Verdi : AidaNew York, Met, 1957 (Audio)
Director: Fausto Cleva
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Mary Curtis-Verna was a Metropolitan Opera soprano of the 1950s and ’60s who became famous for stepping into the roles of ailing, stranded or otherwise indisposed divas, often on only a few hours
Known to opera aficionados for her large, flexible voice and astute musicianship, Ms. Curtis-Verna was associated with the Met from 1956 to 1966. Appearing in nearly 100 performances, she was cast regularly in leading roles, including Tosca and Aida. She was partnered with some of the best-known male singers of the era, among them Leonard Warren, Richard Tucker and Jussi Bjoerling.
Ms. Curtis-Verna might not have been quite the household name that some of her contemporaries were. (Besides her, the new hires for the Met’s 1956-57 season included Maria Callas.) Her reviews tended to be respectful rather than rapturous. (Critics often took her to task for an insufficiently fiery stage temperament, a most unusual quality in her line of work.)
But Ms. Curtis-Verna had a host of unassailable attributes that in combination made her, as Time magazine wrote in 1958, “the Metropolitan’s most highly publicized relief aria-pitcher.”
Ms. Curtis-Verna made her Met debut in February 1957 as Leonora in “Il Trovatore.” Reviewing the performance in The New York Times, Howard Taubman wrote that the role “was not easy, and she carried it off with outward evidences of poise.”
In the years to come, her notices in The Times followed an increasingly familiar pattern:
¶Dec. 1, 1957 — “Newcomer Sings ‘Aida’ Title Role: Mary Curtis-Verna Steps in at ‘Met’ After Death of Renata Tebaldi’s Mother.”
¶Dec. 28, 1957 — “Mary Curtis-Verna, who had never had a stage rehearsal or sung the role in America, was notified at 5:30 that she would go on” for an ailing Eleanor Steber as Donna Anna in “Don Giovanni.”
¶Jan. 4, 1958 — “For the third time in six weeks, Mary Curtis-Verna took over on short notice a leading role in a Metropolitan Opera production,” replacing an indisposed Zinka Milanov as Aida.
¶March 20, 1959 — “Miss Curtis-Verna came to the rescue last night for the fifth time this season. On this occasion she replaced Leonie Rysanek in the leading role of Amelia in Verdi’s ‘Ballo in Maschera.’ ”
¶Jan. 8, 1960 — “Miss Curtis-Verna replaced the indisposed Victoria de los Angeles,” as Violetta in “La Traviata,” “on short notice, adding an extra dramatic touch to the evening. She is scheduled to leave for Europe today and was packing her bags yesterday afternoon when the call came through.”
There were many others.
Mary Virginia Curtis was born in Salem, Mass., on May 9, 1921. She earned a bachelor’s degree in music from what was then Hollins College in Roanoke, Va., and afterward studied at the Juilliard School. Performing as Mary Curtis, she began her career in Europe. She later sang with the New York City and San Francisco Operas before joining the Met.
Ms. Curtis-Verna’s first husband, Ettore Verna, a respected vocal coach, died in 1962. Her second husband, Giuseppe Basile, is her only immediate survivor.
Just what were the qualities that equipped Ms. Curtis-Verna so well for an unplanned career as one of opera’s most dependable pinch-hitters? Among them, Ms. Donohue said on Monday, were a keen memory, singular good looks, foreign-language ability and a vast knowledge of the operatic literature.
(Edited from the New York Times)
Mary Curtis Verna