Silber passionate about fine arts, opera

Former Boston University President John Silber’s artistic imprint lives on throughout the Charles River campus, from his contributions to the BU Opera Institute to a sculpture commemorating former Trustee Arthur Metcalf that Silber crafted himself.

The family’s decision to send donations in Silber’s memory to the BU Opera Institute reflects his long-term commitment to developing prestigious music programs at the university and to preserving the vocal arts.

College of Fine Arts dean emerita Phyllis Curtin said Silber showed an unwavering commitment to the arts and supported her as she established the Opera Institute.

“He went to as many [student] concerts as he could in his schedule, but that didn’t allow him many,” Curtin said. “I went to a few with him over the years. He was interested in, particularly, the vocal arts, but also everything we did at the music school was of concern to him.”

The Opera Institute was founded as a two-year, non-degree program designed for emerging vocalists who had already gone through schooling to attain training, Curtain said.

The Opera Institute accepts up to 12 applicants after holding auditions, according to its website. The members receive training in voice acting, languages, movement styles and business strategies, among other topics. They also have a chance to participate in two Mainstage productions.

Silber established a scholarship fund in honor of Curtin, who founded the Opera Institute, according to a statement from CFA.

“Dr. Silber was a longtime champion of the Opera Institute and a strong supporter of Opera Institute founder and CFA Dean Emerita Phyllis Curtin,” said Director of Communications Laurel Homer in the statement. “Dr. Silber regularly attended OI performances at the BU Theatre as well as master classes at the Opera Institute at 808 Commonwealth.”

The late president emeritus made national headlines as a president who clashed with students, professors and activists. Yet colleagues said his commitment to the fine arts at BU reveal a different Silber — one who supported the music program, walked into work singing and drew caricatures of his colleagues.

“He had a very fluid way [of drawing],” Doug Sears, vice president and chief of staff to the BU president, said. “He had a fluid way, he could quickly sketch something out. He’d capture perspective and depth and subtlety but with a few lines … which is very funny. You’d think he’s writing notes or something, but it turns out they’re pictures of his drawings.”

Silber loved not only music and sketching, but sculpting and architecture as well. The son of an architect, Silber looked to build a campus that not only met his academic expectations, but also his aesthetic tastes.

“He was not impressed with the brutalist style, which is what the law building is,” Sears said. “He was not impressed with the idea that you do something ugly because it means something or because it sends some kind of message.”

During Silber’s presidency, the university acquired dozens of properties along Commonwealth Avenue and Bay State Road, as well as South Campus’s Mumford Street, Beacon Street, Buswell Street and Park Drive, said BU spokesman Colin Riley.

However, he seemed especially invested in the musical arts. To Silber, music was transcendent in the sense that it could elevate and inspire, Sears said.

Silber, who majored in fine arts and philosophy at Trinity University, played trumpet and, at one point, considered pursuing a music career. Instead, he entered academia and applied his interest in the arts and his meticulous approach to building BU’s art programs.

Silber was as exacting and opinionated with musical productions as he was with anything else, Sears said.

“He had strong opinions, which he was not shy about voicing, and was very good about the details,” he said. “He would be offering very constructive suggestions on how we could set the microphone better … or the acoustics. He just loved it.”

Silber showed a greater appreciation for music than many other university presidents had, Curtin said.

“I had been at Yale before I came to BU,” she said. “The president there had his office just across the street from where we produced our major concerts, and in the years I was there he never attended a single one. Dr. Silber came to as many as he could, which is not many in his kind of life, but he was interested in them. He cared about them and he wanted to know about them.”

Curtin, who served as dean from 1983 until her retirement from the post in 1992, said it was Silber’s knowledge of music that convinced her to choose BU at a time when she was interviewing with presidents from several universities.

“Among the presidents I talked to, he was the only one who showed a sensible and intelligible thing about productions in the school,” she said. “ That was one reason I came to BU, because of his general interest in music.”

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