Thursday, June 09, 2016

Thursday, June 09, 2016 12:30 am by M. in , , ,    No comments
New York Times, Opera News or The Berkshire Edge inform of the death of the American soprano (1921-2016) Phyllis Curtin. Picture: Eugene Cook (Phyllis Curtin in the 1958 premiere of 'Wuthering Heights" )
A mainstay of the New York City Opera in the 1950s and ’60s, Ms. Curtin 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’s “Salome.”
Her other notable roles included Violetta in “La Traviata” and Alice Ford in “Falstaff,” both by Verdi; 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. (Margalit Fox)
Of course it is this last role that brings her to this blog. Carlisle Floyd remembered how the opera was conceived and how Phyllis Curtin played a pivotal role in its creation:
"Phyllis Curtin, who later did Catherine in the original production and was in the 'Susannah' premiere as well, came to me and asked me to write an aria for her, a request I was happy to accept," Floyd said, explaining that this was in the mid-1950s and that she was working on a Town Hall recital program and wanted a new piece for that concert.
"Well, I began to rack my brain as to what I might write for her," he said. He said a friend of his had told him that quite a few women auditioning for theater roles in those days were using Catherine's monologue from "Wuthering Heights," in which she tries to convince Isabella not to marry Heathcliff.
An idea was born.
"I set about setting the monologue for her and she performed it at Town Hall," he said. "It was very successful."
It was so successful, he said, that the general directors of several opera companies came backstage after the performance and wanted to know about the rest of the opera. He had to tell them there was no "rest of the opera." (Elaine Schmidt, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, January 2, 2015)
Thomas Holiday's biography of Carlisle Floyd, Falling Up: The Days and Nights of Carlisle Floyd: the Authorized Biography (2013) tells how 'the rest of the opera' evolved rather slowly:
He and Kay [Floyd] boarded a train for New York at 11:40 p.m. on December 27. Pinching and stretching their pennies that year, Floyd wanted to introduce Kay to the Cooks—Santa Fe had cast [Phyllis] Curtin as Cathy—and to play for them what he had written of Wuthering Heights. They began to sing through the score, and, after about eighteen minutes, when they reached the end of Hindley's aria in act 1, scene 1, Curtin turned the page, found empty paper, and gaped at Floyd. "That's it," he shrugged. He still had two hours of opera to compose, the opening night at Santa Fe just seven months away. 
It's only poetic justice (or maybe serendipity) that tomorrow, June 10, is the official release of the first recording of Carlisle Floyd's Wuthering Heights by the Florentine Opera Company. Fifty eight years later, her role is reprised by Georgia Jarman.

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