Spotlight On The Curtis Institute of Music : Philadelphia, PA

Leopold Stokowski’s early prediction of preeminence for the Curtis Institute of Music (see facing page) may have seemed premature at the time he pronounced it. But his bold assertion proved to be right on the mark. This elite Philadelphia conservatory has a name that resonates in the world of classical music … a name that has been synonymous with excellence for almost eighty years.

Founded in 1924 for the specific purpose of training gifted young artists to perform at the highest professional level, the Institute has produced generations of successful instrumentalists and singers. Its roster of famous graduates is a PR department’s dream. In fact, more than 40 alumni of the Vocal Studies department have become members of the Metropolitan Opera, among them Anna Moffo, Judith Blegen, Kevin Short, Katherine Ciesinski, and John Relyea. Others can be heard with leading companies such as San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera, La Scala, Covent Garden and the Vienna Staatsoper. And the successes of its orchestral graduates are too numerous to count.

Because Curtis has a golden reputation, a small vocal program—approximately 25 students at any given time—an enviable 2:1 student-teacher ratio, and full tuition scholarships for all students, many try to gain entrance, but few succeed. Each year, singers from around the world vie for a few spots and the chance to earn a Bachelor of Music, a Master of Music in Opera or a Professional Studies Certificate in Opera from the renowned conservatory. This year, only seven out of more than 300 who auditioned were accepted to the program.

According to Ralph Batman, Administrator of the Vocal Studies Department, it takes talent and an indecipherable something extra to catch the eye and ear of the man who matters, department head Mikael Eliasen. “When Mikael auditions, he looks for real individuals who stand out in some way, people who have a style,” says Batman. “All of our singers are soloists with unique sounds.”

Eliasen has served as Head of Vocal Studies since 1988. As such, he is in charge of all musical and artistic decisions, while Batman handles business aspects such as budgeting, scheduling, production and stage management. Working with an impressive roster of faculty members, these two men adhere to the vision of Curtis founder Mary Louise Curtis Bok. Their vehicle is a performance-heavy program that provides loads of attention for every singer.

“You can’t hide here,” says Batman. “We’re very small, and the students get an awful lot of attention. They have at least three to four hours of coaching per week, and in production more. It is very intense and performance-oriented. That’s the focus here—performance.”

Though Curtis Opera Theatre, the performing branch of the Vocal Studies Department, produces fewer fully-staged operas than rival institutions, and it does not have a large performance venue of its own, singers are nonetheless kept busier than most. Curtis Opera Theatre does three fully staged productions per year and usually a concert version of an opera. The following comprise the 2001-2002 season: Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (sung in Italian with English supertitles); Good Beginnings… Bad Endings, an evening of opera excerpts (in English and original languages); Maurice Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortileges, performed at Verizon Hall in Philadelphia’s new Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts; and Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress featuring the Curtis Symphony Orchestra.

“It’s a professional atmosphere,” says Master’s student Joslin Romphf. “The quality of the productions is very high, and we get to work with great directors and conductors who have different styles. All in all, it ends up being a wonderful educational experience.”

Season productions are selected based on the pool of students available to perform in them. Eliasen waits until after the Vocal Studies entrance auditions, which he generally conducts during the spring break so as not to interfere with the operations of the department. Once incoming students have been established, Eliasen and Batman choose operas that suit their students’ voice types and maturity levels. Singers are not asked to sing inappropriate roles, but all get a chance to be heard. “Everybody rotates in principal and smaller roles,” says Romphf. “Performance is really the central emphasis of the program, and the opportunities are pretty much as many or as few as you’re ready for.”

Opera Theatre productions are just one facet of performance at Curtis. A student recital series that is free and open to the public is offered Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the school year. The series is so popular with the singers and audiences that the department often adds more dates as the year progresses. These recitals are recorded, and highlights are played on local public radio stations, WITF-FM in Harrisburg and WQED-FM in Pittsburgh, giving valuable exposure to the performers. Eliasen also teaches an opera performance seminar and a voice performance seminar that provide audience exposure but are open to faculty and students only.

Besides school-oriented programs, students frequently perform in the community at large. Since Curtis has a longstanding relationship with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, many of its students get professional exposure while still in school. “We have a nice relationship with the Opera,” Batman says. “We usually do an intern program with them in which students get to actively take part in rehearsals. Next year we have several who are doing roles in main stage productions there. It’s a terrific experience, and Mikael is good about giving releases.” Opera Company of Philadelphia frequently uses Curtis students to fill small roles, thus giving them professional experience and income to help pay for additional expenses not covered by scholarship funds.

Says voice teacher Joan Patenaude-Yarnell, who has been on the Curtis faculty for six years, “There is no student who does not perform in front of an audience. Besides our own productions, recitals, and work with the Opera Company of Philadelphia, we did an all-Brahms concert at the German consulate in New York this year, and we often sing at the Harvard Club.” In addition, Patenaude-Yarnell says that many students get outside gigs at churches, in concerts, or singing oratorio.

Needless to say, with only 25 singers to absorb all of this and so many opportunities to perform, each student has a long list of performance credits to take out into the world by the time they finish the program, be it at the undergraduate or graduate level. “This is a big advantage, because students develop real stage savvy,” says Batman. “Obviously, in order for undergraduates to get degrees, they have to take academic curricula, but we truly are a conservatory. Everyone is a musician.”

The select few who make it into Curtis’ Vocal Studies program are fully aware of their good fortune. To have access to some of the country’s finest teachers, abundant opportunities to perform, and connections to a world-class opera company—all tuition-free—is beyond the wildest dreams of most young singers. Romphf, a soprano, is currently riding her fifth year of full scholarship at Curtis. “When I auditioned in 1997, Mikael [Eliasen] accepted three out of about 400 singers. I didn’t dare hope that I would be selected, and when I was, it was thrilling,” she admits. “I never talked to him about why I was chosen. It’s just understood that if you get in it’s because he sees something special.”

One unusual aspect of Curtis’ program is that it will pay for any vocal teacher the student chooses. Since the beginning, Romphf has studied voice with a teacher not on the faculty. She travels to New York for her voice lesson, as do many of her schoolmates. Even the two voice teachers on staff, Patenaude-Yarnell and Marlena Kleinman Malas, teach off-campus. “Students come to see us in New York, and their way is paid,” says Patenaude-Yarnell. “But if they want to be taught by someone else, they can do it as long as that person is a good professional and located within a reasonable traveling distance. I truly believe in this, because having the right voice teacher is so important.”

Once a week, students will go to Patenaude-Yarnell’s apartment in the city and spend the entire day. One may work on the computer while another relaxes on the sofa and another gets a lesson. “They feel very much at home,” says Patenaude-Yarnell, who spends just a day or two on campus every six weeks.

Every Vocal Studies student at Curtis gets one hour of voice per week off campus, wherever their teacher happens to be (most are in New York), in addition to the incredible sum of three hours or more of coaching on campus. In fact, Curtis students can have just about as much coaching as they can handle—all they have to do is ask for it. And they sacrifice nothing in quality by getting more. “The coaches here are fantastic, and some offer specialized areas of study. For example, one woman specializes in baroque,” says Romphf. “We are really lucky.” Unlike the voice teachers, coaches are on campus every day (most of them live in Philadelphia) and accessible to singers.

Vocal Studies students also receive movement and acting instruction, repertoire, make-up, and one scenes program every year. And undergraduate students are required to take the expected courses in areas such as music history, theory, language, pedagogy, piano, and others to fulfill their academic requirements.

With all the performing being done, the rigorous standards to be met, and the close attention being paid each student by teachers, there’s a lot of pressure to excel at Curtis. “I think it can be a very stressful situation, because students really have to prove themselves,” says Batman. “They get their tuition totally free, and there’s a lot of peer pressure in a way, though nobody lets on. But it makes them perform better.”

The difficulty of living up to Curtis’ standards of excellence can be especially acute for younger students, those who enter straight out of high school and suddenly find themselves far away from the world they knew and immersed in a grueling schedule of study and performance. This was the case for Romphf, who left her home in Canada to pursue her singing aspirations. “The first year here was one of the most difficult of my life,” she says. “I was 18 and living alone for the first time, taking a lesson every week in New York, performing once a week, and had to be on and singing all the time. It was shocking to me, but you either figure it out or you die. I figured it out. For the most part, people here really rise to the occasion. All of us have our moments when we’re stressed out beyond belief, but everyone at Curtis is so supportive.”

In order to make the grade at Curtis, or in any demanding program, students have to practice. The Institute has practice rooms in the Drexel and Sibley mansions, which were joined to form one building in 1924, and in the main building at 1726 Locust Street. Singers and instrumentalists vie for the rooms, and even though their numbers are relatively small, they must think ahead to get the time they need when they need it. According to Romphf, “If you don’t remember to sign up in advance, it can be a problem. And it’s not unheard-of to warm up in a bathroom.” Voice teacher Patenaude-Yarnell agrees that practice space can be a scarce commodity, though she doesn’t consider it a real issue. “The rooms here are beautiful, in a wonderful old mansion,” she says. “But students can practice in their apartments as well.”

Other Curtis facilities, located on and around Rittenhouse Square in downtown Philadelphia, include the Milton L. Rock Resource Center, which houses the Institute’s libraries, and Field Concert Hall, an acoustically excellent 250-seat auditorium used for recitals, concerts, master classes and recording sessions. Curtis Opera Studio—a black-box theater that seats approximately 125 and is used for opera performances, movement classes, rehearsals and master classes—is located just above Field Concert Hall.

Because Curtis does not have dormitory space, students are responsible for their own living arrangements. Most have apartments within a comfortable walking distance of the Institute. This and other personal expenses are not covered by scholarship. The estimated cost for housing, food, utilities, clothing, medical expenses and other miscellaneous necessities is $16,000 for the nine-month school year. If a student does not have parents who can pay these costs, they may turn to federal or state student loans to fill in this sizeable gap. But sometimes even that is not enough. “Some of them work as well,” says Patenaude-Yarnell, “at the school library, in the office, as waiters or in church jobs.” Being Canadian, and therefore not eligible for U.S. loans, Romphf found paying these extraneous but essential expenses a hardship at first. But in her second year, the Institute’s Office of Student Financial Assistance implemented the TERI (The Education Resources Institute) Loan for foreign students. “I have taken advantage of that, and it’s helped me take care of the other expenses,” says Romphf.

Besides the many advantages already mentioned, Curtis singers are fortunate in their exposure to the immensely talented instrumentalists who attend the Institute’s orchestral programs. According to Katherine Ciesinski, a successful mezzo who graduated from Curtis in the 1970s (see article at right), working one-on-one with instrumentalists opened up a whole new realization for her of what makes music happen. “Being at Curtis placed us in the same student body with these exceptional instrumentalists,” she says. “We made chamber music with them and did recitals. They became our buddies, and we maintained contact afterward. For a singer to be associated with that level of musician at such an early stage really completes them.”

And one simply cannot overestimate the orchestral talent at Curtis. The Institute has graduated the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Yefim Bronfman, Pamela Frank, Hilary Hahn, Paavo Järvi, Leila Josefowicz, Jaime Laredo, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, and the list goes on. Curtis graduates hold prominent positions in orchestras around the world, and they comprise nearly 25 percent of the principal players of the “Big Five” American orchestras—New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and The Cleveland Orchestra.

“We may not have a [large-scale] venue,” says Batman of his opera program, “But we have an orchestra and a good one. That is tremendously valuable to our singers.”

Young singers seeking the best possible training in a nurturing yet challenging environment would have a difficult time finding a better environment than the Curtis Institute of Music. But to make it into the program, and make good once you get there, requires talent and a single-minded focus. “This is a place for aspiring professional musicians, people who are performing animals,” says Romphf, “not for those who want to teach.”

Singers out there who are ready for the Curtis challenge should go for it, but not without a little backup. “I always tell those who ask to make sure and audition for another school as well,” says Patenaude-Yarnell. “And when they audition, they should be simple and conservative in what they sing—not try things that are beyond them. And mostly, they should be true to themselves. The one who makes it in will have a voice, personality, interpretive ability or musicality with something special about it. Perfection is not required, because, after all, this is a school and it is our job to teach.”

Lori Gunnell

Lori Gunnell is a free-lance writer (and 13-year practitioner of yoga) based in Pasadena, Calif. Out of consideration for others, she only sings in the shower and car.