Can Belto

On the art of singing and those who practice it…

A Farewell to Mary Curtis-Verna

While the name Mary Curtis-Verna will immediately bring memories to hardcore collectors and those who still long for The Golden Age, her name might not mean a lot to younger opera goers. Hopefully this corrects some of that…

Born in Salem, Massachusetts on May 9, 1921, she studied at Hollis College in Virginia, and in Italy with Ettore Verna, whom she latter married. She made her stage debut in Milan (at the Teatro Lirico), as Desdemona, in 1949. She sang in theaters throughout Italy, and made guest appearances in Vienna,  Munich and other important venues through Europe in repertoire as varied as Norma, the Marschallin, Senta, Eva and Elsa, all in Italian. Her American debut took place in Philadelphia, in 1952, and the same year at the San Francisco Opera, as Aida. She debuted at the New York City Opera, as Donna Anna, in 1954, and at the Metropolitan Opera,as Leonora in Il trovatore, in 1957.

At the Metropolitan Opera, the presence of famous divas like Tebaldi, Milanov, and Lentyne Price; all famous for singing the roles she sang, relegated Mary Curtis-Verna to the rank of cover and utility singer.  Given the  attention she was already enjoying in Italy, this must have been a hard pill to swallow; but her husband’s failing health did not afford her the luxury of spending entire seasons away from home, so stability won over super stardom.  Opera lovers of a certain age still talk about how they used to complain when they got Mary Curtis-Verna instead of Madame Super Diva X.  Those same people insist that a singer of her talents would have been more celebrated and appreciated today, given the scarcity of singers naturally endowed to sing her repertoire and, furthermore,  those who can sing it with command of the style and distinction.

As the Marschallin in Genoa, with Margaret Maz as Octavian

As a house soprano and cover artist, her resume at the Met is a mishmash of roles that would make a soprano’s head spin: Mimi, Violetta, Amelia (both the Ballo and Boccanegra), Alice Ford, Santuzza, Adriana Lecouvreur (a single performance), Gutrune, Aida, Turandot, Elisabeth di Valois, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Leonora (both of them), Maddalena di Coigni, and both Donna Anna & Donna Elvira (sung to Leontyne Price’s Anna). Now, don’t for one moment think that this artist went unapreciated by the Met management. For what I could gather she was given at least one new production (Boccanegra) , 3 broadcasts (Aida, Don Carlo, Gotterdammerung) , and 2 recordings that I discuss latter. She was also a staple of their yearly tour through the country. Surely the management saw the benefit of having such an artist ready to jump in at a moment’s notice in the house and gave her the opportunity to perform the roles while on tour.

Curtis-Verna sang at the Met for nearly 10 years. It encompassed 10 seasons, 96 performances and the 19 roles listed above.  Her career with the company ended the day they said farewell to the old theater. After her retirement in 1969, she chaired the voice department in the University of Washington for 20 years.

Her recording output is shamelessly small and hard to find. Arkiv Music lists 3 complete operas; Borders.com lists none Amazon lists the most. Seems that she made a solo recording and it appears to be available.  Collectors who want to buy her recordings need to go off the beaten path.   Earlier in her career, she did a series of broadcasts for RAI (Don Giovanni,  Ballo in maschera & Aida)  that made their way to the Cetra  Catalogue. These recordings were available for a while in the USA, and are still available through Amazon.com but at a steep price. The Don Giovanni was sung opposite Giuseppe Taddei, Italo Tajo & Cesare Valletti. The Ballo in maschera, opposite Ferruccio Tagliavini & Giuseppe Valdengo;  the  Aida was sung opposite Franco Corelli, Miriam Pirazzini & Giangiacomo Guelfi. Not bad company for a girl from Salem, MA.

The fact that at the Met she was seen as more of a house soprano (and maybe because of it) did not prevent them from using her for their own recordings. In addition to the recordings listed above (and the several live recordings that you can probably find) she is heard in 2 recordings made under the auspices of the Metropolitan Opera Record Collector Club (MORC). These were recordings (some of them abridged beyond recognition) made in the late 1950’s, and offered to club members at reasonable prices. Many of the singers used in the recordings, like Curtis-Verna, were seldom recorded commercially.

For the MORC, Curtis-Verna recorded Andrea Chenier with Tucker (his only recording of the role), and Il Trovatore with Kurt Baum and Rosalid Elias.  These recordings remain unreleased and are prized by collectors everywhere. Several years ago, a collector by the name Mike Richter took it upon himself to digitize all the MORC recordings from LPs and  out of his own pocket published the whole collection on CD-Rom. Thanks to his labor of love, you now have an opportunity to download the complete MORC  Chenier and Trovatore. The links are below the musical examples below.

If you are unfamiliar with Mary Curtis-Verna and want to wet your appetite, here is a full serving:

1962 Manon Lescaut Philadelphia Lyric Opera with impresario Ray Fabiani & Julius Rudel

From Don Giovanni: Or sai chi l’onore and Non Mi dir

From Il trovatore: Tacea la notte placida & the Act IV scene starting with D’amor sull’ali rose

From Un ballo in maschera: Ecco lorrido campo

From Andrea Chenier La mamma morta

If you want to download the complete MORC Chenier click here: Andrea Chenier

If you want to download the complete MORC Trovatore click here: Il Trovatore

As we bid farewell to this wonderful artist, let’s leave the last words to Curtis-Verna herself in 2 very different times during her career:

As a young singer in 1953 she told Opera News:  Perhaps if one were to list the requirements of a career, ‘patience’ would follow directly after ‘talent’ and ‘preparation.’

In 2005, in an article for the same magazine, she told Richard Dyer about the advise she always gave her students: I tell my students how hard it is to have a career. Your voice is in your body, and it is affected by your health and by your emotions, but the public must never know that. You need to learn how to have strong shoulders. You cannot take anything personally. You need to have a flame in you that nothing can extinguish.

Well, nobody will extinguish that flame now…

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December 6, 2009 - Posted by | In memoriam | ,

23 Comments »

  1. Great article and tribute, thanks! She, like Amara and Ross were wonderful singers who were unappreciated in their prime. They would be major stars today, IMO.

    Comment by Tom Ponti | December 6, 2009 | Reply

  2. Mary Curtis, before she was Curtis-Verna, made a complete Aida for Remington, about three years before the better-known Cetra version. This was with Umberto Borso, Oralia Dominguez, and Ettore Bastianini…his first recording. It’s very good, but somewhat forgotten now.

    Comment by Steve Slezak | December 6, 2009 | Reply

    • I just read about that. In the Opera News article dated 2005 she also mentions pulling a Schwartzkopf on a recording of Turandot before that. She says that her first recording ever was actually singing the high notes for a Turandot who didn’t have them anymore.

      Thanks for the interesting bit.

      Comment by Lindoro Almaviva | December 6, 2009 | Reply

      • And do you think that’s really the case? Think about the commercial Turandot recordings made during the 1950s. There’s one with Grob-Prandl, and given the evidence of contemporaneous live recordings, she had the high notes. There’s the Callas, ditto. Inge Borkh, same. Not Cigna in 1938, not Nilsson in 1959.

        So to which recording do you think she might have contributed some high notes?

        Comment by Lisa | December 23, 2009

      • My suggestion is that you read the article Opera News put on her back in Feb 2005 as part of their Reunion series. She talks about this specific incident in the article. You can read the article here

        Comment by Lindoro Almaviva | December 23, 2009

      • Lindoro – I presume you’re replying to me, about the Turandot incident? I’m not a subscriber and can’t log in to the ON site.

        Comment by Lisa | December 23, 2009

      • You don’t have to be a subscriber to see the article. Did the link work?

        Comment by Lindoro Almaviva | December 23, 2009

      • The link took me to a page that requested a login to see the article, which was termed “premium content.”

        Comment by Lisa H. | December 24, 2009

      • Then I’ll be happy to quote the section for you:

        By the time she came to the Met, Curtis-Verna had made most of her recordings — two versions of Aida, one on Remington, where she sang the Priestess as well as the title role, the other on Cetra, opposite Corelli. With a sly smile, she confesses that the Remington Aida was not her very first recording — “Remington was also recording Turandot with a soprano who has having trouble with some of the high notes. So I sang them for her, and no one ever knew.

        Comment by Lindoro Almaviva | December 24, 2009

      • (Sorry; I screwed up and replied twice because my replies went into places 8 and 9 instead of threading properly. See above.)

        Comment by Lisa H. | December 24, 2009

  3. I am surprised that no mention is made of her Vanessa in Samuel Barber’s eponymous opera, which she not only sang at the Met, but was also given a broadcast. This information is readily available at the Metropolitan Opera website by accessing the Archives.

    Comment by Scooter Berwyn | December 6, 2009 | Reply

    • Scooter. I was curious as to your comment, since I consulted the met archives and I had all of Curtis-Verna’s performances listed as I wrote my tribute. I checked again and there is no mention of her ever singing Vanessa.

      Vanessa has been broadcast twice at the Met: the 3rd and 17th performances of the opera were broadcast on Feb 1, 1958 & April 3, 1965 respectively. On those performances, the role of Vanessa was sung by Eleanor Steber (58) and Mary Costa (65). Are you confusing Mary Costa and Mary Curtis?

      Comment by Lindoro Almaviva | December 6, 2009 | Reply

      • Oops! My mistake! Please accept my sincere apologies. When I searched “Vanessa” and saw “Mary Costa” my mind had a senior moment and confused the two.

        Comment by Scooter Berwyn | December 6, 2009

      • Don’t worry. I have made worse mistakes in this blog. I once said that San Diego Opera had gone belly up. Now, that is an embarrassing mistake.

        Comment by Lindoro Almaviva | December 6, 2009

  4. Mary Curtis-Verna was a local girl -born in Salem – and a singer whose career I followed fervently. I remember reading the Times review on her Met debut as the Trovatore Leonora (not the prima)- it was a full review with a picture of her – you don’t see that today in the Times. The last time I saw her was the Met tour in Boston in 1966, right after the closing of the old Met. She was Aida and the Amneris was Simionato – the only chance I ever got to see her live on stage. Mary was in great form that night, and it was a performance I will never forget.

    Comment by Angelo Mammano | December 6, 2009 | Reply

  5. Thanks very much for your tribute to Mary Curtis-Verna, who was a talent who deserved to be much better-known. And thank you for sharing the MORC recordings, too, so people who weren’t following opera when she was singing can find out what a fine singer she was!

    Comment by Marie Lamb | December 7, 2009 | Reply

  6. Just a brief note of thanks for the appreciation of Mary who was a wonderful singer and a warm wonderful person. In those days, as now, singers with recording contracts got more attention and certainly better treatment than the other very fine singers…and there were many.

    She brought great pleasure to opera goers and will be missed. I would give anything to see that one Adriana Lecouveur (with Corelli) once again.

    Comment by Jon Freeman | December 9, 2009 | Reply

  7. I was a music student at University of Washington in the early 70s and remember Mary well. I agree that she was a great artist and though she was always a few steps behind Callas and Tebaldi, it didn’t seem to bother her very much. In our brief conversations, she was always generous to colleagues, and kind to her students. And she had her own considerable fan clubs in Italy and New York. Yes she was a 1950s diva: poodle on a rhinestone leash, sweeping into student performances at the last minute in diamonds and mink, but she deserved it. A final note: I was in the chorus for one of her last big shows-the Verdi Requiem in Seattle. She missed the famous high B-flat in the last movement in rehearsal and humbly admitted it. Come the night, everyone-audience and performers-were on the edge of their seats. She not only hit it, but held it and finished with an emphatic MMM!! The house exploded at the end.
    Pace Maria

    Comment by jack weber | December 20, 2009 | Reply

  8. Thanks!

    The soprano singing Turandot on the Remington is Gertrude Grob-Prandl and it’s from 1953. You could say I’m a little skeptical of this story, based on live recordings I’ve heard of Grob-Prandl made in the late 40s and early 50s. Maybe she had a cold during the recording sessions or something, but her high notes sound as reliable as Nilsson’s.

    Comment by Lisa H. | December 24, 2009 | Reply

  9. Thanks!

    I remain skeptical. The Remington recording was made in 1953. It had Gertrude Grob-Prandl as Turandot and one Renata Ferrari-Ongara as Liu. I’ve got live recordings of Grob-Prandl made in the late 1940s (Moralt Ring) and early ’50s (Martini & Rossi concert) and her high notes sound like Nilsson’s.

    Maybe she had a cold the week the Turandot was recorded. Or maybe that anecdote isn’t exactly accurate; Licia Albanese has never acknowledged her true age; Eva Turner told Rasponi she’d sung “well over 200 performances” of Turandot (only in a world where 75 and 200 are the same number), etc.

    Comment by Lisa H. | December 24, 2009 | Reply

  10. I’ve been an admirer of Curtis-Verna ever since I found a copy of the MORC Trovatore in 1981 when I was just beginning to get into opera. Chopped up as it is to fit on two LPs, it’s still a favorite. I’ve since added everything of hers I could get my hands on. A couple of years ago I bought the Remington Aida, and I’d swear that in the Aida-Amonasro duet, the soprano is not MC-V. It’s a somewhat bigger and brighter, not particularly italianate voice. Can anyone else corroborate this?

    Comment by aldemo | December 29, 2009 | Reply

  11. Oh my goodness! Amazing article dude! Thank
    you so much, However I am encountering problems with
    your RSS. I don’t know the reason why I cannot join it. Is there anybody else getting identical RSS issues? Anybody who knows the solution can you kindly respond? Thanx!!

    Comment by Gas Pressure Regulator | June 30, 2013 | Reply

  12. My voice teacher in Portland knew Mary Curtis-Verna and arranged a meeting for me with her in Seattle. I was a teenager and had become acquainted with her through recordings and I admired her singing.
    She was totally engaging and shared several wonderful anecdotes about many of the other great singers I admired. She told me that she had no regrets about not achieving the stardom that I thought she deserved.
    I saw her again a few years later and I regret that I didn’t keep in contact with her. She was a wonderful, regal lady and a marvelous singer.

    Comment by Doug | August 25, 2013 | Reply


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