CASTLETON, Va., July 13, 2012 – After last week’s terrific production of Bizet’s Carmen last week, what next? The surprising answer: this weekend’s new production of Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music. This marks the Festival’s first foray into musical theater. In addition, it’s a chance for the participants in the Castleton Artists Training Seminar (CATS) to perform a fully staged production before a live audience.
We recently had the opportunity to discuss the CATS program and other highlights with the utterly charming Dietlinde Turban Maazel, the Festival’s Associate Director and, of course, wife of Castleton founder Lorin Maazel.
Ms. Maazel, a well-known German actress and musician in her own right, is particularly proud of the CATS program, which was founded just three years ago as “a little pilot project that included seven students from Northwestern University.” Singer-students in the program from all across the United States are selected via auditions. Those who are chosen for the program come to Castleton “for seven weeks in the summer and are involved in every operatic production as company members, understudies, and performers,” she says. “I guess CATS is my baby,” she laughs.
Participants have been as young as seventeen, according to Ms. Maazel, but they generally range “from freshmen in college to considerably more advanced students who already hold masters degrees or doctorates,” she says. “They are all considerable talents who really don’t need basic shaping and focusing, as they already possess tremendous vocal and theatrical talents.” Some of this year’s participants are returning for their second and even third seminars and are ready for major roles. And now, “this year, they have their very own project, A Little Night Music”
Why a Sondheim musical rather than an opera? In recent decades, operagoers have been demanding better acting and better stagecraft in operatic productions in addition to top-notch singing. As an experienced thespian and film actress herself, Ms. Maazel has been eager for the opportunity to helps CATS students “have the experience of a modern theater piece, one that puts emphasis on dialogue, dramatic tension, and strong characterization. They will have a chance to make improvements in all these areas,” she says.
CATS is an intensive program, according to Ms. Maazel. Students are up “at 8 in the morning and are busy virtually all day,” she says. One of the key elements Ms. Maazel herself emphasizes to the students is storytelling.
“I want to encourage them to demystify opera in the sense that it’s not just singing. We’re telling gripping, moving, fantastic stories,” she says. “This isn’t just something that is only for older people in suits and ties and all the formality that goes along with this. That attitude is not necessary. Opera should really be excellent theater with excellent music.”
Ms. Maazel has also been enthusiastic about classes in and performances of German “lieder” (pronounced LEE-der), or “art songs,” a wondrously rich musical genre that, at its best, is a miniature blend of popular song and operatic storytelling and complexity. Noting that this genre’s availability has faded in recent decades, Ms. Maazel has been eager to re-introduce Castleton’s students—and their audience—to this somewhat hidden corner of the singer’s repertoire.
Many of these German art songs derive their texts from brilliant poets like Goethe, and are shot through “with metaphors, vivid images, never anything black and white,” says Ms. Maazel. “Many of these songs live in a ‘gray zone,’ and are deeply melancholy,” focusing on “love, lost love, nature, and death but from a poetic point of view where metaphor is important.”
While the mother lode of German lieder flowed from the prolific pen of Franz Schubert, other composers contributed significantly to the repertoire, including songs by Johannes Brahms, of whom Ms. Maazel is quite fond.
“We work together to take these songs apart from a poetic point of view, looking at what the composer has added musically. Many of these songs are quite dramatic,” she says, “and we look for ways of expressing smiling eyes, emotional transport not only vocally but physically and not just with typical singers’ gestures.”
Indeed, some of the best German lieder are really complete short stories. The music in and of itself is phenomenally detailed, passionate, and exciting. Incorporating theatrical, physical expression into their performance takes them to an entirely different level.
“Every year we’ve performed some song recitals at the Festival,” sometimes down the road from Castleton in Little Washington, according to Ms. Maazel. But next Saturday, Ms. Maazel promises “one recital entirely devoted to this kind of music.” For lieder devotees, the recital should prove a real treat. For the uninitiated, it’s a musical adventure not to be missed.
The Festival has, from the start, drawn participation from first rate singers, academic faculty members, and symphony musicians and conductors, not the least of whom is Mr. Maazel. DC native and opera star Denyce Graves has become a notable participant and supporter, and many nationally known musicians have also dropped by to share their expertise with the Festival’s young instrumentalists.
Looking ahead, Ms. Maazel noted the Festival’s continuing—and growing—partnerships with the university community. Opera star Nancy Gustafson, who now splits her academic time between Northwestern and Rutgers University has been getting the music departments of both schools more involved with the Festival. “We’re excited and grateful that she’s to have her with us,” says Ms. Maazel who is looking forward to a deeper relationship with Rutgers, which has its own ‘young opera’ program, which deserves to be better known.
“Rutgers said, ‘we’ll arrange to send you students who can attend the Festival program and earn college credits through us,’ according to Ms. Maazel. “We hope to make this a full time feature,” she says, nothing that this year, “Rutgers is actually sponsoring five full tuition recipients, including singers in CATS. Northwestern is thinking of latching on to this new idea, and a few other universities have expressed interest as well.”
Regarding instrumentalists, Ms. Maazel is also looking forward to a bright future in this area. “The sky’s limit to expand our orchestral educational program. It’s my dream to get the same thing going for violinists, chamber music performers, and perhaps even the development of great future concertmasters,” she says.
Maestro Maazel’s final full time conducting gig was with the New York Philharmonic, and Ms. Maazel notes that some of his former “players have spent time here providing intensive instruction in the violin and other instruments. My husband has always has handful of young conductors” he works with, she says, some of whom also participate in the Festival.
Yet the Festival is not only about the students. It’s about the audience as well. Ms. Maazel hopes that the audience will find in the Festival “performances that are fresh, new, and engaged. My husband always demands the highest artistry” from his youthful charges, she says.
In the end, she hopes, instructors, artists, students, and the audience will become like a family at Castleton. Festival programs like “Aspen, Interlochen, don’t really become family like we do here. Even when many of our students have moved on, we remain in touch.
Although the Festival still involves considerable and constant labor and attention, Ms. Maazel looks back fondly on its evolution, recalling Castleton’s original construction effort, their marvelous “little theater,” a lovely building “we built out of a chicken house,” she says. They’d moved to the farm-estate where the Festival is located in the early 1990s.
“We hadn’t even known we might be able to draw an audience there,” she says, noting that fourteen years actually elapsed before she and her husband came up with the “Festival idea. But,” she says, “when Lorin Maazel has an idea, he’s determined to make it work.”
Unfortunately, right around the time the Festival’s first season was ready to launch, the Great Recession got there first, quickly eviscerating the bank accounts of many potential donors and supporters and in the process driving many already existing arts organizations, orchestras, and opera companies out of business.
But Mr. Maazel felt, “if we wait until we get full funding, the Festival is not going to happen. He really put a tremendous amount of funding forward himself,” she says, with the latest example being the auction of a beloved violin. His bold move, though, has been working, and the Festival has continued to grow against all odds, and funding and support has been growing, even as America’s moribund economy stumbles on.
“Now we have product, we’ve created a business plan, and it’s now possible for my husband to ease up a bit,” she says. She hopes that the Festival will be independent enough next year that the work load will begin to lighten. However you look at it, though, the Castleton Festival is quickly turning out to be a welcome surprise, a substantial, important national musical event that’s a dramatic tribute to its founding team of Lorin and Dietlinde Maazel who should be rightfully proud of this signal accomplishment in a world that today, all too often neglects the vital importance of the performing arts.
The Castleton Festival continues this weekend with performances of A Little Night Music” as well as other events. Tickets are $20, $50, $85 and $120 for most performances with discounted subscription packages available for three or six performances.
You can purchase tickets at the Castleton Festival website or contact the Castleton Concierge (866-974-0767 or email@example.com) for tickets and information on accommodations, dining, and transportation.
Read more of Terry’s news and reviews at Curtain Up! in the Entertain Us neighborhood of the Washington Times Communities. For Terry’s investing and political insights, visit his Communities columns, The Prudent Man and Morning Market Maven, in Business.
Follow Terry on Twitter @terryp17
This article is the copyrighted property of the writer and Communities @ WashingtonTimes.com. Written permission must be obtained before reprint in online or print media. REPRINTING TWTC CONTENT WITHOUT PERMISSION AND/OR PAYMENT IS THEFT AND PUNISHABLE BY LAW.