Now in its fourth season, Castleton has blossomed into an artistically first rate festival and conservatory program that stands proudly beside stalwart organizations like Glimmerglass, Tanglewood, and Wolf Trap.
Summer is indeed the time when, dotted across the American landscape, opera and music programs serve as ongoing professional training grounds. There, they midwife singers and musicians into thriving careers. Castleton has quickly forged its unique following and identity that may be summed up by the following: Presence (with a capital “P”), community, and an almost miraculous balancing act between grit and grace. All were in abundance this past opening weekend.
With Maestro Lorin Maazel at its helm, his Presence is felt everywhere. Not only did he establish Castleton on the grounds of his country estate, but he has continued to pour his own money and efforts into establishing a world class center, where he and his co-founder and wife, the multi-talented musician-dancer-actress Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, could put their stamp on the next generation of musicians and music-theatre practitioners.
Much has been made of the news that Maazel even sold his favorite violin to set up an endowment for Castleton to thrive beyond his tenure. He has certainly used the currency of his world class stature to draw people to the unlikely cow pastures of Virginia, luring guest artists and students alike to come just for the privilege of working with him.
This past weekend, Maazel showed definitively that he was not just lending his name. He seemed tireless and was seen everywhere: now working with the orchestra players on concert material, now conducting the opera, now watching the conservatory singers perform recital pieces standing perched on the theatre balcony, now being available to locals who might have even come out for the first time to join him in becoming a “Castletonian.”
Judging from the B&Bs and restaurants that now dot the surrounding villages and countryside, the Maazels seem to have built a successful case that what is good for Castleton is very good for Rappahannock County.
Maazel has also employed his uncanny ear and unerring intuition in what makes a great opera performer, and, with Dietlinde and General Manager Nancy Gustafson, they have invited a truly exceptional caliber of singers to perform as soloists in the operas and partake in the training conservatory, entitled Castleton Artists Training Seminar (CATS.)
Community is the permeating ingredient that hit all my senses when I arrived on the grounds of Castleton. Every nook and cranny of the original Theatre House had been taken over by singers, instrumentalists, and the tech crew. The rough and tumble atmosphere both looked and smelled like a large communal family. Piano scales and singers’ warm ups poured out from behind doors and windows. A steady stream of young people dashed up and down the three flights to find a makeshift space where a particular assigned class could take place in the afternoon before performance. Others were sprawled on the furniture, engaged in backgammon, the favorite backstage sport of theatre folk.
The Festival begins
I had arrived early Friday afternoon to observe some of the conservatory classes and dutifully followed students up and down the stairs, passing multiple times the life-size wax figures of Tchaikovsky and Bach hovering on the mezzanine. No one seemed able to ascertain where Dietlinde’s German diction class would take place, yet everyone tried to be helpful and were enthusiastic in welcoming us.
Nora Graham-Smith, a second year singer with the company, spoke glowingly of the accessibility of Maazel’s whole family. “It’s all real,” she assured me. “They are so generous with their time and insights.” My companion, a linguist in several European languages, was most interested to learn how language coaching for opera singers would be taught by the Maestro’s wife, and we rushed back upstairs where the class was just assembling.
When Dietlinde arrived, she appeared barefoot, draped in a coral pink dress with bead jewelry, looking as informal and radiantly youthful as the twenty-somethings around her. She plopped herself down in the chair and immediately got to work. She seemed completely unruffled by the evening’s performance ahead and by the creative chaos that spilled from every tabletop and bookshelf in the house.
Who had something to sing? She coaxed out of CATS members Sarah Thomas and Melissa Chavez to bring more crisp hard consonants of German “k” sounds to certain passages then contrast these with the mellifluous humming sounds of “m”s and “s”s. “Draw us into your world with these sounds,” she urged. In the class, iPads became the tool of choice, with the young singers coaching Dietlinde on how to download operatic repertoire lyrics for singers of the 21st century.
Later that afternoon, Dietlinde switched to coaching French diction for the cast of Bizet’s Carmen, scheduled to open the following night. Her impromptu remarks ranged from cooing certain French sounds and modeling how subtle choices in language establishes character, to a paean on the glories of German grammar.
Cue the storm
Following this, we headed over to the Festival Tent down the road to enjoy a pre-show concert. Thinking I’d have to endure a haphazard acoustical event in a tent, I was frankly unprepared for the delight that followed. The “tent” had been recently expanded and made permanent. (How lucky the timing of this was Mother Nature was about to show me!)
Friday’s pre-theatre program included Beethoven and Mozart with outstanding performances from Eric Silberger on violin and Daniel Lelchuk on cello in the Beethoven. Silberger was then joined by the terrific Robyn Cho on clarinet, Yijia Zhang on violin, Natsuko Maki on viola, and Rob Mayes on cello for a very spirited quintet by Mozart. The audience, sitting at round tables, included many musical colleagues, who responded enthusiastically in support of their fellow performers. The spirit of community was alive and well, and the music was fresh and emotionally charged.
The theatre began filling up. Waves and hugs were exchanged as neighbors greeted neighbors, and GM Gustafson and Director of Institutional Advancement Howard Bender showed genuine affection as they mingled with loyal fans and supporters. It felt less a function than a family reunion.
But the measure of any good relationship is how things hold together under fire – and, for greater accuracy to this discussion – wind and rain. The great storm of 2012 hit the county around the end of Act I of The Barber of Seville.
We had already leapt to our feet and applauded Maazel and his orchestra’s pulse-racing rendition of Rossini’s overture. We had roared uproariously at the male ensemble’s first scene in the set up serenade, staged as a tightly choreographed head-jerking, air-guitar-ing event. We had fallen, as besotted as Il Conte, by the seductively beautiful body and voice of Cecilia Hall as Rosina. And we had settled into a love affair with Jonathan Beyer as Figaro, so in command was he vocally and physically. We were settling in, assured that Resident Stage Director William Kerley would pull out the stops to make this a night of opera we would never forget.
Only Kerley and the cast would be upstaged for the moment by the entrance of Mother Nature. The sound of rain and the cracking of wind on the tent sent house lights swaying erratically. Then the lights went out.
Most other producing companies might have called it quits at the point. Instead, Gustafson came out said there might be a short pause while the storm passed for the power to be restored. Maazel then entered and offered that people could take this opportunity to leave. That’s when the local Fire Chief jumped up, who just happened to be in the audience, a deus ex machina figure, who cranked up the drama by sternly saying (as gods tend to do,) “No one moves until I say so, and no one is going anywhere. It isn’t safe out there.” He also assured us the safest place in Rappahannock right now might just be the tent. It proved to be so.
We waited for the storm to pass. And that’s when the entire company really showed their stuff. Eric Silburger, whom we’d heard pre-show was introduced as the stupendous violinist that the Maestro had just recently discovered and catapulted him into the front row orchestral spot as co-concertmaster of the Festival Orchestra. The poised young man now offered to play us through the interlude. Gustafson held a flashlight on the young man, and they both stood on the audience floor. We were so transported by this gifted violinist that I felt the people around like me could hardly breathe, his fingering and phrasing were so electrifying. Suddenly, no one cared a fig that a gale was trying to rip away at our tent ceiling.
It soon became clear this weather event was not going to allow for a quick exit by anyone. Gustafson began working impromptu magic. The young performers showed both eagerness and generous proportions of courage and camaraderie, as they lined up on the side of the stage, each offering a song for (literally) the “captive” audience. They took turns taking the floor then standing with flashlights beaming on their fellow singers. Not one orchestral player pulled an “I’m outa here.”
Instead, an upright piano was wheeled onto the floor, and William Sutherland sat down to accompany whoever and whatever might be thrown at him. Scores magically appeared, or maybe some didn’t. Carl Biehn, a standout member of the ensemble with looks of a Billy Budd, gave us an a capella rendition of “Bring Him Home.” Bassist Davone Tines delivered a most soulful “Jordan” spiritual. Sarah Simmons, whom we had seen earlier worrying about being behind schedule on the set change crew, now walked out with calm poise and knocked out Gypsy’s big number, “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” like a star. Jonathan Beyer, the outstanding Figaro, who had succumbed to a nasty stomach bug, had not only come through like a trouper in Act I, but continued his miraculous recovery by performing with Bassist Brandon Cedel a most moving, richly sonorous duet by Carl Bohm.
And, for an encore, the cast reassembled to perform several of the numbers from Act II of Barber, complete with improvised staging. The Maestro himself leapt to his feet and conducted the tricky quintet and octet, he too illuminated only by flashlight. This may become part of the apocryphal legend of the evening, but I swear he joined in the singing of one of the roles! The cast of Barber responded to his verve and just kept getting better and freer.
I thought to myself this is what opera is meant to be but so rarely is: a totally joyous and popular event. I think everyone who was there will never forget this evening. I was deeply moved by the grit and grace of this ensemble, who had come together to a man (and woman) and shared their hearts and prodigious talents with us.
The festival continues
Sunday afternoon, we returned for a whole performance of Barber. Yes, the magic was all still there. The delicious staging by the inventive William Kerley was filled in by every single player coming on stage with a full life and exiting with just as much focus and intention. There again was the delightful Cecilia Hall, serving up the famous soprano aria, Una voce poco fa, with not only gorgeous coloration but a striking vitality and a specificity of impulse to every line. Singers Tyler Nelson as the lovestruck Count and Tyler Simpson as the “cuckholded” guardian Dr. Bartolo gave Jonathan Beyer a run for his money with their ever sharper vocal abilities and comedic assuredness in this performance.
Nelson’s second act duet with Hall became an hysterical romp as he alternatingly seduced her while trying to keep up the pretense of accompanying her, pounding on imaginary keys to simulate an entire orchestral score. Their little musical tryst, with Il Conte’s pompadour wig rising and shuddering, grew steamier than what Malkovich pulled off in Liaisons Dangereuses. Evan Hughes added his over-the-top panache as Don Basilio, while Valerie Nelson delivered the role of Berta, Bartolo’s maid, with a maturity and vocal warmth and solidarity, filling the role with an inner life that was most convincing.
As we sat in the lobby afterwards, trying to catch our breaths and reflect on the weekend before returning to DC and whatever carnage of power outages we would face in our own lives, I looked around at the faces of cast and staff who had become so familiar and dear to me. They had managed all of this not only with the usual challenges of putting on a show but in temperatures that had soared to 110 degrees then delivered a horrendous storm that had left them without electricity, without hot water, and in some cases without toilets for two days. The staff had had to communicate without telephones, printers, or email blast capabilities.
Adversity had forced opera to be reduced to the essentials. And the essentials were astounding. How had they did it, I kept wondering.
A local couple, Reid and Anita, who had spent the weekend like many of us, in awe reminded me of the saying:
Behold the duck…
Remaining calm and unruffled on the surface
And peddling like hell underneath
Peddling they may be, but with such unerring vision and conviction, they are assured that the show – THIS SHOW – WILL go on! Bravi Tutti!
The Castleton Festival of opera, symphony and musical theatre runs thru July 22, 2012 at 663 Castleton View Rd, Castleton, VA.
Details and tickets
More about Castleton:
a video documentary narrated by Dietlinde Turban-Maazel