The American soprano Phyllis Curtin has passed away at the age of 94.
Strangely enough, I only saw her onstage once - and I believe it was her final appearance in staged opera: a November 13, 1976 performance of LE NOZZE DE FIGARO at New York City Opera. The first act had been a total joy, with Jeanne Piland as Cherubino and William Justus as Count Almaviva joined by two young operatic upstarts: Kathleen Battle (Susanna) and Samuel Ramey (Figaro). When the curtain rose on Act II, Phyllis Curtin as Countess Almaviva carried the level of the performance to even greater heights: her wistful yet determined portrayal of the wronged wife was a treasure, and she sang with tenderness and aristocratic warmth. It's a performance that remains vividly in my memory.
In her long association with New York City Opera, she sang a wide variety of roles, including Konstanze, Melisande, Walton's Cressida, and Katharina in Giannini's TAMING OF THE SHREW.
Ms. Curtin's Met career was surprisingly limited for a singer so versatile: she only gave three dozen performances with the Company - including a single Salome on tour. Her Met debut was in 1961 as Fiordiligi, and she was later heard there as Rosalinda, Violetta, Countess Almaviva, Alice Ford, Ellen Orford, Wagner's Eva, Donna Anna, and three times as Tosca in the Met in the Parks series.
Ms. Curtin sang a lot of 20th century music, and is especially remembered as the creator of the title-role of Carlisle Floyd's SUSANNAH, and for her singing of Britten's WAR REQUIEM. She had an affinity for 'contemporary' Latin and South American songs, as well as for the vocal works of Ned Rorem.
Following her long performing career, Ms. Curtin taught as Yale; and she was for many years Master Teacher in Residence at Tanglewood, where she touched the lives of countless young singers. Although I only saw her perform the one time at NYCO, I did run into her one Summer evening at Tanglewood in the early 1990s. Twilight had come, and we were walking across the lawns to a recital at Ozawa Hall. A woman came towards us, walking - alone - very briskly in the fading light. "Oh...hello, Miss Curtin!", I called out spontaneously. Without breaking stride, she waved her hand and cried, "Hello to you!"
A very interesting interview with Phyllis Curtin may be found here; it includes some rare photographs.