Born Phyllis Smith in Clarksburg, West Virginia, Phyllis Curtin studied singing with Olga Averino at Wellesley College where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Political Science. She pursued graduate studies in vocal performance under Boris Goldovsky at the New England Conservatory. In 1946 she made her professional opera debut with Goldovsky’s opera company, the New England Opera Theater, as Tatyana in Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. She took the surname Curtin from her first husband, whom she divorced after nine years. She sang several other roles with the company over the next seven years, including Countess Almaviva in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (1947). In 1950, Curtin performed in the inaugural year of the Peabody Mason Concerts in Boston. In 1953 Curtin joined the roster of principal sopranos at the New York City Opera at the invitation of Joseph Rosenstock. She made her debut with the company on October 22, 1953 portraying three roles (Fraulein Burstner, Frau Grubach, and Leni) in the United States premiere of Gottfried von Einem’s The Trial. She remained committed to the NYCO through 1960, where her roles included Alice Ford in Falstaff, Antonia in The Tales of Hoffmann, Countess Almaviva, Cressida in Troilus and Cressida, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Frau Fluth in The Merry Wives of Windsor, Katharina in Vittorio Giannini’s The Taming of the Shrew, Konstanze in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mélisande in Pelléas et Mélisande, Norina in Don Pasquale, Rosalinde in Die Fledermaus, Violetta in La traviata, and the title role in Salome. She sang two roles in operas by Carlisle Floyd with the NYCO that she had previously created in their world premieres: the title role in Susannah (which she sang at Florida State University for its 1955 world premiere) and Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights (which she sang at the Santa Fe Opera for its 1958 premiere).
Phyllis Curtin sang the role of Thérèse in the American premiere of Francis Poulenc’s Les mamelles de Tirésias at Brandeis University in 1953. She returned to Brandeis two years later to portray the title role in Darius Milhaud’s Médée. In 1956 she toured the United States with the NBC Opera Company as Countess Almaviva with Walter Cassel as the Count, Adelaide Bishop as Sussana, and Frances Bible as Cherubino. In 1957 she sang the role of Elena in Christoph Willibald Gluck’s Paride ed Elena with the American Opera Society. In 1958 she sang Susannah at the Brussels World’s Fair. In the 1959-1960 season she sang two roles with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company: Rosalinde and Susannah. In 1959 she made her debut at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. She also made appearances at the Aspen Music Festival, the Cincinnati Opera, the Tanglewood Music Festival, and appeared in concerts with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and The Little Orchestra Society during the 1950s.
After the close of the 1959-60 season, Phyllis Curtin left the employ of the NYCO, although she would continue to perform as a guest artist with the company up through 1964; she returned for performances in 1975 and 1976. She sang Fiordiligi for the NBC Television Opera Theatre in 1960. She sang several roles at the Vienna State Opera from 1960–61, including Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, Fiordiligi, Salome, and Violetta. In 1961 she made her debuts at the Oper Frankfurt, the Staatsoper Stuttgart, and the Teatro Lirico Giuseppe Verdi. She made her first appearance at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 1965 and her debut at the Seattle Opera in 1969. In the same year she sang Donna Anna in Don Giovanni at Glyndebourne. In 1966 she appeared in the world premiere of Milhaud’s La mère coupable at the Grand Théâtre de Genève. In 1968 she sang Mimì in La bohème at the Philadelphia Grand Opera Company with Richard Tucker as Rodolfo and Ron Bottcher as Marcello. Other guest appearances included performances at the Scottish Opera (as Marguerite in Faust and Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes) and La Scala.
Phyllis Curtin made her Metropolitan Opera debut on November 4, 1961 as Fiordiligi to the Ferrando of George Shirley, Dorabella of Rosalind Elias, Guglielmo of Theodor Uppman, Despina of Roberta Peters, and Don Alfonso of Frank Guarrera. She returned frequently as a guest artist at the Met, appearing in such roles as Alice Ford, Countess Almaviva, Donna Anna, Ellen Orford in Britten’s Peter Grimes, Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Rosalinde, Salome, and Violetta. Her last Met appearance was on July 6, 1973 in the title role of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca with Enrico Di Giuseppe as Cavaradossi and Ignace Strasfogel conducting. Phyllis Curtin died on June 4, 2016. She was 94 and had suffered from rheumatoid arthritis and circulatory ailments.
- December, 03, 1921
- Clarksburg, West Virginia
- June, 04, 2016
- Great Barrington, Massachusetts