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A Fitting Finale

06/01/2008 04:37PM ● Published by Anonymous

Marvin Curtis is the man who brought opera to Fayetteville.

So some might say that “The Marriage of Figaro” will be his swan song – a farewell performance – before he leaves Fayetteville State University for a new job in South Bend, Ind. But that implies a single and final dramatic achievement, and for Curtis, that would be impossible.

His legacy is the love for music.

And there are other achievements. Curtis was the first African-American to compose music for a presidential inauguration. His piece, “City on the Hill,” was played at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton. And he was recently named a Fulbright Fellow.

But he points to Fayetteville for his greatest accomplishment so far. “Bringing opera to Fayetteville has been my great joy,” he said. “It was out of my realm, but I learned very quickly.”

He did it because someone told him it couldn’t be done – at least not with students at FSU, they said. Curtis went on to produce not just one opera but several: “The Magic Flute,” “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” On July 18, “The Marriage of Figaro” will bring Curtis’ third summer opera series to life.

Marvin Curtis stands out in a crowd. First, there’s his height – just over 6 feet – and then the voice. He’s a talker and a singer and one of the most popular professors on campus. Curtis serves as assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Science and choir director, a job he’s held since the summer of 1996.

The epiphany to produce an opera came to him a year later during a choir performance in Las Vegas. He chose “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” He and his troupe took the opera to the schools for six Christmas seasons so second- and third-graders could taste opera for the first time. Gian Carlo Menotti, an Italian-born American, wrote the opera in 1951 for television. The story revolves around a young, disabled beggar who meets the Magi on their journey to Bethlehem. He offers his only and most prized possession, his crutch, as a gift for the Christ child and in doing so regains the ability to walk.

Curtis was amazed that children applauded when Amahl offered his crutch and was able to walk unassisted. “They got it! They understood what the opera was all about,” Curtis said.

Curtis applied for several grants to pay for his first summer opera series. The Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County awarded one. The second came from the National Endowment for the Arts – the first NEA grant ever received by FSU. He eventually raised $24,000 in grants to pay for FSU's first opera production.

“I lived and breathed opera for months,” he said. But his production philosophy is simple: “I let everyone do their jobs.”

Curtis is quick to point out that producing an opera is a collaborative effort. He works closely with Phoebe Hall, FSU's director of theater. She takes care of the costumes, the staging and the acting. Professor Jonathan Chestnut produces the visual media, the programming and other marketing materials with help from a local printing company that donates its services.

Robert G. Owens, a former FSU choir director, enticed Curtis to come to FSU. Curtis and Owens were teaching colleagues at Lane College in Jackson, Tenn. “I saw it as an opportunity for growth, and I took it,” Curtis said. Once here, Owens and Dr. Bertha Miller, former dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, gave him carte blanche.

They gave him the freedom to do things that had never been done before. He raised money and took the FSU choir on the road. He took the choir to Paris where they performed at Notre Dame Cathedral. A second tour came free of charge when the choir performed in Belgium. “I showed kids a new world,” he said. “That was a major thing for me.”

Professor Phoebe Hall said his most significant achievement has been his fine arts series and the FSU summer operas. “He brought a venue to Fayetteville that it never had before – opera.” Hall said she will miss his drive to produce new and greater events.

Success begets success, and Curtis asked himself the question: was producing “Amahl and the Night Visitors” a one-shot deal? His answer? “Let's try it again.” The successful summer opera series has continued ever since. “It's in the summertime by design. In July, not much is happening and you can get greater focus,” he said.

His operas are in English so people can better understand the story. His goal is to create a 2½-hour fantasy for people. “A night at the opera for a $10 ticket? You can't beat that. At $10 a ticket, everyone can afford to go. If they go to the matinée, it's free,” he said. “The idea is to raise the cultural standards of Fayetteville. As teachers and change agents, it's part of our mission.”

Curtis said he teaches during the rehearsals and believes it’s important to make people comfortable on stage. During the performance, “I just wave my arms because everyone will have learned their parts by then.”

This summer, Curtis will help bring “The Marriage of Figaro” to the stage. The opera has 11 roles and a chorus. Four guest artists will play leading roles. The rest, Curtis said, are local. After his final performance in July, Curtis will become dean of the Ernestine Raclin School of the Arts at Indiana University, moving into yet another chapter of his life and adding meaty credentials to his already impressively filled 10-page resume.

Curtis also played a key role in the arts off campus. He served on The Arts Council of Fayetteville/Cumberland County and as president of the Fayetteville Symphony Orchestra Board of Directors where he led the charge to bring maestro Fouad Fakhouri to Fayetteville, according to Deborah Mintz, executive director of The Arts Council.

Curtis would like to see an opera company created in Fayetteville. The community has the talent, he said, it just needs the opportunity to show its abilities. Art allows Curtis – always the consummate teacher – to open doors. He tells children that it’s not necessary to be an athlete to be successful.

“I could have been a linebacker on a football team,” he says, “but I'm a pianist who cares about his students.”

Curtis would eventually like to become a college president so he can influence change at a more significant level. But after it's all done, Curtis says he wants to be remembered for having been a great teacher, not just of music but also of life.

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