Girls of Summer
REBECCA PALLER spends some time with veteran scene-stealer JOYCE CASTLE, Aunt Eller in Central City's Oklahoma! this summer.
Castle in Central City's Three Decembers, 2011
© Mark Kiryluk 2012
When Oklahoma! arrives at Central City Opera this summer, Curly, Laurey and Jud Fry had better watch out. While they're arguing among themselves as to who will accompany whom to the box social, Laurey's Aunt Eller may quietly steal their thunder — by the mere raising of an eyebrow or utterance of a homespun phrase.
That's because the role of the tough but wise old woman will be played by Joyce Castle — a favorite of critics and audiences for more than four decades. The distinctively tall, auburn-haired mezzo, who grew up in the '50s in Baldwin, Kansas, learned all the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein songs as a kid ("One of my earliest numbers was 'What's the Use of Wond'rin'?' which I sang in grade school!") and was cast as Anna in a college production of The King and I while studying theater and voice at the University of Kansas.
Following graduate studies at the Eastman School of
Music, she opted for a career in opera — giving richly detailed portrayals of a panoply of characters, including Madame d'Urfe in Argento's Casanova, Madame Flora in The Medium (the other role she will perform in Central City this summer) and Klytämnestra in Elektra, plus two very different Old Ladies in works by Leonard Bernstein and Gottfried Von Einem.
Though early in her career she tried out for ensemble parts in Broadway musicals, Castle "was always a little wary of doing eight shows a week. I didn't know if singing that much would stop my doing Strauss and Poulenc." Nevertheless, her repertory of nearly 140 roles included a lot of musical-theater fare — Meg Brockie in Brigadoon, Katisha in The Mikado, the malevolent Mrs. Jones in Street Scene and, most notably, Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd at Houston Grand Opera in 1984 (the first time the Sondheim show was performed in an opera house) and at New York City Opera.
This year marks Castle's fifth season in Central City, where she has given searing portrayals of Madame de Croissy in Dialogues of the Carmelites, Queen Elizabeth I in Britten's Gloriana, Augusta Tabor in The Ballad of Baby Doe and an aging Broadway actress in Jake Heggie's Three Decembers. Oklahoma! reunites her with director Ken Cazan, who has directed many of her appearances in Central City.
The egalitarian Aunt Eller — who, with the friendly nudge of a pistol, prods "The Farmer and the Cowman" to become friends as the rough-and-tumble Oklahoma territory prepares for statehood — seems tailor-made for Castle's Midwestern sensibility and natural comedic gifts. "She's a real character we can identify with." There's only one caveat. "If anyone is expecting me to do high kicks, they will be unbelievably disappointed."