A Conversation with Phyllis Curtin

Phyllis Curtin as Susannah
Phyllis Curtin as Susannah in
1962 with Norman Triegle as
Reverend Blitch.
Photo: Eugene Cook, courtesy
New Orleans Opera.
by Robert Wilder Blue

During a singing career that lasted nearly four decades, the legendary American singer Phyllis Curtin enjoyed successes in a wide variety of roles (Fiordiligi, Violetta, Salome) on the world’s greatest opera stages (Vienna State Opera, La Scala, Metropolitan Opera). She was a consummate artist who embraced concert and recital repertory as well, championing especially new music and the works of American composers. Upon retiring from singing she became a renowned and sought-after teacher, notably at Yale and Boston Universities and at the Tanglewood Festival where her distinguished association has lasted from her student days until the present. One of her most rewarding and enduring creative relationships was with American composer Carlisle Floyd for whom she sang the world premieres of Wuthering Heights, The Passion of Jonathan Wade, The Flower and the Hawk and, of course, his classic opera Susannah.

Phyllis Curtin was born (1921) and raised in Clarksburg, West Virginia, which is less than a day’s drive from Carlisle Floyd’s birthplace, Latta, South Carolina. She studied the violin from age seven and sang in the school glee club. Upon graduation from high school, she headed off to Wellesley College where she was a political science major intent on a career in international relations. However, while there she found she was missing music and managed to convince her skeptical dean to allow her to take singing lessons on top of an already overloaded class schedule. After receiving her bachelor’s degree in international relations, she stayed in Boston so that she could work and continue studying voice. She met a group of young composers from Harvard University and began singing a lot of new music and eventually found her way to famed opera coach and teacher Boris Goldovsky who taught at the New England Conservatory and the Tanglewood Festival.

Her New York Town Hall recital debut came in 1950; her New York City Opera debut followed in 1953. She remembers meeting Carlisle Floyd the following summer. “I was at Aspen – it must have been the summer of 1954. I don’t know how Carlisle heard about me; he probably heard that I did a lot of new music. Anyway, he found me and asked me to read through a new score of his which, of course, was Susannah. I remember I was rather tired when he asked me; but I told him I’d love to, although I had done so much new music that summer I didn’t know if I had any sense of discrimination about anything. I suggested he come and play it for me. He did and we read through it and I just fell in love with it. I didn’t grow up in the hill country of West Virginia for nothing! Mack Harrell was the baritone-in-residence that summer and I called him and told him there was something he had to hear. Carlisle and I went through it again for Mack and he loved it as much as I did. As I recall, Carlisle was very excited by that and called the dean at Florida State University where he was teaching who told him that if he could get us to sing it, they would do the first performance. It happened by a wonderful wild chance that Mack and I had the same two weeks in February free and that’s how we did the premiere in Tallahassee in 1955.

“Mack and I sang it to a variety of people when we returned to New York trying to get somebody to do it. I won’t mention who it was but one very important person said he wouldn’t think of doing it if there wasn’t a ‘boy-meets-girl’ story in it. Finally, it was Erich Leinsdorf who became interested in it. He happened to be a neighbor of Mack Harrell in Larchmont and we sang it through for him in his living room and he decided to do it for his one season at New York City Opera. Unfortunately, Mack was not available at the time City Opera could fit it into their schedule, so that’s when Norman Treigle came into the picture. Even though both Mack and Norman were Southerners, they were very different and at first I just couldn’t see Norman in the role. But by opening night, I was completely convinced and, of course, he went on to become the definitive performer in that role.”

Carlisle Floyd turned to the Apocryphal story of Susanna and the Elders for his story, transporting the action to the present-day Tennessee mountains. Susannah, who has been raised by her alcoholic brother Sam, has been branded morally suspect by the self-righteous townspeople. One day while searching for a baptismal site, the church elders discover Susannah bathing naked in a creek. They quickly label her “of the devil” (although not until they have taken a good look at her) and return to tell the townspeople and the new evangelist, Olin Blitch, what they saw. Their judgement is confirmed by Little Bat’s false story that he had been intimate with Susannah. Susannah anguishes at this further ostracism, but Sam encourages her to have faith and convinces her to attend the revival meeting that night to prove she isn’t afraid. Sam leaves town and Susannah attends the meeting alone. At the meeting, Blitch calls upon her to confess publicly and repent her sin but she refuses and runs crying from the church. Blitch follows her home to prevail upon her, but he is overtaken by his own loneliness and sexual attraction to Susannah. Broken and exhausted, Susannah allows Blitch to follow her into the house where he rapes her and in so doing discovers she had been a virgin. The next morning, Blitch gathers the townspeople together in the church to try to convince them of Susannah’s innocence, but because he is unwilling to implicate himself he can offer no proof. Sam returns, hears Susannah’s story and runs out to the creek where Blitch is in the middle of a baptism. He shoots and kills Blitch. The people rush to Susannah’s house but she greets them with hysterical laughter, ordering them away and threatening them with a shotgun.

It is a timeless story of innocence killed by hypocrisy and rush to judgment. Did the first audiences find the opera shocking? “The people who seemed most disturbed or who found it too real perhaps were always preachers, which was very interesting. (Carlisle’s daddy was a preacher, you know.) I remember in Cincinnati there was quite a to-do about how shocking this was. Heavens, Tosca is a shocking opera too, but it’s in a foreign language. There is something so singularly peculiar about Americans in this respect. There is so much illicit romance in opera but it’s always in another language, which somehow lessens the impact. I’ve been telling this story for years: it was after the second performance of Susannah at City Opera and I went out the stage door and I got in a cab to go home. The cabby asked me, ‘What was the opera tonight?’ I told him it was a brand-new American opera. He stopped the cab, turned around and said, ‘An American opera, what language can you sing it in?’ In a funny way, that’s the crux of the matter. American audiences still are not used to hearing and understanding what’s going on in opera. Now with surtitles they can read what’s going on but that’s still not the same.”

Along with George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, Susannah is one of the most performed operas in the U.S. Since its premiere it has never been out of the repertory; but America’s most prestigious opera houses were slow to recognize its power (San Francisco Opera performed Susannah only twice, in its 1964 spring series at the Curran Theater). “The sad thing is how long Susannah was looked down on as a ‘folk opera.’ Well, it’s no more a folk opera than Cavalleria Rusticana, but people have thought it was an opera about hillbillies. It’s about people who are just like anyone else with their feelings and problems and prejudices and it happens to be set in that place. But the big opera houses are always so slow to catch up to what’s going on. I was so thrilled when it was finally done at the Met [in 1999]. It really ought to be done there; after all it’s one of the most performed operas of all time.”

Carlisle Floyd’s masterful libretto and direct musical language capture so completely the dreams of a young woman living in a small place who wants to see more of the world but knows where her roots lie. Susannah’s two set pieces, Ain’t It a Pretty Night? and The Trees on the Mountains, offer glimpses of her yearning for more in life and her deep sorrow over being misunderstood and misjudged. “I don’t think of them as arias; they are beautiful, living moments that are so extraordinary. One of the dearest things that ever happened was while we were doing it at Cincinnati Zoo Opera one summer. The stage there was outdoors and when I began Ain’t It a Pretty Night, a bird that must have had a nest in the proscenium arch woke up and showered us with the most beautiful roulades you could imagine.

“The way that The Trees on the Mountains occurs in the opera is so wonderful. When Norman Treigle died they asked me to sing Ain’t it a Pretty Night for the memorial service at City Opera. Of course at this point I wasn’t singing Susannah any longer – I had decided a while before I was far too old to look right. I told them I would like to sing The Trees on the Mountains instead because it leads to the pivotal scene between Susannah and Olin Blitch. He hears her singing it as he approaches her house and when she is finished he appears in her sight and says, ‘That’s a right sad song Susannah. It don’t look as if it would do you much good.’ She says, ‘I sing it to myself when I’m sad and lonely. My mama taught it to me a long time ago.’ So I sang it that night for Norman and I don’t suppose I had ever sung it as well in my whole life up to that point. I just barely made it off the stage before I totally fell apart. But that had been for Norman, who had heard it so many times before when we performed it together.

“The last Susannah I did was in Orlando (I forget the year – it was in the late ‘60s) – I think it was probably Norman’s last one also. I felt as though I was singing it better and more easily all the time, but it didn’t feel right all of a sudden, because I wanted a younger woman to sing it. But, goodness, it was a beautiful part of my life and living in that opera was just a wonderful experience. The music is so unbelievably real and reflective of the community in which Susannah lives.”

Robert Wilder Blue is managing editor of usOperaweb.com.