Born: May 9, 1921, Salem, MA
Died: December 4, 2009, Seattle, WA
Spouses: Ettore Verna, Giuseppe Basile
Education: Hollins College, Roanoke, VA & Juillard, New York, NY
American operatic soprano Mary Curtis-Verna was born in Salem on May 9, 1921. After attending Abbot Academy (now part of Phillips Academy in Andover) she earned her bachelor’s degree in music from what was then Hollins College in Roanoke, Virginia. She continued her music studies at Juilliard. She began her career in Europe but later sang with the New York City and San Francisco Operas before joining the Met. Her first husband was Ettore Verna, a respected vocal coach. Her second husband was Giuseppe Basile.
Known to opera aficionados for her large, flexible voice and astute musicianship, she appeared in nearly 100 performances from 1956 to 1966. Time magazine wrote in 1958, that Curtis-Verna was “the Metropolitan’s most highly publicized relief aria-pitcher.” This was aided by her keen memory, singular good looks and foreign-language ability.
On May 4th, 1957, Curtis-Verna returned to Salem to perform at a benefit concert at the Salem Armory. This highly attended concert (2500 people were said to be there) presented Mary Curtis-Verna as well as the New England Federation of Men’s Glee Clubs. The concert was sponsored by the Salem Hospital Aid Association. Mayor Collins proclaimed May 4th as Mary Cutis-Verna day and she was presented with many gifts, which included a silver bowl and a painted tray depicting the occasion as well as events in her life.
In thanking the city of Salem for all she was given, she personally thanked Claude Phillips who gave her a chance to sing in public the first time and the Rotary Club who also supported her passion for singing. Curtis-Verna performed a wide array of roles and was often thought to be deserving of more attention than she received during her career. When the old Met Theater closed down in New York and the opera relocated to Lincoln Center, she decided to move on and took the position of Head of the Voice Department at the University of Washington, School of Music in 1969. She retired as professor emerita in 1991.
Ms. Curtis-Verna made commercial recordings of DON GIOVANNI, AIDA and BALLO IN MASCHERA. She sang with the Met for a total of 97 performances, the last being at the closing night gala of the old Metropolitan Opera House. At her death, from complications of a hip fracture, Ms. Verna died of complications from a broken hip at the age of 88 on Dec. 4th, 2009 at her home in Seattle. She left behind a number of recordings, including complete performances of “Aida” and Ponchielli’s “La Gioconda” with Franco Corelli.
Curtis-Verna, Mary, Salem Links &Lore
Mary Curtis-Verna, Opera’s Champion Pinch-Hitter, Dies at 88.
Fox, Margalit. New York Times, December 22, 2009.
Mary Curtis-Verna, 1921-2009: A Voice of Beauty. Marmor, Jon. Columns, March 2010
Available @ the Library
Salem Women’s Heritage Trail: Four Centuries of Salem Women. Smith, Bonnie Hurd. (2000)