C1402. CHARLES MÜNCH, Vol. VI, Cond. Boston S.O., w.Florence Kopleff, Catherine Akos & Phyllis Curtin: LE MARTYRE DE SAINT-SÉBASTIEN (Debussy). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-303, Live Performance, 27 Jan., 1956, Symphony Hall, Boston. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Phyllis Curtin, an American soprano celebrated as a champion of new music, a mainstay of the New York City Opera in the 1950s and ’60s, was noted for the purity of her voice, the sensitivity of her musical phrasing and the crystalline perfection of her diction. On the opera stage and in recital, she gave the premieres of dozens of works by 20th-century composers – ‘more first, and last, performances than any singer in history’, as she was fond of saying, ruefully. But she sang many works with staying power, including music by Benjamin Britten, Ned Rorem and the American composer Carlisle Floyd, for whom she created the title role in SUSANNAH, his most famous opera, in a performance at Florida State University in Tallahassee in 1955.
In the standard repertoire, Ms. Curtin was widely praised for her Mozart - she sang all of his major heroines over time - and for the title role in Richard Strauss’ SALOME. Her other notable roles included Violetta in LA TRAVIATA and Alice Ford in FALSTAFF, Ellen Orford in Britten’s PETER GRIMES; the title role in Darius Milhaud’s MÉDÉE; and Cathy in Mr. Floyd’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS, a part she created at the Santa Fe Opera in 1958. Ms. Curtin also sang at the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden and La Scala. She appeared in concert with the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra and other major ensembles.
In later years she taught voice at Yale and Boston Universities and at Tanglewood, where she held a sought-after master class each summer for more than half a century.
Though Ms. Curtin’s singing was esteemed by critics and opera aficionados, she remained less well known than contemporary sopranos like Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland. She performed with the Met just 35 times in the 1960s and ’70s, and recorded far less than many of her peers. Writing in The New York Times in 1998, Anthony Tommasini described Ms. Curtin as an ‘estimable American soprano, who has achieved notable success and respect throughout the field but never quite the recognition she deserves’. The reasons for this seem to reflect the difficulties faced by many American opera singers of Ms. Curtin’s era, when a European background was considered the sine qua non for landing contracts with major United States companies. What was more, as Ms. Curtin told it, her career was hindered by a set of backstage machinations as Machiavellian as anything in opera.
She envisioned herself as a recitalist – ‘a song-singer’, she liked to say - but fell into opera early. As a student at Tanglewood in 1946, she sang a small role in the United States premiere of PETER GRIMES, under Leonard Bernstein. Ms. Curtin gave her New York recital début at Town Hall in 1950 in a characteristically eclectic program that featured songs by Mozart, Fauré, Ravel, Mussorgsky and several Latin American composers. Reviewing the performance, THE NEW YORK TIMES said: ‘Miss Curtin’s voice is altogether lovely in quality, and is used with equal assurance throughout its entire range. But her concern was so exclusively with communication that one was conscious only of the music itself’.
She made her first appearance with City Opera in 1953, singing three roles in the United States premiere of THE TRIAL, an adaptation of Kafka’s novel by the Austrian composer Gottfried von Einem. The début was well received, as was her subsequent work with the company, but it was not until City Opera staged SUSANNAH in 1956, with Ms. Curtin again in the title role, that her reputation was truly made. Based on the biblical story of Susanna and the Elders, the opera, set in rural Tennessee, centers on a community’s condemnation of a sensual young woman and the tragic consequences that ensue. It went on to become one of the most frequently performed American operas, and Susannah became the character with which Ms. Curtin was most closely identified.
Yet operatic superstardom eluded her. She may have been hindered by her voice which, though almost universally praised for its purity, was not as immense as large opera houses can demand. She may have been tarred, too, by her association with 20th-century music, typically a hard sell to audiences.
Ms. Curtin made her Met début in 1961 as Fiordiligi in Mozart’s COSÌ FAN TUTTE. (‘Now Phyllis Curtin is at the Met, where she should have been a long time ago’, THE NEW YORK HERALD TRIBUNE wrote.) But after that, the company’s imperious general manager, Rudolf Bing, engaged her only occasionally.
Even more painful than her dealings with the Met was a rupture with City Opera in 1966, which Ms. Curtin called ‘the only heartbreaking thing in my career’. The company had been planning to stage Handel’s JULIUS CAESAR, with the role of Cleopatra going to Ms. Curtin. Then Ms. Sills, in her 30s and a City Opera regular though not yet a huge star, demanded the role for herself. She threatened to rent Carnegie Hall and present a competing program of arias from the opera if the company did not relent. The company relented. ‘That’s when the knife went into my back’, Ms. Curtin told THE TIMES in 1972. ‘After my life at the City Opera, which had always been successful for me and the company, I simply couldn’t believe that my family would do that to me’. Ms. Sills, who later said she regretted the episode, sang the role to immense acclaim. It was said to have made her career.
Ms. Curtin, who continued to perform well into her 60s despite having developed painful rheumatoid arthritis in her mid-40s, taught at Yale during the 1970s and early ’80s. In 1983 she became the dean of Boston University’s School for the Arts, a post she held until 1991, when she retired from the deanship but continued teaching there. Starting in the mid-1960s, she taught for 51 years at Tanglewood, where her students included the future opera stars Dawn Upshaw, Cheryl Studer and Simon Estes.
Ms. Curtin was by all accounts an undivalike diva, and though she maintained a deep regard for the music she sang, she did not appear to take the operatic life too seriously. In an interview with THE HERALD TRIBUNE in 1964, for instance, she set forth her modus operandi for kindling theatrical passion: ‘When I come out onstage I give the tenor a loving, seductive look’, she said. ‘If he turns and runs … oh, well, I have to do it all myself. If he blushes and hesitates and then shapes up … well, we’ll worry about it later’.”
- Margalit Fox, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 6 June, 2016
“Active chiefly as a concert and oratorio soloist, [Kopleff] appeared frequently with the Robert Shaw Chorale and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Shaw. Kopleff appeared on several of the Chorale's popular LP recitals in the 1950s and '60s, including'The Stephen Foster Songbook', 'Irish Folk Songs' and 'The Great Choruses from MESSIAH'. Other conductors with whom Kopleff worked and recorded included Charles Münch, Fritz Reiner and Maurice Abravanel.
- OPERA NEWS, Nov., 2012
“Florence Kopleff was a true contralto. She was one of those artists who possessed such an amazing instrument that when you heard that sound, you knew it was Florence. You didn’t confuse it with anyone else. Her personality, the person that was Florence, came through in the quality of her vocal tone and in the beautiful artistry, her gorgeous phrasing.”
- Michael Palmer, ARTS ATLANTA, 25 July, 2012
"It’s difficult to articulate what makes Münch’s conducting special – or indeed if there even is anything identifiably unique about it. A lesser talent would simply turn out generic, cookie-cutter performances; but Münch was anything but generic. He was one of the most musical of conductors; in so many of his performances, everything simply sounds ‘right’. Certainly, his experience as an orchestral musician gave him a lot of practical insight into the mechanics of directing orchestra traffic. But a classic Münch interpretation never sounds calculated. Spontaneity was one of his hallmarks, sometimes to the surprise and discomfort of the musicians playing under him. From one night to the next, a Münch performance of the same piece might be very different, depending on his mood of the moment – yet it would always sound like Münch.”
- Lawrence Hansen, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, Nov./Dec., 2012
“A genial conductor with a particular gift for French music, Charles Münch extended the Boston Symphony's glory years (begun under the baton of Serge Koussevitzky) into the early '60s. Münch was born in the province of Alsace-Lorraine, which at the time (1891) was controlled by Germany and has long hovered between two cultural worlds. Münch himself benefited from both French and German musical training, and his first important musical posts were in Germany. Yet he came to be regarded as the quintessential French conductor, and his recordings of French repertory with the Boston Symphony remain standards by which others are judged. Münch studied violin at the Strasbourg Conservatory, where his father was a professor, and, from 1912, in Paris with Lucien Capet. As an Alsatian, he was conscripted into the German army at the outbreak of World War I. Gassed and wounded as an artillery sergeant, he nevertheless survived the war through sheer resiliency. In 1919, upon returning to Alsace-Lorraine (now back in French hands), he took French citizenship, and a violin professorship in Strasbourg. Nevertheless, his professional interests soon sent him to Germany; he studied violin with Carl Flesch in Berlin, then moved to Leipzig to take a violin professorship at the conservatory there, and then became concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra from 1926 to 1933, during Furtwängler's tenure.
But it was back in Paris, in 1933, where Münch made his successful conducting debut in a self-financed concert with the Straram Orchestra. He conducted the Paris Orchestre de la Société Philharmonique (1935-1938) and in 1937 was named director of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris, a post he held through World War II. Münch introduced many new works, including, in 1945, Messiaen's L'Ascension; he quickly became known as a conductor attentive to music's larger formal structures, as well as details of color and sonority. Despite his allegiances 25 years before, Münch refused to collaborate with the Nazis, and indeed supported the French resistance; he was awarded the Légion d'honneur in 1945.
Münch's career quickly accelerated after the war. In 1946, he made his debut with the Boston Symphony (and several other American orchestras) as a guest conductor, and he toured America with the French National Radio Orchestra in 1948. The following year, he was appointed music director of the Boston Symphony, which he took on an unprecedented tour of the Soviet Union in 1956. Münch retired from the BSO in 1962 but continued to guest conduct, and helped Serge Baudo launch the Orchestre de Paris in 1967. On tour in America with that orchestra, he died the following year.
Münch was easygoing in rehearsal, reluctant to drill the spontaneity out of an orchestra. He was particularly noted as an elegant, colorful interpreter of French music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; his recordings of that material with the Boston Symphony for RCA are still regarded as classics of their kind. He was a strong advocate for the Franco-Swiss composers of his own generation, especially Roussel, Milhaud, and Honegger. But he also had a good touch with the conservative contemporary music of other lands, as may be heard in his few but important recordings of Martinu, Piston, and Barber. Indeed, during his Boston years Münch's commitment to American music was almost as strong as his allegiance to new French works.”
- James Reel, allmusic.com