C1402. CHARLES MUNCH Cond. Boston S.O., w.Florence Kopleff, Catherine Akos & Phyllis Curtin: LE MARTYRE DE SAINT-SEBASTIEN (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. 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.
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. Ms. Curtin, who continued to perform well into her 60s [and] 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 Munch, 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 Munch'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 Munch 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 Munch 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 Munch performance of the same piece might be very different, depending on his mood of the moment - yet it would always sound like Munch."
- Lawrence Hansen, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, Nov. /Dec., 2012
"When you played a concert with Charles Munch or attended one of his performances as a listener, it was not just a concert - It was an event. He never used the same palette twice. As a player, you had to give 110% of yourself, or be left out of the music."
-Vic Firth, percussionist, Boston Symphony Orchestra