Phyllis Curtin studied singing with Olga Averino at Wellesley College, Massachusetts while gaining a degree in international relations, and then continued her vocal studies with Boris Goldovsky at the New England Conservatory in Boston. She made her operatic stage debut in 1946 with Goldovsky’s company, the New England Opera Theater, as Tatyana / Eugene Onegin and remained with this company until 1953, when she made her debut with the New York City Opera, singing three roles in Gottfried von Einem’s Der Prozess (Fraulein Burstner, Frau Grubach and Leni).
Curtin’s extensive repertoire with NYCO, with whom she appeared regularly until 1960, included the Countess / Le nozze di Figaro, Fiordiligi / Così fan tutte, Konstanze / Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Norina / Don Pasquale, Violetta / La traviata, Alice Ford / Falstaff, Mélisande / Pelléas et Mélisande and the title role in Salome. She also developed a close relationship with the operas of the American composer Carlisle Floyd, creating the title role in Susannah (1955, Florida State University) and Catherine Earnshaw / Wuthering Heights (1958, Santa Fe), both of which she repeated with NYCO. During 1956 Curtin toured America with the NBC Opera Company (the Countess); sang Elena in Gluck’s Paride ed Elena with the American Opera Society (1957); and Susanna / Le nozze di Figaro and Rosalinde / Die Fledermaus with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company during the 1959–1960 season.
At this point she began to sing internationally, while retaining a strong presence in the USA. During 1959 she first appeared at the Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires and at the Glyndebourne Festival as Donna Anna / Don Giovanni. She appeared at the Vienna State Opera during the 1960–1961 season as Cio-Cio-San / Madama Butterfly, Fiordiligi, Salome and Violetta; and in 1961 sang with the opera companies of Frankfurt, Stuttgart and Trieste. While retaining her links with the NYCO as a guest until 1976, Curtin made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1961 as Fiordiligi. She returned to the Met regularly until 1973, singing her established repertoire as well as Ellen Orford / Peter Grimes, Eva / Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the title role in Tosca. Other companies with which she appeared
during the 1960s included La Scala, Milan (1961, Fiordiligi), Chicago Lyric Opera (1965), Geneva (1966, premiere of Milhaud’s La Mère coupable), Philadelphia Grand Opera Company (1968, Mimì / La Bohème) and Scottish Opera (Marguerite / Faust and Ellen Orford).
As a concert singer Curtin did much to promote contemporary music, singing in the first American performances of Britten’s War Requiem (1963) with Erich Leinsdorf and Shostakovich’s Symphony No.14 (1969), which she recorded with Eugene Ormandy.
During the 1970s she turned to education, teaching at the Aspen School of Music and the Berkshire Music Center and at Yale University from 1974 until 1983, the year in which she became dean of Boston University’s School of the Arts. She retired from singing in public in 1984 but continued to give master-classes at Boston University’s Opera Institute. Her pupils have included the soprano Cheryl Studer.
Curtin’s performances were notable for their vocal purity, fine musicanship and sensitive, but powerful, interpretation.
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).