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Sanford Sylvan, an internationally prominent baritone who nurtured his talent in Boston, dies at 65

Mr. Sylvan had performed extensively at Tanglewood and in Boston and taught at Boston Conservatory.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/File 2007/Globe Staff

Though Sanford Sylvan grew up just outside New York City and received his early musical training in Manhattan, he moved to Boston in 1977 as a young man to establish a creative home.

“In those days you weren’t supposed to leave New York to have a career, but I just wanted to go where I wanted to make music,” he told Globe classical music critic Jeremy Eichler in 2007. “I kept hearing people from Boston talking about music — about music — whereas in New York people tended to talk about singing.”

A versatile, much-praised baritone, Mr. Sylvan became a favorite of the composer John Adams and the director Peter Sellars, and he formerly taught at Boston Conservatory.


Mr. Sylvan, who was known for taking sabbaticals for reflection and studies in areas outside music, was 65 when died Tuesday in his Manhattan home. His family told The New York Times that the cause wasn’t immediately known.

For the past several years he taught at The Juilliard School in New York, where he chaired the voice faculty.

“Sanford was a brilliant artist, an exceptional teacher, and a generous friend,” Damian Woetzel, the school’s president, said in an e-mail to the Juilliard community.

At a 1992 Tanglewood concert, performing the Schubert song cycle “Die schone Mullerin” alongside his longtime collaborator, pianist David Breitman, Mr. Sylvan “used his voice, his musicianship, his technique, his legato, his jagged declamation, his poetic imagination to tell us a story of love won and lost, of exhilaration, jealousy, and suicidal despair; he not only told us the story, but entered in to it,” Globe critic Richard Dyer wrote.

During the 30 years when Boston was his home, Mr. Sylvan established a national prominence in roles for Adams’s operas. In the late 1980s and early ’90s, Mr. Sylvan was Chou En-lai in “Nixon in China” and Leon Klinghoffer in “The Death of Klinghoffer,” and he was the soloist in the premiere of “The Wound-Dresser,” an orchestral setting by Adams of a Walt Whitman poem. “He was my muse,” Adams told the Times, “certainly for the male voice during that period.”


For Sellars, Mr. Sylvan starred in productions of Mozart’s “Così fan Tutte,” staged at a roadside diner, and “Le Nozze di Figaro,” where the action was set in Trump Tower in Manhattan.

After Mr. Sylvan died, Sellars told the Times that “Sandy could sing that music with purity and a danger zone.”

In the early 1980s, Mr. Sylvan’s schedule was packed with performances in Boston, Tanglewood, and elsewhere.

“There’s no secret,” he told the Globe in 1983. “You just have to live like an athlete in training. I stay fit, I’ve done yoga for the past two years, I meditate, I get a nap every afternoon I possibly can, I try to eat intelligently and . . . well, let’s just say I’ve earned a reputation as quite the party pooper!”

By the end of that decade, Anthony Tommasini wrote for the Globe that Mr. Sylvan “is such a familiar presence in Boston that we are in danger of taking him for granted. His voice these days seems richer, more luminous, both darker and yet clearer than ever. And his artistry — his commitment to every moment, his sense of musicianly service — just grows as he matures.”


In the 2007 Globe interview, just before he left Boston to teach at McGill University in Montreal, Mr. Sylvan recalled that he had moved north from New York three decades earlier because “Boston was just unbelievably fertile. I mean the amount of choral societies, chamber orchestras, and new music groups — it was overwhelming.”

He added that “New York is great and I love singing there, but you go through it — you don’t stop there. In Boston, I remember thinking, I’m doing my job. There are doctors for the city, and there are writers for the city. I’m a musician for the city.”

Born in New York City, Sanford Sylvan grew up in Syosset, on Long Island, a son of Lenore Cohen, a former teacher, and Elliott Sylvan, who had been an executive for a trucking company and a supermarket chain.

At 13, Mr. Sylvan began going into Manhattan to read acting books at Lincoln Center’s library and by chance encountered the Verdi opera “Aida.”

“In the front of the library, they had a little theater and one day they were showing slides of ‘Aida,’ with Leontyne Price, while they played excerpts from her recording,” he told the Globe in 1988. “I didn’t know what ‘Aida’ was — I had to ask someone what was going on. Then I went upstairs and checked out the records and took them home. That was it.”

He told the Globe that he lied about his age to get admitted to Juilliard’s preparatory program two years before turning 16. He then studied at the Manhattan School of Music while working as an usher at the Metropolitan Opera every night and 12 hours on Saturdays. “Seeing all those performances was a great lesson,” he recalled.


Mr. Sylvan also began spending summers at Tanglewood, where his teacher was the soprano Phyllis Curtin.

“I am the artist that I am because of Phyllis Curtin,” he told the Globe. “By the time I met her, I had done all kinds of listening, but I had no idea of how to turn what I knew into performance. She showed me why we do what we do and how to do it. She was also able to convince my parents that I was doing the right thing. They couldn’t imagine how anyone could make a living as a singer.”

After Curtin died in 2016, he told the Globe that “she had the deepest understanding of why we actually make music, how we think about poetry, why we are standing in the crook of the piano.”

Upon moving to Boston, he paid his rent by working at Barnes & Noble, and he immersed himself in a variety of music organizations. “The great thing about Boston is that there is endless music-making of every kind,” he later recalled.

Among his most significant musical relationships were his work with the Emmanuel Music ensemble and performing with Breitman.

“People in Boston treat the musical organizations that are not the symphony and not the ballet with much more respect than they do in New York,” Mr. Sylvan said in the 2007 interview. “So the collaborations have more lasting power and a depth of dialogue with the audience.”


According to the Times, Mr. Sylvan leaves his mother, Lenore; his sister, Gwen; and his brother, Seth. Information about a memorial service was not immediately available.

While Mr. Sylvan was best-known for his performances and recordings, he also was a respected teacher. He allowed the Globe’s Dyer to observe a 1990 master class he conducted at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, where he was humble with his students and stressed that at times he all but disappeared into the music during concerts.

“The last place to think of yourself is in a concert hall standing in front of a piano and facing an audience. Then you’re lost,” he said that day. “In a sense, when I am singing, I am no longer there.”

Material from The New York Times was used in this report.