A grand musical reunion
Former students converge to celebrate opera teacher in song
They’re coming from Hawaii and New York City and Ohio and from cities up and down California. One is flying in from Europe. And they’re all paying their own way to be part of a celebration of the life and work of their former voice and performance teacher, Gwen Curatilo.
It’s been 17 years since Curatilo retired after 23 years as director of Chico State’s Opera Workshop, but the affection her students feel for her remains as strong as ever. Many of them have gone on to have rewarding careers in music and opera, whether as performers, designers or teachers, and they credit “Mrs. C,” as she is affectionately known, for providing the skillful training and loving encouragement that propelled them forward.
Many of her former students will perform at the gala (Saturday, Sept. 17, in Harlen Adams Theatre), as will community members who had parts in the many productions—full-length operas, opera galas and the annual Opera Ball—Curatilo created and directed.
The idea for the celebration came from Bradley Martin, the new chair of the university’s Department of Music and Theatre. Shortly after he arrived in Chico, he heard about Curatilo and the tremendous vocal program she had created, and he wondered why it no longer existed.
He also learned that she had left a legacy: thousands of dollars in scholarship money that is frozen because there is no voice program.
Martin wants to revive the vocal program and has hit upon the celebration as a way to kick-start the process. Curatilo, who is passionate about encouraging children to sing, went along when she learned that the proceeds would be used to offset part of the cost of staging Benjamin Britten’s delightful three-scene, sing-along opera The Little Sweep before 1,500 Chico Unified School District students.
Curatilo is 83 years old, but she has the energy of someone much younger. She continues to teach (she has seven private voice students), is a major supporter of the Chico Children’s Choir (which will be performing at the celebration), and often offers her lovely, art-filled Durham home for fundraising concerts. Just recently she hosted 60 people at a scholarship benefit for one of her students.
Although the celebration wasn’t her idea and is a huge project for an 83-year-old to take on, Curatilo inevitably will end up directing the show. As she put it, laughing, “Who else is there?”
Fortunately, she will have plenty of help. Just as singers are flying in from everywhere, local folks who love and appreciate Curatilo are stepping forward. One, Julie Clemens, has created a spreadsheet to track the performers’ arrivals; the university’s Steven Ellis is coming out of retirement to create a lighting design; Tim McDonald, a co-founder of Chico City Light Opera, is flying in from New York not only to sing, but also to emcee; and so forth.
Headlining the show will be Jeanette Blakeney, a mezzo-soprano who is perhaps Curatilo’s most successful former student as a singer. She will be flying in from Europe, where she is performing in a production of Porgy and Bess. Joining her will be Zachary Gordin, a highly praised baritone whose voice is “commanding and intense without ever descending into coarseness,” according to the Seattle Times.
There will be solo performances, duets, trios and a grand chorus at the end. Curatilo lights up when she thinks about it all—about the singing, of course, but most of all about working again with so many of her former students.