Making music with Mrs. C

MADAMA BUTTERFLY<br>The butterfly in this photo illustration is appropriate, given that Gwen Curatilo, who before coming to Chico to teach was a world-famous lyric soprano, played the role of Butterfly in several stagings of Puccini’s great opera.

The butterfly in this photo illustration is appropriate, given that Gwen Curatilo, who before coming to Chico to teach was a world-famous lyric soprano, played the role of Butterfly in several stagings of Puccini’s great opera.

Photo Illustration by Maria Phillips

Gwen Curatilo stood in the shady courtyard of her ranch-style home near Durham Sunday afternoon (Sept. 30), greeting guests as they arrived. She wore a lacy white floor-length cotton dress, and her short white hair was elegantly teased. She’s long retired from her remarkable career at Chico State University, but she remains as vivacious and enthusiastic as ever.

“The wind is mussing my hair,” she said, giggling irrepressibly. Told that the slight dishevelment made her look even more beautiful, she giggled again, saying, “Perfect is so boring, isn’t it?” Then she led her guest into the house, which is nestled among almond orchards, out of view of the road.

The front door opens on what Curatilo calls her “salon.” It’s a medium-size room with a brick wall at the north end and windows on the east and west sides. All available wall space is filled with artwork, most of it by local artists. The largest piece of furniture is a grand piano.

This is where Curatilo works with her several voice students each week, teaching them the subtleties and joys of operatic singing while instilling in them the discipline needed to do it well.

Today the room was filled with people sitting on the resident couches as well as chairs brought in for the occasion. In the kitchen, just off the salon, other guests were noshing on canap#&233;s and chatting, waiting for the music to begin.

At least once a year, sometimes twice, Curatilo hosts a recital for her students. These are not simple affairs. She believes an important aspect of training young singers is teaching them to be graceful in sophisticated social settings—thus the wine and food and artwork and interesting, well-dressed guests.

One of Curatilo’s favorite composers, Gian Carlo Menotti, died in February, at the age of 95. She’d known him personally and, when she was a world-famous soprano singing on stages throughout this country and Europe, she played “the leading lady,” as she put it, in four of his operas, so she wanted to make the recital a tribute to him.

Others were invited to join her: pianists Sandra Wright and Bob Bowman, the latter elegant in white tie and tails, to be accompanists, and Dr. Steven Schwartz, who hosts KCHO’s weekly Opera Attic show, to talk about Menotti’s life. That the event was taking place on the opening weekend of Artoberfest, Chico’s month-long celebration of the arts, made it seem even more extraordinary.

“Here we are in Durham celebrating Menotti!” Curatilo enthused as she addressed the more than 60 people in attendance.

The program featured selections from four of Menotti’s operas, each of them introduced and placed in context by Curatilo. The singers included, among others, a 12-year-old boy soprano (Alden Tichinin), a local prosecuting attorney (M. Elizabeth Norton) and professional singer and voice teacher Diane O’Sullivan, a longtime student of Curatilo’s.

The wonderful thing about these recitals is that, even when they’re not vocally brilliant, they’re very good and always charming, and watching them is delightful. And O’Sullivan was stunning, especially on the concluding song, “To This We’ve Come,” from The Consul, a wrenching lamentation by a woman caught in a Kafkaesque nightmare. Bowman’s searing, sometimes pounding accompaniment seemed to power her to new levels of expression.

Afterwards people ate and drank and wandered through the house, examining the artwork and, in the hallway, the memorabilia from Curatilo’s long career. There were pictures and posters of her as a lyric soprano with the San Francisco Opera, and posters of the many operas she directed at Chico State (Turandot, La Bohème, The Magic Flute, Cosi fan Tutti, Carmen and the world premiere of Alfred Loeffler’s Love’s Labors Lost, among others) and also posters advertising the annual Opera Ball, for nearly two decades the premiere social event of the year in Chico and the source of the money Curatilo used for student scholarships.

It’s impossible to understate just how remarkable the Opera Program was, how many people it reached. “Mrs. C,” as her students called her, made opera fun and accessible to everyone. I remember watching a group of students at Biggs High School become enthralled by some sketches presented by her Chico State students. Biggs? Opera? You bet.

Unfortunately, when she retired she was irreplaceable. Nobody had the kind of energy and passion needed to direct the operas and galas, manage a small army of volunteers, take the recruiting tours around the state to find great young singers, and then inspire them as no other teacher had.

“We took it all for granted,” Schwartz said. We were standing in the kitchen. “Look what the woman can do,” he added, indicating the people milling about the house. “We’ve just seen an extraordinary tribute to Menotti put on with no institutional resources. That’s Gwen.”

Curatilo’s husband, Joe, her rock and the love of her life, died in 2000, and her mother shortly afterward. Both received hospice care, and Curatilo was so appreciative she became a hospice volunteer, a role to which she devotes much of her time.

She talks about having a man in her life again, but so far none measures up. “He’d need to walk fast, drive the speed limit and have plenty of money,” she said with a laugh. She paused, then shook her head. “They’re not Joe.”