Her sparkling soprano singing voice, which once thrilled audiences across the country, isn’t heard live on stage today. But the petite Gwen Curatilo remains an oversized presence in Chico’s opera scene, a leading role she’s played for nearly five decades.
Legions of CSU, Chico alums and people throughout Northern California’s broader music scene know Curatilo, the former head of the University’s opera program.
Fondly called Mrs. C., she drives a car with “soprano” emblazoned on the vanity license plate and is distinguished by her bubbly personality and distinctive giggle. She is also recognized as a dedicated teacher, accomplished performer, and voracious fundraiser for causes she loves.
Now 83, Curatilo “is synonymous with opera in this town,” said Dr. Steven Schwartz, a Chico cardiologist and amateur opera singer who met Curatilo when he moved to Chico in 1982.
“She had a great talent and she worked hard,” Schwartz recalled. “She could identify with students and she wanted them to experience what she did—to discover the joy and the self-satisfaction of learning how to sing and how to perform.”
After a noted professional opera career, 24 years at the helm of Chico State’s opera program, and years of training voice students privately, Curatilo is stepping into the spotlight again.
This weekend, the opera impresario and her many achievements will be honored at Celebrating Gwen Curatilo at Chico State’s Harlen Adams Theatre.
Proceeds from the show will support a Department of Music and Theatre production of The Little Sweep, a children’s opera about a young chimney sweep. The Little Sweep will be performed in January for 1,500 Chico Unified School District grade school students.
While many of Chico’s current opera fans are Baby Boomers or beyond, Curatilo (pronounced ‘coo-RAH-tea-low’), hopes the upcoming children’s production will attract a whole new generation of devotees.
“If you’re not exposed to it, you’ll never know if you’ll love it. In my opinion, it’s the most ravishingly beautiful and complicated art form,” she explained. “We sing in foreign languages. There is ballet in opera. There’s a beautiful orchestra in the orchestra pit. There are costumes, there’s acting, and there are gorgeous voices. The drama of opera is so deep. Pick an opera and I’ll tell you there’s a story there that has to do with the culture of that country or the political atmosphere of the time.”
Curatilo will also speak about the intrigue of opera in late September, just before a film of the 2008 San Francisco Opera performance of La Boheme is shown to a group of students from Chico State’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute.
Her zeal for opera came about quite by accident.
One day, when her family was living near Chicago, a friend of her mother suggested the women take their daughters to the opera. Curatilo, then in the third grade, had never attended such a performance.
The show featured Maria Callas, an international soprano sensation during the post-World War II era, performing in Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca.
“I was speechless. I was blown away,” Curatilo recalled.
Her love of music remained and a few years later, Curatilo joined her high school’s chorus. It was there she learned how to hone her singing, read music, play the viola, and perform.
When she graduated from high school two years early, at 16, she knew she wanted to sing. To raise money for college, Curatilo spent a year working in a bakery and then as a clerk at the University of Chicago, where she also sang in the college chorus, even though she wasn’t a student there at the time.
After saving enough to enter the undergraduate music program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Curatilo did housekeeping and cooked in the dorms to support herself. She also sang for a Jewish temple on Friday nights and Saturday mornings, and for a Christian church on Sundays, all while taking a full course load.
After three semesters, the 19-year-old singer dropped out to marry Joe Curatilo, who had earned his PhD at the University of Illinois in music education. They moved to San Francisco, where he embarked on a teaching career and she found many outlets in which to sing.
“I sang all the time; for churches, for clubs, for the Sons of Italy, for a Jewish women’s organization,” she said. “I sang for whoever asked me. I just kept singing.”
Eventually, in 1958, she auditioned for and won a spot with the San Francisco Opera’s revered Merola Opera Program, a finishing school for talented, young opera singers.
In 1960, the San Francisco Opera hired Curatilo as a full-time member and her professional career blossomed as she sang throughout the US. Over the next six years, she sang in dozens of performances with the opera company, including Madame Butterfly, Marriage of Figaro, Carmen, and The Crucible. Curatilo received many cover roles—learning the scores of other singers so she could easily step in last-minute if needed.
She eventually caught the ears of the music department at Chico State, which offered Curatilo the role of Madam Butterfly in the University’s production of that opera in 1968.
After the successful show ended, the University invited Curatilo to return to Chico State in 1969 to teach, a role that energized her as much as performing on stage.
“I was very aware that singers get old like athletes,” she said. “I didn’t have to be the leading lady all the time … I enjoyed this teaching thing and felt a huge affection from the students—they were like sponges. I thought how wonderful it was to be invited to use my skills.”
She officially retired from singing in 1982.
While at Chico State, Curatilo made a name for herself with the University’s Opera Workshop program, which included students and faculty as well as community members.
“There was such a deep vein of altruism where she could identify with students and she wanted them to experience what she did, to discover the joy and the self-satisfaction of learning how to sing and having the option of pursuing an avocation or a vocation in singing,” said Schwartz, a frequent singer in Opera Workshop events who will perform during Saturday’s gala.
Curatilo also launched the Opera Ball, a lavish, black-tie fundraising event held each fall for 15 consecutive years until the last one in 1996. And she set up a scholarship program that was instrumental in drawing students to study at the University. Proceeds from the Opera Ball, said to be the biggest society event in Chico, funded scholarships for music students.
“Our little stars were not famous yet, but I figured they would be one day,” she said.
Curatilo still trains up-and-coming singers privately and helps students raise money to pay for their performance studies through invitation-only fundraising events at her art-filled home. The most recent charitable fête, held in early September, drew about 100 people.
Curatilo calls singing “a passion that never, ever left me. It hasn’t left me yet.”