Phyllis Curtin’s Vocal Wisdom Was 50 Summers’ Fruit

Phyllis Curtin sharing artistic wisdom with students at the Boston University College of Fine Arts.
Phyllis Curtin sharing artistic wisdom with students at the Boston University College of Fine Arts.
By Leslie Kandell

APPRECIATION — Phyllis Curtin, the renowned soprano who died June 5 at age 94, spent more than 50 summers teaching at Tanglewood. She sang at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera — where she created the title role in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah in 1955 — and major European houses, became a professor at Yale and then dean of the Boston University College of Fine Arts School of Music. But it is her measured, articulate speaking voice that decades of Tanglewood students carry with them.

Curtin and Norman Treigle in "Susannah" at New York City Opera in 1956. (Leo Friedman)
Curtin and Norman Treigle in ‘Susannah’ in 1956. (Leo Friedman)

They recall sitting on folding chairs in a wooden shed on the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s estate in the Berkshires while an elegant lady — wise and gentle and sly — told them absolutely everything there was to know about how to be a singer. She taught for two and a half hours, four mornings a week. Curtin’s words, excerpted here according to topic, were scribbled onto a notepad by a visiting reporter who sat in on the class from 1978 to 2014.

“We are storytellers. Don’t ever forget that,” she said. “You have a desire to tell something. That’s why you’re doing this art. You’re the channel through which the composer and poet speak. The cleaner the words, the more beautifully the tone can make room for ‘the elephant.’”

The elephant, drawn on a chalkboard and frequently pointed to, comes from the Saint-Exupéry classic, Le Petit Prince. You can’t exactly see the big beast, because the illustration shows it inside a snake that swallowed it, but you can make out the shape. “Slide that big tone, which is inside you, down the elephant’s trunk,” the soprano instructed.  Stephanie Blythe, Dawn Upshaw, and countless young singers opened the shed’s squeaky screen door and sat down to listen to other students with piano accompanists who could sightread a flyspeck on a page, waiting until it was their turn. But their primary objective was to listen to “Miss Curtin,” her hair rolled, fingers bejeweled.

“Do you like the sound of the piano when the lid is down? Well, we didn’t like it when you had YOUR lid down.” (Turning from the singer to the class.) “Whether you’re a vocalist or an instrumentalist, you sing through your instrument and out. The physical manifestation is the result of what you thought. Get the sound out to where the people who pay for it sit.”

Curtin demonstrating the importance of the diaphragm in singing.
Curtin demonstrating the importance of the diaphragm in singing.

She is minutely explanatory: “Careful about a big, long breath through the nose. It tightens up the neck. Breathe up, into the big concert hall. Everything, always, above the mouth.”

Breath is vital: “You’re a wind instrument. Take the wind away and you lose the sound.” With one hand on the singer’s shoulder and the other guiding the breathing muscles, she seems to be squeezing the cocoon until the butterfly emerges.

To an ailing baritone: “Don Quixote has a cold. We won’t expect any sound out of you. We’ll just imagine it. You can’t hear? Terrific. WE can. Imagine the tone as a laser beam, and aim for the congestion. When you have a cold you get no sensation. Don’t argue with yourself and don’t listen.”

Also: “If you have a cold, don’t go to a party. Lead a disciplined life: you’re doing what you want to do. The same instrument that you talk with is the one that you sing with. The Heifetzes of the world can buy new Stradivariuses. Your vocal cords are the only ones you’ll ever have.”

Tips for an audition: “Don’t sing an old piece if you’ve been changing your technique. All your old friends who are now your enemies will be back. They remember everything. Sometimes you must wait five or ten years.”

And: “If you’re auditioning for an opera house, do something where they expect you to do the whole role.  You can’t — must not — try to decide what THEY want. You will have missed YOU. Pick out something you adore, that suits you.”

Aaron Copland discusses a score with Phyllis Curtin at Tanglewood.
Aaron Copland discusses a score with Phyllis Curtin at Tanglewood.

Speaking of how your audition outfit should fit: “It is no one’s business where your underwear ends.”

Observations on two Mozart operas — their music, story line, humanity:

On “Batti, batti, o bel Masetto” from Don Giovanni: “The peasant group is fine — healthy and well. Zerlina knows more about successful love affairs than anyone else on stage. She works on Masetto in an earthy, brazen way. It’s pure charm on her part.  ‘I stand here before you like a little lamb [not just a sheep] waiting for you to slaughter me.’”

On Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” from The Marriage of Figaro: “This boy, 15 or 16, is at the same level as the Count. He is singing an aria to the only woman he will ever love, by whom he will have a child. He is an elegant young man with humor, wit, and certain awkwardnesses that go with inexperience. The Count senses danger, and wants him out.

“This is a charade of singing a proper song. Something happens there. Susanna and the Countess never discuss the depth of Cherubino’s feeling. They  must do something before the recapitulation to break the mood. If you understand this, you understand the next play.” (Third in the Beaumarchais trilogy, La Mère coupable, which became an opera with music by Milhaud; Curtin was in the premiere cast.) “The reprise takes the heat off; he’s singing the nice little song he came in to sing, not to any special person. An enormous thing has happened, understood by all.”

A crowded memorial service in Tanglewood’s Ozawa Hall on Aug. 8 began with a current fellow and former accompanist fellow singing Schubert’s “An die Musik.” Most people there knew why: Curtin said she didn’t sing that song because it made her cry. On this occasion, people who cried were also feeling lucky to have known her. In fact, they rejoiced. As she once said, “Joy is a wonderful syllable! Freude! Ahoy! Rejoice!”

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Daily Gazette.