Monday, December 7, 2009

Mary Curtis-Verna: Rest in Peace

I’m very sorry to learn of the passing of this wonderful singer. As an opera- obsessed teenager I knew the name of Mary Curtis-Verna as a sort of “joke” – which I always heard older opera-lovers going on about. They would laughingly mention purchasing a ticket to see “Tebaldi or Nilsson or Milanov,” etc. – but instead “all we got was Mary Curtis-Verna.” I was well into young adulthood before I found out there really WAS a singer named Mary Curtis-Verna, and it was a few more years still until I happened to stumble upon a recorded performance of hers.

To say I was “shocked” is an understatement. This was a beautiful, major voice and I was then a bit horrified that such a major singer (who apparently was also one gracious lady) could have been the recipient of such bitter, malicious, queeny “jokes.” Honestly, it made my blood run cold then – and still does.

The first thing I heard with this wonderful singer was the 1958 Chenier with no less a Chenier than Richard Tucker. I know Tucker fans who crow endlessly about this recording yet barely mention the soprano, and yet while I’ve heard Tucker this good (at least) before, nothing prepared me for the full onslaught of Curtis Verna’s Maddalena. She is at least the tenor's equal here, appearing fully engaged and noble throughout, and offers one of the most emotionally
touching (yet maudlin-free) renditions of “La mama morte” – I've yet encountered. She understood how to put the aria across in masterful fashion with resorting to . . . well, what this aria can sometimes unnecessarily bring out in a soprano. Even that aria, however, didn't fully prepare me for the blazing intensity she brings (and matches Tucker in) in during the final duet.
Holy smokes, I needed a respirator after hearing this! It has become - hands down - my favorite performance of that final scene out of all the Chenier’s I know. It isn't ALL the tenor, y'know!

I recall an article describing how Curtis-Verna was a minor singer who added a fake Italian name in hopes of a major career., and another claiming she was less than a blip on the radar. It would take no one more than minute of internet research to discover this lady successfully sang many
major roles throughout Europe and Italy. She was frequently commented upon as not only an excellent singer but “a tall, good looking blonde and fine actress on the stage.” She sang with a number of established and rising stars including no less than Franco Corelli.

She was only 30 when she came to the Met and for a decade or so become the major “Go-To-Girl” routinely jumping in without rehearsal virtually at the last minute to save Tosca or Aida or Turandot or Don Giovanni whenever Tebaldi, Steber, Nilsson or Milanov and others could not go on. That she wasn’t appreciated didn’t seem to phase her (publicly at least) and she seemed to be a singer who was happy to be making great music on a great stage with great partners. That, in and of itself is, to me, a definition of class and contentment and a knowing self-worth; something to be admired rather than ridiculed or mocked.

Her roles at the Met included: Tosca, Elisabetta in Don Carlo, Aida, Mimi; Amelia in both Ballo and Boccanegra; Donna Anna, the Forza Leonora; Gutrune; Violetta; Turandot; Adriana Lecouvreur; and Alice Ford. She frequently was partnered by and/or sang with the Who’s Who of the Met’s so-called “Golden Age”: Richard Tucker, Leonard Warren, Franco Corelli, Jean
Madeira, George London, Walter Cassel, Robert Merrill, Carlo Bergonzi, Giorgio Tozzi, Birgit Nilsson, Nicolai Gedda; Licia Albanese, Cornell Macneil, Jussi Bjoerling, Roberta Peters and Irene Dalis. She was conducted by - and apparently spoken well of by; most of the major conductors appearing with the company including Fausto Cleva, Max Rudolf, Dimitri Mitropoulos and Silvio Varviso.

I know too few of her performances, but virtually everything I’ve heard from her was stellar, tasteful,, beautifully and stylishly sung. Many dismissed her as “adequate” – but whatever I’ve heard from her was always far more than what I’d consider “adequate.”

About a decade ago I posted something about Ms. Curtis Verna, and received a lovely note from a friend of hers who said my note had found its way to her (as seems to happen more and more in this computer-age) and she had been most touched by it, as well as a bit surprised that she was evidently still “discoverable.”

Thank you, Mary Curtis-Verna for all you gave to the world of music and opera – and for your generosity and beautiful spirit which will live on.



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article and beautiful photo of Mary. She was my godmother and I was just told of her passing. She was an amazing woman.

December 8, 2009 at 12:40 AM  
Blogger Sharky said...

I am so touched that you wrote me with this information. I never met this gracious lady, but have always heard wonderful things about her. From all of them, she sounds to have been just that: a truly amazing woman. Thank you for sharing this!

December 8, 2009 at 2:27 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gracious indeed. She never had children, though she wanted to. When I saw her for the last time she gushed over me and introduced me to all of her nurses as her grand-daughter. I am honored that I had her in my life. I am even more deeply honored to be reading such touching tributes to her.

December 9, 2009 at 12:34 AM  
Blogger Will said...

I had two live performances with her--Elizabetta in Don Carlo and Turandot, both with Corelli as it happens. Both extraordinarily well sung. The lady had the goods.

She was married to Ettore Verna, her voice teacher, which is how she got her hyphenated surname.

December 9, 2009 at 9:25 PM  
Blogger Sharky said...

Yes, Will - Charlie (and others) used to say she just "added" the Italian surname to get jobs. That kind of nonsense is really ignorant slander. From all I have ever heard she was a class act through-and-through. I'm glad Anonymous found this blog and has shared these comments. It's wonderful to see she was so not only highly respected, but so well loved!

December 10, 2009 at 3:15 PM  
Blogger Jay said...

One of the very few good things about being so old is that I had the great pleasure of knowing Mary personally and seeing her in most of her roles at the Met as well as a terrific Lady Macbeth in Cincinnati.

She was a wonderful singer and a great and warm lady.


December 10, 2009 at 7:17 PM  
Blogger Sharky said...

How lovely for you, Jay! I wish I could have seen this great lady live, but treasure what I HAVE been able to hear - and love hearing first hand experiences from others, such as you! She will be missed.

December 16, 2009 at 11:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just learned of this lovely lady's death. Now it over a year and I am sad indeed. I did meet her and it was my privlege to know her and call her a friend. She was in her 80s when I got to know her and I found her to be every bit of what you would expect from a former Metropolitan opera star. She was postively regal and even though she was failing in health, she was always immaculately put together and was very articulate. Everything about her was such a joy. I am saddened by her death but I feel so honored to have known her. Lisa in San Diego, formerly of Seattle.

May 20, 2011 at 1:46 AM  
Anonymous Peggy Stanley said...

I am so priviledged to have studied with Ms. Verna at the U of W. She was a fabulous teacher, mentor, friend and cheer-leader. I went back to graduate school when my children were in their early teens so she was really only 12 years older than I, but 30 years older in worldly experiences. She was like a queen to me. Regal in her dress, carriage, teaching skills and her wealth of experience in everything...languages (5)production experiences, technique, and how to become a star. Would that I could have hooked up with her when I was younger! I believe she could have made me one! She used to say to me "Oh, Peggy, if I had had your voice, I would have bought the world!" (I was a coloratura.)I did go on to sing with Seattle Opera, Colorado Opera, Central City Opera, and Arizona Opera but only as a memeber of the professional chorus. I hope to see her in heaven!!! Peggy Peterson-Stanley

April 17, 2012 at 9:41 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

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 told her 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.

June 22, 2013 at 5:54 PM  

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