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In memoriam: Phyllis Curtin, soprano

Phyllis Curtin was Professor of Voice at the Yale School of Music from 1974 to 1983 and the Master of Branford College from 1979 to 1983
June 11, 2016
Phyllis Curtin

Phyllis Curtin

Renowned American soprano Phyllis Curtin passed away on Sunday, June 5 at age 94. From 1974 to 1983, she taught voice at the Yale School of Music, overseeing the opera program. Curtin also served as Master (now Head of College) of Branford College from 1979 to 1983. Curtin was the first female Master of Branford College.

During her career on the stage in the 1950s and 60s, Curtin performed for the New York City Opera, as well as in many world-renowned opera houses such as the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Vienna State Opera, Covent Garden, and La Scala. Her repertoire included Verdi’s Violetta and Alice Ford, Strauss’ Salome, as well as Mozart’s heroines, for which she received much praise. The New York Times recently asserted that, “Ms. Curtin was noted for the purity of her voice, the sensitivity of her musical phrasing and the crystalline perfection of her diction.”

Louis Sudler, Phyllis Curtin, and Willie Ruff | Photo by Eugene Cook, 1973

Louis Sudler, Phyllis Curtin, and Willie Ruff | Photo by Eugene Cook, 1973

Known for her fierce intelligence and musical curiosity, Curtin worked closely with many musicians across genre and scope. Wille Ruff ’53 BM, ’54 MM, Professor of Jazz at the Yale School of Music, remarked, “Phyllis Curtin was a great artist. The Mitchell-Ruff Duo’s performance of Twenty One songs by Cole Porter with her is remembered as one of the towering highlights of our concert career.” Curtin embraced the challenge of new work. She had close working partnerships with 20th-century composers, premiering numerous works including Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (U.S. premiere) and creating the title role in Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah.

At YSM, Curtin was known to be a devoted and passionate teacher. Richard Lalli ’80 MM ’86 DMA, now a faculty member in the Department of Music, studied with her for his degrees at the School of Music. He notes that “One example of her dedication, generosity of spirit, and daring was singing and acting alongside her students in Sprague Hall as Lady Billows in Britten’s Albert Herring.” Martha Oneppo ’77 MM, another student of Curtin, cites, “I will forever be grateful to Ms. Curtin. She was a mentor who encouraged us to be what she referred to as “smart singers.” She expected us to sing every kind of music, supporting the work of our composer colleagues alongside the standard lieder and opera repertoire. The influence she had on her students is enduring, and I have used what she taught me every day in my many years of teaching and performing.”

The legacy of Phyllis Curtin as a renowned artist and teacher is celebrated and continued annually when the School of Music awards the Phyllis Curtin Career Entry Prize to the graduating singer who has demonstrated exceptional promise and talent for a professional career. The recipients of the Curtin Prize emulate the artistic, academic, and personal qualities for which Phyllis Curtin is remembered and loved.


Phyllis Curtin and Louis Sudler singing Porgy & Bess with Richard Lalli at the piano | Photo by Eugene Cook

Phyllis Curtin giving a lesson | Photo by Eugene Cook, 1976

Phyllis Curtin in a lesson | Photo by Eugene Cook, 1976

Phyllis Curtin with students | Photo by Eugene Cook, 1974

Phyllis Curtin with students | Photo by Eugene Cook, 1974



When Phyllis Curtin became Master of Branford colllege many of the older fellows were chagrined and not very complimentary about the new lady Master. 3 weeks into her tenure she gave a short recital – an operatic medley. After that not a dissenting voice was heard,in fact she became everyone’s favorite Master!

September 2nd, 2016 | bernard lytton