Remembering Phyllis Curtin

I have stopped writing my weekly blog but I had to write a special column when I learned of the passing of the remarkable Phyllis Curtin. Ms. Curtin was a great singer, a mainstay at the New York City Opera, best known for originating the title role in Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, and an even more famous voice teacher who inspired students for 50 years. She also served as a dean of the School of the Arts at Boston University.

Like so many other (and better) singers, I studied with Ms. Curtin at Tanglewood. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to the summer program in 1972, one of the youngest, and least experienced, singers in my class. Ms. Curtin was incredibly patient as I made my way through arias from The Marriage of Figaro and Don Giovanni. She realized I was not her best student but spent as much time and energy with me as she did with any of her other students. She would make us repeat our arias several times, working to improve our vocal technique. She would complain about other famous singers who had astonishing raw talent but did not know how to produce a proper tone.

She asked us to think of our diaphragms as bellows that shot air through our vocal chords. She asked us to aim that sound to our cheeks, and frequently placed her thumbs on our cheeks as we were singing to help us place our sound. One of my classmates, Henry Burroughs, referred to this as a 'laying on of hands.' And indeed, Ms. Curtin had an astonishing ability to heal us, to make us sound, and feel, better as singers. When I concluded my performance of Deh vieni alla finestra, from Don Giovanni, she told me that many baritones did not want to sing the role since this aria was so simple yet so difficult. She said my performance showed great promise and encouraged me to learn the entire part! That day remains the single high point of my singing career (which, admittedly, did not last very long).

The following season, Phyllis Curtin sang the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at the Metropolitan Opera. I was so excited to hear 'my' teacher singing this favorite opera. As we were waiting to enter the theater, the audience parted ways, and the great Birgit Nilsson entered to take her seat. She was not going to miss a performance by this astonishing artist, whose grace, technique, and talent made her one of the great artists of our time and one of the most important people in the lives of her students.

Rest in peace, Ms. Curtin, knowing two generations of singers can still feel your fingers resting on their cheeks, aiming to produce that beautiful sound and trying to make you proud.