Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, Biographer of Verdi and Puccini, Dies at 86

January 27th, 2013

Mary Jane Phillips-Matz, a biographer of Verdi and Puccini whose work sought, and by all accounts found, the flesh-and-blood men behind the music, died on Jan. 19 at her home in Manhattan. She was 86.

The cause was congestive heart failure, her son, Charles Albert Matz III, said.

Ms. Phillips-Matz was known in particular for her monumental volume “Verdi: A Biography,” published in 1993 by Oxford University Press. Spanning 941 pages, the book was the product of some 30 years’ research.

Reviewing it in The New York Times Book Review in 1994, Edward Rothstein, then the newspaper’s chief music critic, called it an “important biography,” adding, “ ‘Verdi’ provides us with a more complicated portrait of the man than we have had so far.”

The biography won an Ascap Deems Taylor Award in 1994.

Critics occasionally chided Ms. Phillips-Matz for the lack of musical analysis in her work, but her books were never intended to be musicological studies.

In the Verdi biography, for instance, she conjured her subject’s life from her years of sifting through records in libraries, church registries, provincial town halls and family archives. The fruit of her labor, reviewers agreed, was a forthright portrait of a complex personality, set against the background of his renown as the composer of “Rigoletto,” “Aida,” “Otello” and other operas.

Verdi, Ms. Phillips-Matz’s biography explains, was a man of outsize moods and corresponding actions. He could be immensely generous, founding or supporting schools, hospitals, libraries and a musicians’ retirement home, among other good works.

Yet after a rift with his family when he was an adult, Verdi legally disowned his father and forced him from his home. He also may have sired at least one illegitimate child who was given up for adoption at birth.

Ms. Phillips-Matz took a similar approach in “Puccini: A Biography” (2002). The book portrayed its subject, the composer of “La Bohème,” “Tosca” and “Madama Butterfly,” as a simple man of immoderate appetites — for fast cars, speedboats, cigarettes and women.

Mary Jane Phillips was born on Jan. 30, 1926, in Lebanon, Ohio. As a child, she became entranced by the productions of the Cincinnati Summer Opera.

“I became a real groupie, the way people would chase after the Rolling Stones and the Beatles,” Ms. Phillips-Matz told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2000.

In the late 1940s, after earning a bachelor’s degree in medieval literature from Smith College and a master’s in the field from Columbia, she began writing for Opera News magazine, to which she would contribute articles for more than 50 years. She was also a regular writer of program notes for the Royal Opera House in London.

Ms. Phillips-Matz’s marriage to Charles Albert Matz Jr. ended in divorce. Besides her son, she is survived by two daughters, Margaret Spencer Matz and Clare Ann Matz; a grandchild; and four step-grandchildren. Two other daughters, Catherine Eleanore Matz and Mary Ann Matz, died before her.

Her other books include “Rosa Ponselle: American Diva” (1997) and “Leonard Warren: American Baritone” (2000).

She was a founder of the American Institute for Verdi Studies, a research center at New York University.

As Ms. Phillips-Matz explained in interviews, she knew Verdi and Puccini intimately because she knew Italy just as intimately. For decades, she divided her time between New York, Venice and Busseto, the town in the Emilia-Romagna region where Verdi had lived.

In New York, she chose to make her home in an apartment on West 71st Street, overlooking Verdi Square.

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