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 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:
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…