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An Old Hand Turns Out Opera's New Voices


LENOX, Mass. — Soprano Phyllis Curtin points to a huge maple tree with leaves bursting from its well-rooted trunk. It's a living model for young singers, she says.

"I use these trees a lot to teach," she says, sitting on a wooden bench near the white pines, maples and gingko trees on the grounds of Tanglewood.

Singers who are "grounded muscularly," she explained, should look at how "all those leaves come and the energy is running from the earth up there and it all comes out."

"It's marvelous! That's what ought to happen in art," she added.

Curtin, now 69, was musical mentor to 12 budding singers at Tanglewood, the Berkshire Hills summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

She also has taught business students to speak well by learning the breath control of a singer.

Walter Mondale once said he wished Curtin had coached him before his political speeches.

Curtin's daughter even learned precision in horse-jumping by following her mother's techniques.

That is a remarkable tutorial range for this artist, who has culled what she learned on stage--and in life--and cultivated some of the world's finest voices.

Her proteges have included Chinese baritone Haijing Fu and baritone Sanford Sylvan.

"I love to teach, I find it exhilarating, I find it creative," Curtin said after an intense two-hour seminar in a small frame theater amid Tanglewood's lush greenery.

It began just after 10 a.m. in the rustic pavilion with Japanese-style sliding doors. She wears her silvery hair elegantly pulled back, with dangling earrings and a blue and white batik dress.

"Who wants to sing first?" she asks.

Tenor Paul Kirby, 25, in a purple polo shirt, black pants and boat shoes, steps up to the concert grand piano. His velvety voice launches into the Schubert song, "Ganymed," a prayer about the English battlefield where King Arthur is said to have died.

Curtin listens from a metal chair in the front row, her vibrant eyes peering over reading glasses at both the singer and the audience.

At the end of the song Kirby buries his face in his hands in displeasure. He complains that "the words feel behind the tone, a little sleepy."

Curtin tells him to imagine he is playing a "silent keyboard."

"Take a breath, your impulse is on and the sound is happening about three feet from you. . . . You don't have to push it there, just let it come out," she says.

As he sings, she mouths the words silently, pacing, smiling, her hands conducting. His voice is focused and warmly resonate.


To produce a powerful, pure tone, Curtin tells her students to feel the breath coming from a "pea of radium" under the diaphragm and beaming through the vocal chords to the "great concert hall" between the nose and the hairline.

As Kirby hits a high note, Curtin's foot kicks up in the air, with a smile.

Then suddenly, his head pulls back tensely. She jumps up and grabs his hair gently to keep the head in place--and she laughs, with a ringing, infectious laughter.

"You just sometimes need the nuisance I am to let go," she says, her tone reminiscent of a younger Katharine Hepburn.

"OK, next!"

Soprano Suzanne Balaes, 23, comes forward in blue shorts and a salmon top, to sing Nedda's aria from Leoncavallo's opera "I Pagliacci," in which a woman waits for her lover while birds swoop overhead.

Balaes trills brilliantly into a high register.

"We're thinking high, high, high," Curtin tells her. "Every breath is deep in the lungs and the diaphragm is traveling up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up, up!"

At Balaes' last note, whistles of admiration and "ah's" are heard from the class.

Soprano Teresa Cincione, 26, in jeans, comes out to sing the aria "Prendi" from Donizetti's "The Elixir of Love."

"Go! Soar!" Curtin urges as Cincione's voice beams to a high note, to wild applause and cheers.

"When that high note comes, there's no way to get it unless you let go," Curtin says.

When a singer tries to release stiffened muscles in the mouth area, she says, "of course it's going to flutter, like an out-of-shape body does after carrying something heavy, then releasing it."

But Curtin says the mouth will do whatever the brain commands. "Remember: good, solid technique is 99 1/2% in the mind."

She tells her students to "see" the sound several feet in front of their faces, and to project the voice to that spot, as if the music were a character released into space.

"Touch with your sound, your word . . . let it get away from you. See it, it's a vision."

Curtin says her daughter, Claudia, who's in her 20s, told her she had used that idea to guide her horse over hurdles--by projecting a precise mental image of the movement ahead and following it.

To project the voice, the chest must be released out and up, "the posture of anyone who has been successful," Curtin says. Teaching that in the 1970s, as a professor at Yale University, was nearly impossible, she says.

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