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Operatic soprano Phyllis (Smith) Curtin was born in Clarksburg on December 3, 1921, graduated from Wellesley College, and in 1946 appeared at famed Tanglewood Music Center under Leonard Bernstein and with the New England Opera under Boris Goldovsky. She made her debut with the New York City Opera in 1953, where she sang both classical and modern repertoire, including all major Mozart heroines and many new works. Life magazine devoted three pages of photos to her seductive ‘‘dance of the seven veils’’ in Richard Strauss’s Salome in 1954. The following year she premiered the title role in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, which she later sang at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958, followed by leading roles in premieres of Floyd’s Wuthering Heights and The Passion of Jonathan Wade. More than 50 new works were written expressly for her, including operas by Darius Milhaud and Alberto Ginastera and a song cycle by Ned Rorem. She also sang with the NBC Opera Company on television and on tour. Curtin made her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1961 and developed an international reputation with performances at the Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, La Scala in Milan, and the Vienna Staatsoper.

In 1976, President Gerald Ford invited her to sing for a White House dinner honoring West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt. Curtin taught at the Berkshire Music Center and Yale University before she retired from public singing in 1984 and served as dean of the Boston University School of the Arts from 1983 to 1991. In her native state, Phyllis Curtin sang with the Charleston Symphony Orchestra (now the West Virginia Symphony) in 1958 and 1968, at the 1963 meeting of the Music Educators National Conference in Charleston, was named West Virginian of the Year with composer George Crumb in 1968 by the Charleston Sunday Gazette-Mail, and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 1999 Governor’s Awards for Culture, History and the Arts. She was inducted into the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame in 2008. She died in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, on June 5, 2016, at age 94.

This Article was written by H. G. Young III

Last Revised on June 26, 2023


Current Biography Yearbook: 1964. New York: H. W. Wilson, 1964.

Floyd, Carlisle. Susannah. New Orleans Opera with Phyllis Curtin in the Title Role, 1962, VAI Audio 1115. .

Cite This Article

Young III, H. G. "Phyllis Curtin." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 26 June 2023. Web. 20 April 2024.


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