Remembering Phyllis Curtin: Time marches on, but a gentlemen caller remembers

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LENOX - "Phyllis!" I'd pick up the phone and say. "How would you like a visitor?"

"Andy! How are you?" she'd say before I had a chance to ask her the same question. The voice was husky, not the silvery soprano that audiences had known at City Opera, the Met and houses across Europe.

"I'm okay," I'd reply. "How are you?"

"I'm doing just fine," she'd say, even though it was plain that she wasn't.

Then, with clearance from the live-in aide, I'd scoot on down from Lenox to the country home in Great Barrington. The visits weren't easy — her mind as well as body was failing — but my life is emptier without them.

Others knew Phyllis Curtin better as opera star, recitalist, colleague, teacher, dean, mother, grandmother, friend. I was privileged to be her "gentleman caller" during her last years, when she was immobilized in a reclining chair and left behind by the musical and social world.

Phyllis, who died at 94 on June 5 last year, was one of three stalwarts whom Tanglewood lost last summer. She and former Boston Symphony concertmaster Joseph Silverstein died before the season began; BSO principal cellist Jules Eskin died soon after it.

Tanglewood moves on. The world moves on. Other sopranos, violinists and cellists fill the gaps. For a few of us — maybe many of us — Phyllis leaves a hole that can't be filled.

Gentleman caller: a southern term, enshrined in the character Jim in "The Glass Menagerie." Phyllis was a West Virginia girl, born Phyllis Smith in Charles Town (population then 30,000). I, too, was from the South, which made me a gentleman caller.

Musicians and critics are supposed to be species apart, like cats and dogs. We met through her husband, Gene Cook, a musical factotum. When Phyllis began phasing out her performing career and became dean of Boston University's School for the Arts in 1981, we couples began seeing each other in Boston and the Berkshires. Gene died in 1986 and she moved full-time to the country home on her retirement from B.U. in 1997.

As arthritis and other ailments took an increasing toll, she moved from the spacious house to an adjoining apartment built for her. Her daughter, Claudia d'Alessandro, moved into the big house to be nearby. Phyllis loved the giant maple outside her window. Birds twittered at the feeders. Books piled high on the living room table.

Behind me a fire hisses in the artificial logs behind the glassed-in hearth.

"What have you been hearing?" she asks, and I tell her about concerts, operas, lectures, conversations with people she knew — anything that comes to mind.

"What have you been reading?" I ask, with a nod at the open book on her bookstand, and she maybe remembers or, on bad days, doesn't remember.

But always the talk came back to music — our kind of music. No longer symphony or opera. That was too public, too grandiose, though once in a while she'd revel in the memory of a Fiordiligi, Violetta or Salome she'd sung. But the song recital: music as a direct, intimate communication between performer and listener. Her students were as eager as ever but people weren't going to recitals any more.

What could I tell her? In opera and classical music, people were rushing to the latest star. Beyond that, pop and digital screens ruled. We had both been left behind.

"Do you remember," she asks, "how Beverly stole that `Julius Caesar' right out from under my nose?" She's remembering how Beverly Sills, in 1966 at City Opera, threatened to rent Carnegie Hall and draw half the audience away if Phyllis didn't hand over the role of Handel's Cleopatra.

"You gave in," I say,

"It was so long ago. Do you think anybody remembers?"

"You remember. You forgave her. The people who matter know."

"I was never a great Tosca."

"You were a great Salome. You made her an innocent girl trapped in a nasty situation, instead of the same old sexpot."

I can't claim to have been Phyllis' best friend or closest comforter. Many musicians, such as baritone Mack Harrell and composer Carlisle Floyd, who wrote his country-girl opera "Susannah" for her, knew her from the early days. But as old friends aged and died off, and Phyllis became less and less mobile, their visits became fewer and fewer, until they ceased. Her visitors became pretty much a loyal few who lived nearby.

Others have taken over the Tanglewood classes where Phyllis ruled for 51 years. So be it. Age and change come to people and institutions alike. In my mind, I remain the gentleman caller.

Andrew L. Pincus is The Berkshire Eagle's classical music critic. He writes regular reviews and a weekly column highlighting Tanglewood, "Rambling About Tanglewood." He lives in Lenox.


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