Colón in Buenos
Aires, La Scala in Milan, and the Vienna Staatsoper.
Ms. Curtin became an artist-in-residence at the Tanglewood Music Center
in 1964 and continues to teach there. At Yale University she taught
voice, headed the opera program, and served as Master of Branford
College. She became Dean of Boston University's College of Fine Arts in
1983 and Dean Emerita in 1992, continuing to teach singers and serving
as Artistic Director of the Opera Institute, which she initiated in
1985. Master classes have taken her to many institutions in the United
States and Canada, as well as to the Beijing Conservatory, the
Tchaikovsky Conservatory in Moscow, the Tiblisi Conservatory, and the
Britten-Pears School in Aldeburgh, England.
In 1976, President Gerald Ford invited her to sing for a White House
dinner honoring West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Ms. Curtin
served on the National Council for the Arts and in 1994 was designated
a U.S. Ambassador for the Arts, a new honor given former council
members. She has received Wellesley College's Alumnae Achievement Award
and BU's College of Fine Arts Distinguished Faculty Award, and holds a
number of honorary degrees in music and the humanities.
What you are about to read is an interview with the
distinguished American soprano Phyllis Curtin. I say that because
the next few lines of this introduction will seem a bit off-topic, but
please bear with me. There is a reason for the detour...
In the earliest days of automobile manufacturing, many men experimented
with vehicles of various sizes and types. Though unremembered
today, one of the most significant companies was that which produced
the Columbia cars in Hartford, CT, from 1895-1913. My
grandfather, Lawrence Duffie, was head of the department that tested
the Columbia gasoline cars. They also produced electric vehicles
— including most of the cabs that serviced New York, Boston,
Washington, D.C., and other urban areas — but
that is another story.
In late September of 1903, Duffie, along with Bert Holcomb and a couple
of others established the record for a non-stop trip in an automobile
from Chicago to New York City — 76 hours! To
read about this event, click
here. For more photos of the cars and drivers, as well as
articles and other items, see my History of the
Columbia Car. These days, according
to the driving directions on the internet, the 800 mile direct route
can be covered in about twelve and a half hours, to say nothing of the
mere two hour plane ride!
One month shy of a century later, in late August of 2003, my girlfriend
and I were taking a road trip of our own, and the first leg was a “re-creation”
of that original run. I put the word re-creation in quotation
marks because we did not follow the exact route the whole way
— although we were told by some locals in OH, PA and NY
that some of the roads we were on were, indeed, at least 100 years old
— and we certainly took our time and stopped conveniently along the
way. But we did follow the city-to-city path (which is noted in
the newspaper reports) and felt the presence of the ancestors on
The point of all this is to show why we were in the Berkshires at that
time! In planning for the trip, I also had arranged to connect
with a few musicians along the way, including the legendary Phyllis
Curtin! She invited us to meet her at her home, and we had a
lovely time just chatting and laughing. Even her small dog seemed
to enjoy the get-together!
As we sat down and turned on the tape recorder, I was
admiring the truly lovely vista, and noted it was right near Tanglewood
. . . . .
This was my fortieth year teaching at the Tanglewood Festival. As
a matter of fact, Tanglewood is the closest thing to a music school
that I have. I was a student here in 1946 when Boris Goldovsky
had an opera program here. [See my Interview with Boris
Goldovsky.] I came to that program in 1946, ’48, and ’51, and
since I had gone to Wellesley and majored in political science, this
was my music school.
Was it a complete introduction to music, or a finishing of your studies?
PC: I had
been a violinist from age seven until eighteen, and then stopped
playing at Wellesley. That was during the war, and I was being a
very serious student, feeling that I really had to know something about
the world with all of that going on, so I majored in Political
Science. I was missing making music, and I thought if I get my
violin I would be carrying an extra course. So I went to the dean
and asked if I could take singing lessons. I had always
sung. My mother had a gorgeous voice and was the organist, the
choir director, the everything at a small Lutheran church in the little
town where I grew up in West Virginia. She even managed to get
her whole congregation to do a sung liturgy for years.
majored in political science, has that helped you at all to relate your
music to political scientists elsewhere?
shouldn’t think so, but it’s kept me an avid follower of politics
everywhere, and it still is a big preoccupation.
BD: Can you
not, then, influence presidents and senators to do things more for the
[Laughs] Well, there are a lot of funny things like that.
As a matter of fact, at one point during the Reagan administration I
was proposed to be a member of the National Council for the Arts.
I was told by a member of the administration, “Phyllis, can’t you find
some Republican friends?” [Both laugh] It was only when he
was going out that I finally made it to the Council. I had all
kinds of black marks against me. I was on the board of the World
Peace Foundation, or whatever it used to be called, but in any event,
politics stays a big preoccupation. But I don’t know that it did
anything particularly about music, except that for me, singing is a
total life study, so it’s in there.
BD: You sang
professionally for many years, and now you are teaching. Are you
finding wonderful voices coming along?
PC: Oh, my
goodness! I wish you could have heard the singers who were here
this summer in the program. There are a few finishing a masters
degree and one or two that were working on doctorates, but they’re all
young professionals of the very highest order.
BD: So these
are ones who will take the places of those who are retiring?
no doubt about it; they’re simply marvelous singers. But this all
happened quite by accident. I always knew I would teach some day
because when I was about nine I took dancing lessons, and my very best
friend did not. So I would come home from my dancing lesson and
we would go up to the attic of my house and I would teach it all to
her. I discovered that if you try to teach somebody something,
you learn an awful lot yourself! I just loved it.
BD: When did
you begin teaching singing?
PC: It was by
accident forty years ago. I was here to sing the American
premiere of the War Requiem
with the BSO. We did the first performances at Tanglewood, then
three or four in Boston and then in New York. It was a longer
rehearsal period than usual for things at the BSO in the summer.
Erich Leinsdorf was the conductor. [See my Interviews with Erich
Leinsdorf.] The opera program, which had been here for a very
long time, had been discontinued, and there were lots of rumors
around. I have no idea why, really, but there was no opera
program. They had a group of singers that had been brought up for
the summer, and I think it was Harry Kraut came to me and said,
“Phyllis, we have all these really unhappy singers. Can you think
of something to do?” I said, “I don’t really think so, but I
suppose we can sit around and talk about singing.” That’s how the
classes began, and they’ve been going on ever since. [Both
laugh] We audition hundreds of people and we take twenty-four.
BD: What do
you look for when you audition people? How do you select this one
and not that one?
PC: Frankly I
don’t audition. I’ve only gone on the audition tour once or
twice, largely because when it all started I was too busy myself to
go. Then much later I was teaching and doing some other things; I
taught at Yale and then I went to B.U. There are people in the
program who are marvelous pianists, who are collaborative
pianists. Vocal literature is their big thing, and they’re the
ones who do the auditioning.
BD: Then what
do they look for, and what do you suggest they look for?
PC: I don’t
suggest anything. They do beautifully all by themselves, but we
all are in contact with each other. First of all, you look for
somebody who is intensely musical. Already with the kind of
people who want to come here, we’re dealing with good voices. You
wouldn’t take somebody who was wildly wrong, technically, or in big,
big trouble. We do take some who need instruction, and one of the
things I do is to make things easier for singers.
straighten out the technique?
PC: Yes, but
my class is about both the art and the craft of singing. So we
look for musicality; we look for individuality; we look for good
Understanding or pronunciation, or both?
Both. We also take about six pianists every year into the
program. They have to audition and they have to read and
translate in Italian, French, German, or Spanish — at least two
languages besides English. It’s really a very sophisticated
program. So I would say that we look for people who are potential
professional singers. It’s very interesting and I have nothing
but sheer exhilaration all summer long with them. I’ve learned so
much more about singing! It’s really wonderful for me.
BD: You began
this when you were still a professional?
PC: At the
height of my career, yes, and that was very interesting. My
management, Columbia, was beside themselves. In the first year or
two, somebody did a story that was in Time
magazine, and the management was on the phone the very next day.
He said to me, “Phyllis, you’ve got to stop this! Managers of
symphony orchestras are calling and asking, ‘If she’s doing that is she
still singing? Is she going to retire?’” It’s
funny... A cellist, a violinist, a pianist can teach and nobody
thinks their career is over, but how often they think that about
singers! It’s really very interesting. One would suggest
that maybe some of those singers are teaching because they couldn’t
sing anymore, which is a wrong recommendation.
BD: Then let
me ask perhaps a very dangerous question. How does a singer know
when the career is on the decline or should be ended?
PC: We’ll get
to that in a second, but I was teaching the classes on Monday, Tuesday,
Wednesday and Thursday. That was so I could leave Thursday
afternoon and get to somebody’s festival on the weekend to perform and
get back in time for Monday morning class. I did that for
years. I think it’s why I had a career until I was past sixty and
never had a vocal crisis in my life. But it’s also because it’s
so exciting to work with somebody else. I pay attention to
anything with them. The same thing might happen to me if I
thought, “Oh, well it’s just today. Never mind.” But it’s a
great thing for staying in wonderful condition, so I loved that.
BD: So part
of your lesson was for yourself?
wouldn’t say that, but just by thinking of it and diagnosing things,
you can’t help but learn. It comes out of your own understanding,
and you learn a lot. But as for knowing when to stop, that’s very
interesting. I only had two teachers in my life. One gave
me an idea about what the art ought to be, and the other gave me the
means to do it. I remember when I was about thirty I was changing
techniques altogether, and he said, “You know, my dear, every singer
has to learn to die twice.” That’s a very
interesting thought when you’re thirty; quite a wise statement.
When you’re sixty it says something interesting, but all along, if
you’re canny you begin to notice things. I gave up Costanza about
the time I took on Tosca. Voices change; all kinds of things
do. But then all of a sudden, when I was getting close to sixty,
there were some things that I could still do, but it cost a lot, and it
wasn’t just because that was an off day.
BD: It took
too much out of the reserve?
PC: Not even
that. Like everything else, your body isn’t as responsive as it
was. It’s as simple as that. Your techniques are the same,
but all of a sudden the body doesn’t respond as easily. Baseball
players and tennis players have the same problem.
BD: Was there
ever a time when you wished you could take the voice out of the throat
and send it to the repair shop, like a violinist does, to be restrung
and put it back in?
[Laughs] Never. I never thought of ‘the voice’ as being
separate from me. Not ever.
BD: And yet
everything that you do and all that you are affects the voice much more
than it would affect a violin.
course, everything — your state of mind, your
emotional state, not to mention your physical state, your fatigue, your
anxieties — all of those things do. But if you have a really
good, sound technique, it’s amazing how when the moment comes to
perform, you perform. You worry afterwards, as far as that’s
BD: When you
were singing, how did you divide your career between opera and concert?
PC: Oh well, that
was easy. All the vocal arts interested me, and I’d had a nice
background. Singing really caught on that junior year in
college. My dean had told me, no, I could not take lessons
because I would be carrying an extra subject and that was too
much. If I took practical music I would have to take a
theoretical subject. I explained that I’d had theory and I’d had
harmony and all of that, but it didn’t cut any ice. Years later
when I was a dean I remembered this very well. So I went to the
lady whose picture is on the piano, a Russian lady, Olga Averino, who
was teaching at Wellesley for a few years. [Note: Averino’s
mother was the God-daughter of Tchaikovsky, and Olga was the
God-daughter of Tchaikovsky’s brother, Modest.] I
explained all of this and I said, “So, I thought maybe I’d take singing
lessons in Boston.” She said, “Have you something to sing?” and I
said, “No, ma’am.” “Can you read?” “Yes,” so she arranged
it that I could take lessons. [Laughs] I found that in song
literature there was everything in the world that I loved. I had
danced for years; I did theater; I love poetry, and it was all in there
along with the music. So I adjusted my life to keep studying
more, and one thing led to another. But the business about
stopping is very interesting. As I said, things which had always
been easy began to be not so easy. I would listen to friends of
mine who were around my age and I’d hear in them things that were
happening to me. It was a hard decision, but one day I simply
called Columbia Artists and said, “I’m not going to sing anymore.”
BD: Just like
PC: Yes, and
I never did. Well, that’s not quite true. I sang some nice Cole
Porter evenings with my pals, Willie Ruff and Dwight Mitchell, and I
sang a few things in Boston that people asked me to do, but I didn’t
any more sing under contract, and I was glad. As a matter of
fact, I was on a panel for that wonderful big arts prize that SMU gives
at The Meadows School to well-established artists. There was a
group of us who were figuring out whom to choose, and I remember one
day at lunch there was Harold Schoenberg and Villella, the
dancer. Mr. Schoenberg said, “Phyllis, I hear that you’ve decided
not to sing anymore,” and I said, “That’s right.” “Well, why on
earth would you do that when you’re singing just as well as you ever
did?” There’s no answer to that until Villella popped up. I
did not know him at the time, and he had recently retired from the
ballet. He said, “I know why she did. There are things I
can do better than I ever did, and I can do them for about a minute and
a half.” [Both laugh] I thought, “Bless your darling
heart.” He’s been a hero of mine ever since. He said it for
BD: Did you
pace your career specifically, or did it just happen?
PC: To answer
your first question about dividing my performances, once I was pretty
well established I only did opera for a certain number of months a
year. This was because the song literature was fundamental,
basic, and passionate for me, and I didn’t want to give up song
recitals for anything in the world, nor the symphonic literature —
those wonderful things for soprano and orchestra. I was
lucky. Somehow my management understood that, and my career was
in all those things. Some years, when that old Community Concert
circuit was still a big thing, I sang up to fifty or sixty recitals a
year, plus the opera, plus the other things. So it was a very
busy and happy life with no complaints.
BD: Did you
get around to singing all of the roles that you wanted to sing?
PC: Oh dear,
no! [Laughs] People have to ask you to do them.
That’s the worst part. [Laughs] Every now and again people
ask, “Why didn’t you ever sing such and such?” I’d say, “Because
nobody ever asked me to.” [Laughs] I don’t have my own
company. I would say the only one I really still miss is the
Marschallin. I sort of circled around that thing for a long
time. At the Met, I covered the role. Mr. Bing and I had a
fascinating relationship. He always told me, “Well, my dear,
you’re not Italian,” or German or Austrian or whatever. Forever I
was hearing this, and it was a little the same with the
Marschallin. Finally, two things happened. Once they were
doing it on the road, but I was not going on the tour because I had a
summer in Europe. I got a call, “Oh, Phyllis, we very much need
you to sing the Marschallin in hm-hm-hm.” I said, “Well I’m
sorry, I’m not going to be around at all.” That was the
closest. The next time it was one of those times when the house
had been closed. They called it strike, but usually it was a
lock-out. They said, “Mr. Böhm has asked for you to do the
Marschallin,” but it was at the same time that, of all things, I was
singing Erwartung in
Washington. So the one time I was asked, I really couldn’t do it,
which was too bad.
BD: Of the
roles that you sang, were there some that were more difficult to sing
because of the characterization?
PC: No, but
there were a couple that I didn’t like because of that. I never
enjoyed the Countess very much, only because she’s Rosina.
There’s never any moment in The
Marriage of Figaro where Rosina shows much, except in the
argument with the Count. I had sung the mezzo Rosina in The Barber of Seville years ago,
and finally I got to do Rosina in Milhaud’s opera La Mère coupable.
the third drama?
PC: Yes, the
third one, which had its premiere in Geneva. So I got to do all
the Rosinas, which is really kind of lovely. They’re all quite
different, which is wonderful.
BD: I wonder
if that’s unique in the annals of the opera.
PC: I don’t
know. I don’t know how many people have sung La Mère coupable. As
far as I know, it’s never been done in America. I just know about
it in Geneva where I sang in the premiere.
BD: Let me turn the
question around. Was there any role that was perhaps a little too
close to the real you?
Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah. [See my Interview with Carlisle
Floyd.] I grew up in the hill
country. It’s funny though, Mack Harrell and I were in the
premiere at Florida State University, and we both had a pretty good
grasp on that kind of fundamentalism. Later with Norman Treigle
and Richard Cassilly, the first bunch of us were all southerners.
I just understood Susannah right to the ground, but she’s not hard to
understand, nor is there anything arcane about that opera. It’s
absolutely direct. There aren’t any sub-plots and things running
underneath. It’s as direct as it can be.
created that role?
BD: So it was
written for you?
PC: No, it
really wasn’t written for me. That gets around a lot, but I was
just the first one to sing it, and Carlisle did bring it to me. I
was at Aspen, so was Mack Harrell, and Carlisle had been there the year
before. He’s a wonderful pianist, and he had been there the
season before studying with Rudolph Firkušný. [See my Interview with Rudolph
Firkušný.] Somebody suggested this theme to him and he
had written it, and there was somebody that he knew who was sort of
interested, but it didn’t work out at all. So he brought it out
there because he’d heard that I did new music a lot, which was
true. That particular summer, Darius Milhaud had insomnia.
[Laughs] I love Milhaud. There’s a cartoon he made of
himself on my wall over there. He would write at night, and then
ask me to sing it the next day! My great gift is that I could
read fast. So Carlisle called me and said that he had this opera,
and he would love it if I would look at it. I said, “Well, I am
pretty exhausted with everybody’s new music right now, but would you
come and play it for me?” So he came and I knew that opera right
away. So I called Mack Harrell and said, “Mack, can we come and
let you listen to this?” Mack loved it as much as I, so Carlisle
was excited and he called the dean at Florida State where he was
teaching. The dean said, “If you can get those two people to sing
it, we’ll give you a performance.” It just happened that Mack and
I had the same two weeks free in February. So the premiere was at
Florida State in Tallahassee. While I was there, I got an
invitation from Boosey and Hawkes to come to a party for somebody or
another on their list. I called back and said I couldn’t come,
but I thought somebody ought to come down and hear this opera. So
Robert Holton, their arts and composers guy, came and that’s how Floyd
got Boosey and Hawkes. So it all just worked out
beautifully! Mack and I went up to New York, and happened to be
there at about the same time, and we decided to sing it for a bunch of
people. One rather illustrious producer said, “But Phyllis, there
is no boy-meets-girl in this piece.” [Both laugh]
BD: So it
doesn’t fit the usual formula!
But in Larchmont, near where Mack lived was the home of Erich
Leinsdorf. So we went and sang it for him. Mack
and I sang everything — we sang the chorus parts,
we sang everybody else’s parts, we really knew that opera! I
don’t know if he liked it as much as his wife did, but in any event,
there was that one year when he ran City Opera, and that’s how it got
BD: Does it
please you now to know that it has become pretty much of a standard
PC: Oh, my
dear, standard? It’s had well over a thousand performances.
It’s too bad that it took it forty years to get to the Met, but I
didn’t like their production much. Nonetheless, there it was and
it was nice to see. People say it’s too small for the Met, but
then they do Così Fan Tutte
created a number of other things. Is it special to bring
something to life that hasn’t existed before?
PC: Oh, it’s
wonderful! I think that’s almost more fun than anything.
There’s nobody saying, “Well, you know, madam so-and-so always sings it
this way.” With all of Carlisle’s things that I did first
— Wuthering Heights,
Flower and Hawk, The Passion of Jonathan Wade
— it was really wonderful fun. I remember with The Passion of Jonathan Wade,
Celia, the heroine, is such a lovely, full-blown, normal lady, and so
much of it was written so high. I said, “You know, it doesn’t
seem to me to be the right voice for her.” It was fun.
Carlisle listened and listened and he said, “Isn’t that funny? It
didn’t sound that way in my head.” He brought some of that down,
but that’s about the only time. When I’ve worked with other
composers, it’s also been just wonderful. I have had this long
relationship with Ned Rorem. [See my Interview with Ned Rorem,
which includes another (much earlier) photo of Curtin.] Copland
and I did his Dickinson Songs
many times together, and that was always fun. It’s
special, very Copland-esque when he plays it.
BD: You seem
to be drawn to composers who can write a melody!
PC: I hadn’t
thought about that at all. There are plenty of others that I did
— Ligeti I’ve sung with great pleasure and I’ve done a lot of other
things as well. Those just happen to be the ones the people pick
up and do. I knew a lot of composers when I was just out of
college, and while it was the war, there were a number still around in
Boston — Irving Fine, a man named Paul DesMarais
who was later largely in the west coast, Robert Middleton —
a lot of people. They wrote and I read, and we
performed. It was wonderful for me. When I’ve taught at
Yale and B.U., I insist that all my students do contemporary
music. If you do that and if you happen to have a live composer
there, when you go back to Bach and Mozart you can suddenly look at
them as if they were alive. It makes an enormous
difference. I had a girl this summer, a young woman named Deborah
Selig, a wonderful soprano. How many wonderful young sopranos
— or old sopranos — can sing Ach, ich fühl's from Magic Flute beautifully? All
you need’s a beautiful voice and that piece sells itself right
away. This young woman had a beautiful voice, but I swear she is
the first person that I have heard who made it a living, dramatic
piece. When she said tode
at the end, we all got chills. It was as if it just happened to
her; she was thinking about that for the first time. When she
said Es ist verschwunden it
broke your heart. She was a real Pamina, living and breathing,
not just a beautiful singer singing beautiful Mozart. This was
evident from the first brand new piece she sang this summer on the
Contemporary Festival of Music. She took part in excerpts from
Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre.
It’s a wild piece and she’d had such a wonderful time doing that.
What a difference all this made! Much exposure to doing music of
our own time will do that to you.
BD: Do you
have any advice for composers who would write for the human voice?
talked with composers a lot at the schools where I’ve been. One
of the most amusing and baffling occasions happened with composers at
Boston University about ten or twelve years ago. We’d have a very
interesting discussion. I was both with composers there and at
Tanglewood who were writing for the voice. I have often asked,
“Why do so many of you write senza
vibrato? What does that mean to you? Why do you want
that white sound?” You’d be surprised how many don’t know.
One fine young composer said, “Well, you know, most of the music I
listen to is senza vibrato.”
Then I realized he didn’t listen to much classical music, he listened
to a lot of pop music, and that’s how he liked it. Another one
said, “Oh well, singers have such big vibratos,” and I thought, well
how many real singers have you listened to? A lot of the time the
music had no relationship to text at all, and that’s my whole thing
with people. The reason people write operas and songs is because
of text. So that was it. After this one time at B.U., I
finally said, “Does anybody think about,” (and I went about choosing
this word carefully), “beauty?” Well, the strangest silence fell
over this small group, as if I had undressed in front of them or
something. They almost held their breath and one of them came out
with the most amazing statement I have ever heard about his. He
said, “I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you talk about in
public.” [Both laugh heartilly] In this day and age when
there’s nothing you can’t talk about in public, they weren’t
able to speak of beauty??? [Gasps] Isn’t that
[Pondering the idea] When did “beauty”
become a dirty word, and why?
PC: Oh, I
have no idea. I think it’s going away. I think this was the
end of the big experimental stuff, and things are changing a lot in
hope] For the better?
yes, I guess for the better. But I just think it’s wonderful to
sing music of your own time because it is your time. You ought to
bring something to it that is special.
BD: You were
handed a lot of new music. How did you select yes I will sing
this or no I won’t sing that?
question. Huh... what do I start with? I was going to say I
start with text, but that’s not really true at all. I don’t
know. I look at the music, I look at the text, I look at vocal
line. I try to find out how what’s going on in the score is
related to what’s being said, and why is that, and if it’s convincing
to me or even challenging. One of the funniest pieces I ever did
was at Yale. It was calligraphy. It didn’t have any notes
at all. The composer was sitting in front of some discs that were
playing, and there was my part. I don’t even remember anything
about the text anymore, but he was very interesting as a
calligrapher. Some of it was very small, and some of it looked
like a big L. I simply made up sounds to go with whatever that
was. It was fascinating.
that’s just Augenmusik.
yes, but that’s interesting too. There’s something really primitive
about that. When you take the primitive desire to make a sound,
whatever that is, and then you get more sophisticated about it, pretty
soon you have Schubert. It’s endlessly fascinating to me.
BD: In that
line of making a sound that eventually becomes Schubert, where does
beauty come into that?
PC: I don’t
know. Like we say, ‘art is in the eye of the beholder,’ it’s in
the ear of the composer, of the people who get the music off the page
and how they get it off the page. That’s pretty important,
too. If you get somebody who’s being dutiful and not very
interesting, you haven’t served the composer well at all. As I
tell kids, “If you are going to make a living this way, you’re going to
have to sing things you don’t like. But you cannot let anybody
know that. It has to be the most wonderful thing you ever sang
when you do it.” I had a big problem with the Mahler 4. That kitschy last movement
just drove me nuts, and I got asked to sing it a lot. So it was
part of the family income. But I finally said to my management,
“I really hate this piece. I don’t want to sing it anymore.”
BD: So then
they could push for something else, perhaps?
PC: Or if
somebody asked for it they said would say I was busy or
something. [Laughs] But then my manager called, and I don’t
remember who it was, but it was a conductor he knew I especially liked,
and said, “He has asked you for Mahler 4. Are you going to do
it?” I said yes. I thought I’m really so foolish. If
I can become Salome on the stage, and I can be the Countess, and I can
be this or that character, I’ll simply make up somebody who adores this
piece. So Phyllis Curtin would listen to the first three
movements very happily, and then some other character, as far as I was
concerned, got up and sang the last movement and she likes it a lot.
kind of dancing around this in a strange sort of way, so let me ask the
real easy question. What’s the purpose of music?
for a moment] Music, to me, allows us to explore very deeply
one’s non-verbal intelligence and sensibilities. Things you can
never find a way to express verbally can come out pure and simple and
essential in music. That’s very interesting. A composer may
say he has no particular emotion that he’s going after, but the fact is
that we respond that way and it hits us all differently, perhaps, but
it speaks to something that we have no other way to feel. It
heightens feelings that say something to us. There is that
beautiful song cycle La Chanson d’Eve
of Fauré. I have never sung it a lot because you have to
sing it to an audience that is really used to listening to songs.
But it’s next to the last piece he ever wrote, and they’re poems of the
Charles van Lerberghe, a Belgian poet. It’s the creation of the
world seen through the eyes of Eve, like nothing you’ve ever read about
or nothing that’s biblical or anything else. The last poem is O mort, poussière d’étoiles,
(Death, dust of the stars).
That piece simply takes me to some place that I never get any other
way. I told my daughter, “If I’m dying at home and still alert,
would you just play that piece for me?” There is so much in the
song literature which allows me to understand the human condition far
more deeply than I could on my own, even through literature.
There’s something through the writing of poets thoughts and the
composers’ realization of it which takes me places I would never have
BD: And this
is where you want to take the audience with you?
PC: I never
think about taking the audience. It’s funny. I have an
e-mail from Martin Bernheimer, who sent me a copy of something that he
had read someplace by a critic whose name I didn’t know, but whom I sat
next to at a dinner party here in Great Barrington around
Christmas. He asked me something, a question like, “To whom do
you sing when you’re singing a concert?” I said, “I don’t sing to
anybody. I sing to the universe.” There was a little
discussion and then dinner party went on, but what Martin sent me was
interesting. It was a review a concert of Bartoli and
Renée Fleming and José van Dam. At the end of his
article he included a conversation with van Dam, and he asked him the
same question. Van Dam said, “Oh, I sing to the universe.”
Now I know that sounds silly, but if there’s an audience out there
— it could be the Hollywood Bowl where there are twenty
thousand people or it could be a small hall with fifty — but
once I start, I’m just going down the vault of heaven. As time
went on, I realized how many people would say, “Oh, I felt you were
singing just to me.” When that’s happening, and there is that
longing, absolutely living in the material, every person in the
audience can tune into it. But if I’m singing to people, then these
people wonder why is she singing to them. It’s very interesting,
and I was just thrilled that it was van Dam who said that because he’s
one of my favorites. So I think that if you really do your job,
if you’re living with the material, not yourself, then it’s available
to everybody out there. If you’re concentrating on how well
you’re doing it, and this is really such-and-such, and ooh, I must make
this effect, that is already minimizing where your music is going.
BD: You sang
for many years in opera houses and concerts. You also made a
number of recordings. Did you sing the same for the microphone as
you did for a live audience?
PC: Of the few
recordings that are around of mine, most of them are from tapes that
were made live. There is Luonnotar
with the New York Philharmonic and Bernstein, and also some Sibelius
songs which were recorded with the orchestra and there are microphones
all over the place. I never thought of it at all, so no, I didn’t
change. I did very little studio work, almost none. I
remember for the French stuff, Chanson
d’Eve and six poems of Paul Verlaine set by Fauré then
Debussy back and forth. I did that at a second town hall recital
because I’d had a nice success at my first one. Then by carefully
reading the newspaper, I noticed that very often at a second recital,
if your first one had been reviewed very well, people were out to pick
on you. So I thought I’d try to make a program that will be so
interesting to the critic that he’ll forget about me.
[Laughs] So the second half was the six poems of Paul Verlaine,
and everybody argued about who they liked best, Fauré or
Debussy. I got by nicely. [Both laugh] But I recorded
that on the stage in the Boston University Concert Hall about a hundred
years ago, and I don’t even remember about microphone. I remember
recording the Brahms Requiem
with the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir out
there. I would listen to the playback I sounded a million miles
away. McClure was the chief engineer there for a long time and he
said, “Phyllis, you’ll get used to it.” For the recording Der Wein of Alban Berg, and Wozzeck excerpts with the BSO, they
put me on the stage but the orchestra was in the house. Again
there were microphones in all kinds of places. When we listened
to playback after one go-through of the Wozzeck, it was fascinating because
it was really marvelous until we got to that last pianissimo B
Flat. Suddenly came out forte, and Dick Mohr of RCA said, “Oh,
Phyllis, I’m so sorry. I looked away from the score and I just
turned it up when I heard that. But I’ll just turn it
down.” I said, “But I want my piano, not yours.” [Both
laugh] Perhaps if I had been recorded a lot I would have been OK
with that, but I never let it be the engineer’s problem instead of mine.
BD: Were you
pleased with most of the performances you gave?
PC: No, not
BD: I hope you were
pleased with some...
PC: Oh yes,
sure. I had wonderful times with some. I remember those
that were sort of transcendent, when I felt as if I didn’t do it at
all. I remember singing the Copland Dickinson songs at Marlboro
with my pianist. I never liked Emily Dickinson; I used to get so
annoyed with Emily Dickinson. It was just me reacting to her, but
boy, once Aaron set her, I think he really knew her a lot better than I
ever did, and then I was just delighted. In this concert I
remember I took a breath and it was all out here. I thought,
“Emily’s sending her letter to the world.” That’s a pretty nifty
feeling. Those are special nights.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
PC: Spend a
summer at Tanglewood and listen to the Tanglewood Music Center
Orchestra do the contemporary music things, which are all done by the
Tanglewood Music Center people. As to my singers, you just hope
there’ll be enough places for them. There’s nothing the matter
with these people. As a matter of fact, when I came as a student
here, people looked on us as the cream of the crop, yet I think we were
nothing compared to the young singers that I get now! I had a
couple this summer who are just as fine instrumentalists as they are
singers. They are marvelous musicians who are gorgeously rounded
about all kinds of things. We did two brand new one-act operas
this summer that were commissioned by the BSO. One was by Rob
Zuidam from the Netherlands, and the other was by Osvaldo Golijov,
who’s sort of the composer of the hour. Golijov wanted Dawn
Upshaw to do his central role because she’s been singing so much of his
music, and Zuidam wanted Lucy Shelton for his major role, but his is
such an ensemble opera it really didn’t matter. Our students sang
everything else, and both Dawn and Lucy were covered by people who also
sang performances, and who were just as good in every way. Those
people can do anything! The Golijov opera started with a dancer
as a horse. It is a wonderful masque. I looked in the
program to see who was the dancer. It didn’t list the name of the
dancer at all, and this is a major part. This dancer is on the
stage for at least five minutes alone at the beginning of this opera,
and then during the opera she turns up from time to time since it’s a
figure for death. Well, it was one of my singers! I saw
these operas three times, and when the curtain calls came the first
time and she took off the mask, I thought, “That’s Anne-Carolyn Bird;
I’m sure it is.” She’d been dancing since she was a little girl
with first-rate ballet training, and she’d been in the corps of a
company at age fifteen. So here she is, one of our most
accomplished singers, but also this remarkable dancer! These
people are all doing new works. The Golijov will be played in New
York at BAM and also in Los Angeles with these singers. But
reading about failing symphony orchestras is not very heartening.
There was a big article in the Times
about the ones that were doing well in reduced circumstances.
They all seem to be caught on that terrible dilemma. To get young
people in the audience, you’ve really got to keep
doing new things. On the other hand, your big supporters are the
white-haired ones, and that’s hard. What does concern me is public
schools. When I was growing up in a little town in West Virginia,
I was playing violin in a real orchestra in the seventh grade.
There hasn’t been anything like that in years there. There isn’t
that kind of music teaching going on.
At that point, her dog began seriously barking at something outside,
and I mentioned that WNIB, the radio station where I had worked for 25
years, always had various dogs and cats that lived there and kept us
all company — especially during the evening and
overnight hours, which was my usual shift. [Various photos of the
animals appear elsewhere on
this website.] It had been a delightful hour, and before we
left, Curtin proudly showed off many of her photos and souvenirs which
were displayed everywhere in her wonderful home.
© 2003 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in her home in Great Barrington, MA
on August 24, 2003. Portions
were used (with recordings) on WNUR in 2004 and 2012. This
transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.