Phyllis Curtin: one determined diva.
The importance of a fine-tuned instrument is something Phyllis Curtin knows quite well. An opera singer and performer for over 30 years, Curtin faces a constant struggle in fighting off the destruction arthritis tries to impose on her instrument - her own body.
During her impressive career, Curtin performed as a soloist with all the leading orchestras of the United States, as well as with major European orchestras, the Israel Philharmonic, and orchestras in Australia and New Zealand. She also performed in opera houses all over the world including the United States, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Helsinki and Glyndebourne and at U.S. festivals including Aspen, Tanglewood and Blossom. Her television appearances included The Bell Telephone Hour and The Firestone Hour.
Music has always been a part of Curtin's life. Both of her parents were church musicians in her hometown of Clarksburg, W.Va. and she began violin lessons at the early age of 7. Growing up she sang in choirs, took dancing lessons and did some theater in high school and college, but it wasn't until her junior year of college that she began singing seriously.
Unlike music, arthritis didn't become a part of Curtin's life until much later, when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis at age 45. "I never cold a soul about it except my husband and my mother. I suppose it's true in all kinds of professions, but certainly in theater, that if anybody chinks something is the matter with you it scares everybody half to death, and that's not good for your career. So nobody knew I had arthritis until it began to show, and that wasn't until a few years ago," she says.
Performing Through the Pain
While Curtin never missed an engagement due to her arthritis, it wasn't because she didn't hurt; :she simply disguised her pain well. "I remember .one time in Albuquerque I hurt all over. At that particular point on the tour I could only lie flat on my back. I had to think of reasons why people had to come up to the hotel door because I couldn't turn the knob to let myself in," she says,
"There were times when the pain was awful," Curtin continues. "I remember a performance at the Metropolitan Opera - I was singing Violetta in La Traviata, and she must suddenly drop dead. I thought, 'I simply cannot let myself fall on this floor without screaming my head off - it's going to hurt so much.' In a situation like that, there's nothing much you can do about it - you either do it or you don't do it. On this particular night I was anticipating the performance and the pain was a terrible preoccupation, but when you are completely given over in your concentration to being somebody else and doing something else - you do it," she says.
Coping Through Concentration
Concentration turned out to be Curtin's key to overcoming pain. "Once I was standing on stage rehearsing before the night's concert and I thought, 'My body - all my bones and my muscles reminds me of the iron maiden they had in the Spanish Inquisition. I'm just encased in this stuff, but I will burn with a gemlike flame from my interior out," she says. "This not only was a wonderful concentration away from the pain, but it was a tremendous step forward in my continuing development as a singer. It was a kind of concentration that turned out to be extremely powerful and flexible. It's wonderful to have an occupation that demands that concentration from you."
Curtin considers herself lucky that her career was not cut short by arthritis, and she credits her coping strategies to her musical training. "If I didn't have this particular career, I might have hurt a lot more or given in to the pain more. That isn't to say that the pain isn't really there or that you can talk yourself out of it - it's just that it has worked this way for me. I think my greatest blessing in life is that I've been able to happily work at something that is a passion, do it well and make a life from it," she says.
Curtin has developed special coping strategies offstage as well. "I have tremendous concentration on and concern with how a body moves. Sometimes when I'm walking to work and I hurt, I just try to keep in my mind the ideal way the body works. I imagine that my legs work really well. This technique doesn't work 100 percent of the time, and it doesn't make my feet feel any better," she laughs, "but it does kind of bring into harmony some of the movement, so I'm not so apt to distort myself in protection."
The reality of arthritis is sometimes not so easy to escape especially when it takes its toll on your physical appearance. Curtin, whose hands and feet now show visible signs of arthritis, often wore beautiful, high-style shoes with endlessly high heels when performing early in her career. "I've given up my beautiful shoes," she laughs. "Now I look at those shoes and can't imagine that anybody ever wore them. Here are my feet now which are baroquely grotesque, and I can't see how they ever got to that state. It's the same with my hands. I had very skinny hands that were nice, but I lost those years ago," she muses. "It's a great pain to my vanity, but never mind - that's that."
Teaching by Example
Not one to wallow in self-pity, Curtin is quick to point to the positive. "That doesn't mean the rest of me isn't fine. I'm still holding out pretty well," she says matter-of-factly. While she does admit it's hard to maintain good posture, she finds motivation in teaching other aspiring artists. "I cannot sit and stand and illustrate to my students if I'm slumped over," she says. "My body is my instrument. As long as I can keep it in the right alignment, it's worth everything to try. Teaching is great exercise for all those arthritic parts."
Curtin combined teaching and performing for many years, but after retiring from the stage in 1984, she began a second career of full-time teaching. She has transferred her passion for music from the stage to the classroom and finds fulfillment in sharing her knowledge with others. "Teaching is a continuation - a different understanding of my performance career," she says. "The wonderful thing about it is that if you are able to articulate and understand your experiences and really know them well, you are able to help other people reach their goals faster. Teaching greatly enlarges my understanding, which gets deeper and richer all the time."
Curtin has taught in many programs and institutions all over the world during her career. Currently, she teaches at Boston University, where she was also dean of the School of Fine Arts from 1983 until 1991. For the past 28 years, she has spent her summers as an artist-inresidence for vocal music at Tanglewood, one of the world's leading schools for young musicians. Curtin still finds time to give private lessons in her home.
While a full schedule of teaching leaves little time for leisure, Curtin is an inveterate reader and has an abiding interest in politics. Interestingly, she graduated from Wellesley College in 1943 with a degree not in music, but in political science.
"I graduated from college right in the middle of [World War II] and this is what led me into political science in the first place. I felt the war and its aftermath were things I ought to know about. I would always be finding out about music, but I might not always be so sensible about other things," she says. "Everything feeds into your musical life. It is important to have a lot of things about the human condition to think about if you're going to be an artist."
Curtin's interest and involvement in other areas have certainly been recognized. She received a presidential appointment to the National Arts Council, was a former board member for the American Arts Alliance, served as a spokesperson before Congress for the reauthorization of funds for the National Endowment of the Arts, is a member of the Advisory Com[*] mittee for the National Peace Foundation ... the list goes on. For all of her achievements despite the limitations of arthritis, Curtin received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Arthritis Foundation's Massachusetts Chapter in 1991.
Curtin says there are no secrets to her success and offers some advice for others trying to cope with the pain of arthritis. "I certainly understand pain, and I have had some awfully devastating times. Many times when you hurt and you can't move well, you ask yourself, 'What am I going to do?' I want to encourage people to find something outside themselves that is compelling. We need to channel some of the energies we once had - to sort of pick those up and carry on," she says. "That's the whole thing about art. It doesn't just lie inside for one to wallow around in it. You have to transfer those feelings and intensities and dreams outside of yourself to someplace else."
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|Date:||Nov 1, 1992|
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