The illustrations of Norman Rockwell are beloved and timeless. In the landscape of American music conservatories, there is a place that is equally iconic and cherished, and that is the Curtis Institute of Music.
Founded in Philadelphia in 1924, the school is named for Cyrus H.K. Curtis, the publishing magnate responsible for bringing Rockwell’s artwork to the American people via the Saturday Evening Post. But it was Curtis’ daughter, Mary, who was responsible for the school’s original endowment of $12.5 million, which she offered in memory of her mother, who had served as the editor of another of Curtis’ magazines, The Ladies’ Home Journal.
It didn’t take long for Curtis to produce its first bona fide opera star in soprano Rose Bampton, a student in the 1930s whose classmates included composers Samuel Barber and Gian Carlo Menotti. Since then, the roster of graduates has continued to impress. One of its most famous grads these days is bass-baritone Eric Owens. A major star at the Metropolitan Opera and other houses, Owens will take the helm of the vocal studies department at Curtis this fall.
Owens’ co-director will be Danielle Orlando. “Danielle Orlando has been, for many years, a critical partner with Mikael Eliasen in providing world-class pedagogy to these students,” says Opera Philadelphia General Director David B. Devan, “and we know that this care will continue under her leadership.” A collaborative pianist who has been on the staff of many of the world’s great opera companies, Orlando previously flexed her administrative muscles as artistic administrator and head of musical staff for Opera Philadelphia. She currently serves as master coach on the faculty of another Philadelphia institution with a proud history, the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA). Orlando’s career has been as impressive as it has been diverse—but the common thread has been working with singers at the highest levels, under the greatest pressure. And that pressure starts at Curtis during the extremely competitive audition process.
Even Owens didn’t get in on his first try. “I went away and worked on some things and came back to try again,” Owens says in a recent phone interview. These days he knows what it’s like on the other side of the table.
“We went through around 400 submissions and we whittled that down to about 115 people we invited to audition,” he says, “and there were something like 60 finalists, and we had to choose eight because the school is so small. That was quite a process. We could’ve taken more. We just didn’t have enough spots.”
Curtis attracts the best of the best, not least because it is free. Curtis began bestowing full scholarships on the entire student body in 1928, and that practice has continued to this day. The high level of talent is a boon to the city’s artistic milieu. “Opera Philadelphia has enjoyed a long and productive relationship with Curtis Opera Theatre, which has provided many professional debut opportunities to students on Opera Philadelphia stages,” says Devan.
Speaking of Curtis and the AVA, vice president of marketing and communications at Opera Philadelphia, Frank Luzi, says, “With those two incredible training grounds in our city, we have not felt the need to maintain a separate Young Artists Program.” Because of these strong connections, the opera keeps an eye (and an ear) on the students. “We have known Eric Owens since he was a student at Curtis,” says Devan, “and our company had the great pleasure of helping to establish his career. He was and is a consummate musician with a warm heart—attributes that will also benefit vocal students at the school.”
Owens and Orlando have some big shoes to fill. Eliasen, the outgoing director of vocal studies, has been a mainstay at Curtis for more than 30 years, overseeing the development of singers such as tenor Juan Diego Flórez and recent grad tenor Mingjie Lei, who was just named winner of this year’s Song Prize at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition. These international alums help explain why Curtis has sometimes been called “the musical United Nations.”
“There is such a diverse and rich environment that, almost surely, there is something for everybody,” says Orlando, who worked for many years with Gian Carlo Menotti in Spoleto, Italy, and served as accompanist, judge, and coordinator for the Luciano Pavarotti International Voice Competition. “Many languages are spoken within [Curtis’] hallways. The combination of a powerful history with the excitement that pervades the entire student body is contagious and embracing.”
Being a smaller school helps that diverse student body connect. One of the reasons Flórez chose Curtis, he has said, was because his voice teacher at the time told him he would be “taken care of in a family atmosphere” there.
Former students describe Eliasen’s methods as highly practical, aimed at the real demands of performance, and individualized to each voice and each student’s needs. These philosophies seem to be present in the incoming leadership as well. “Sometimes [voice type] is very clear,” Owens says, “but at those early stages, at 17 or 18, it can be hard to hear. You don’t want to push that, so you kind of stay with neutral territory repertoire and not necessarily assign an opera role.
“If you can hear a possibility but you’re not sure yet, give them a couple of years for basic technique. Of course, in conjunction with their teachers—we need to be on the same page. Grad students will be more fully formed but, still, when I was a grad student there was no indication that someday I would be singing Wagner.”
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Indeed, when I interviewed Owens more than 10 years ago, he was singing a wide variety of repertoire, including Handel and Rossini. His voice, he says, has moved up somewhat as well as become more dramatic, so he knows from personal experience that as voices develop, things change. “Those kinds of decisions usually happen post-Curtis, in their late 20s,” he says. “I can’t say that when I was 25 I had this plan and I followed this plan. There was a lot of evolving to do.
“With soubrettes, they’ll be taking on their roles, and it will be very clear. Whereas I didn’t have a niche; I did a lot of different things early on, and that can be a slower road. A Queen of the Night or a Carmen might be clear earlier. It’s going to be a tailor-made thing. There is no stock answer.”
Mary Louise Curtis Bok stated the school’s ethos as follows: “Students shall learn to think and express their thoughts against a background of quiet culture, with the stimulus of personal contact with artist teachers who represent the highest and finest in their art.”
Those artist teachers may be in Philadelphia, or they may not. Curtis does not have a set faculty of voice teachers. “The faculty that we list on the website are just the people our singers happen to be studying with,” Owens says. “We’re not limited to this group; we can go out and explore and find who is best for whom. There might be a year when you don’t see a certain name on the list because that person doesn’t have a singer at Curtis that year.
“There are some core teachers with whom we’ve had success, and we can coax certain students in that direction, but only if it’s working,” Owens says. “I’m of a firm belief that if it’s not working, then it behooves all of us, including the voice teacher, to help them find someone else. If someone decides to move to a different teacher, it is not an indictment of that teacher, it just means that for that student something is not working. It’s such a personal thing. If something is not progressing, or if it’s deteriorating, we all have to sit down.
“You have to pivot and find someone else. But we also don’t want a student to go voice teacher shopping every other week. Give it a year, or a year and a half. If there is too much change, there can be an overload of information, and that’s not good.”
Again, the terms of success will be practical. “If they come in and they’re doing well,” Owens says, “we’re going to do everything we can to allow them to stay with that person, within reason. We’re not going to fly them to California. Monday is lesson day, and the bulk of our students get on the train and go up to New York to study with their teachers.
“So, if a student comes in with a teacher they like and are doing well with, it is possible, though not guaranteed, that they will continue with that teacher. [With one] soprano who blew us away in her audition, we thought, ‘We’ve got to let her stay with this person who got her here,’ even though this person has never been on the faculty. All the faculty is of an adjunct nature.”
This highly unusual arrangement takes away one of the most problematic aspects of studying voice in conservatory, which is the sometimes random assignation of teachers. By contrast, Curtis’ policy states: “Voice teacher selection will be made by the student with the approval of the dean of vocal studies and the president.”
“Any voice teacher’s job is to ultimately make themselves unnecessary,” Owens says. “You give the singer the tools to self-police.” These days Owens does not work regularly with a teacher himself, preferring to rely on the guidance of various people whose ears he trusts—especially members of the Met’s staff, including Craig Rutenberg, Carol Isaac, and John Fisher. “I do a lot of self-policing,” he says. “Hopefully I’m the first one to hear if something is wrong, but that’s not always the case, and I’m lucky to have these other people.”
Owens’ singing schedule is still full. He will sing Porgy at the Met this season, and next summer he will find his King Marke in Tristan und Isolde at Santa Fe Opera. “But as I look down the road,” he says, “I foresee myself doing fewer opera productions in a year—maybe doing more concerts, which require me to be away less—and that will dovetail as we proceed [at Curtis] and as I choose to accept and not accept certain opera engagements. That’ll be organic.
“Danielle and I complement each other quite well. I just got off a conference call on the budget meeting. For now, technology is allowing me to be a part of the process.”
The department has about 25 singers at any given time, including bachelor’s degree candidates as well as graduate students who will receive a master of music or a professional studies certificate in opera. But there is a fluidity to it. Curtis has been described by some singers as “open ended,” with degrees continuing or changing in order to enable the singer to stay as long as they and the faculty feel is appropriate. Curtis Opera Theatre puts on three or more productions per year, which makes the math conducive to the students gaining valuable performance experience.
“The small number of singers enables us to be flexible with the direction of the department,” says Orlando. “We can take the department and the students where they need to go. Since they are young singers, this is something which is often determined while they are actually attending Curtis. There is no preset plan or mold they need to fit into.”
Curtis takes the artistic incubation of its singers’ talents seriously, which is a good thing in the era of social media. “It’s never been easier or harder to be seen or heard,” Owens says. “Easier in that you yourself can choose to post something on social media or YouTube—but so can anyone else, so it’s harder to be seen because people have to filter through so much. At 18, 19, I was the same way.
“They think they know everything and they don’t know anything. Maybe it’s not a good idea to put that video up of you singing. You might think it’s great, and it might not be great. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
“You can audition somewhere twice, like me with Curtis, and people can hear progress. But you don’t want to make the first impression too early or you’ll spend time trying to get a bad taste out of somebody’s mouth—and you don’t want to worry about that. Danielle and I will try to guide that, especially with the freshmen and sophomores. They need to spend a couple of years just learning how to be the best singers they can be, instead of saying, ‘Look what I’m doing!’
“Get the idea out of your mind that you’re doing this to be famous. The notoriety and the fame needs to be a byproduct of you honing your craft. I’ve heard this idea: ‘The best PR is to be so good that they can’t ignore you.’ It’s not ‘Let me flood the market with as many videos as I can.’”
Today’s Curtis students will have it a bit easier than Owens did back in the day, at least in terms of finding practice rooms. “The Drexel Mansion is a lovely building, but the number of practice rooms was never enough,” Owens says, speaking of the historic building on the 1700 block of Locust Street. “The new facilities are making things so much more convenient and easy. When they broke ground [on Lenfest Hall], it was around the financial crisis about 10 years ago and they were still able to get it done, which is quite impressive.”
The Drexel Mansion, built in 1893, is on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, while the state-of-the-art Lenfest Hall opened for the 2011 school year. The 10-story, 105,000 square-foot building includes dorms for roughly half the student body and an orchestral-sized rehearsal space that is acoustically treated for recording optimization. Artistic sensibilities share the stage with functionality. The building boasts a large art collection including works of Frank Stella, while the dual-paned windows of Gould Rehearsal Hall overlook St. Mark’s church.
The Curtis campus is just east of Rittenhouse Square, a park planned by city founder William Penn in the 17th century in what has long been one of the toniest neighborhoods in town. (A lyric in the musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes goes, “A house on Rittenhouse Square wouldn’t be so hard to take.”)
Curtis is a magnet for international talent but, like the Philadelphia Orchestra and Opera Philadelphia, it is an arts organization very much of its place. Not long after Curtis was founded, the AVA was also founded as a tuition-free institution, and so it remains. And the Settlement Music School, which began offering piano lessons for a nickel, now has six branches serving the entire Philadelphia area. It remains dedicated to arts education for all and, along with Curtis and the AVA, these three institutions have made Philadelphia the gold standard of urban commitment to musical education. They are a pipeline not only for talent but audiences as well.
When Lenfest Hall opened in 2011, the Philadelphia Orchestra was struggling in bankruptcy. It was later rescued by an anonymous donation of $55 million. The field of opera is “ever evolving” as Devan puts it. And the future of classical music is far from guaranteed.
But to Owens, this is nothing new. “When I think about when the very first opera was produced, a few weeks later, everyone was saying, ‘Who is going to come and see this?’ and ‘It costs too much money.’ And all these centuries later, we’re still doing it. Is it like it was at its zenith? No. But it’s still going on, so I remain incredibly hopeful.”
Remarking on the competition of Netflix, YouTube, and even classical streaming options, Owens says, “that is not the same experience as seeing something live when you have hundreds or thousands of people in the same room for the same thing. That’s a beautiful thing you cannot replicate in front of the computer or television.”
Looking ahead, Owens is excited about collaboration between the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Met, which will utilize Curtis singers in workshops of new operas. “Even if they are not the ones ultimately singing the roles at the Met, it’s an amazing opportunity for our singers.”
But the focus at Curtis has been, and will remain, the individualized development of its artists. “Our job at Curtis,” Owens says, “is to make sure, first and foremost, that anyone coming out of Curtis can sing as well as they can and perform as well as they can—encompassing singing, acting, and everything that entails. That’s our job.”