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The Arcadians

Now entering its fifth season, the Castleton Festival is a peculiar little experiment that makes opera available in a beautiful place, far from the usual cultural hubs. PHILIP KENNICOTT pays a visit.

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Maazel in rehearsal
Courtesy Castleton Festival
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The Theater House interior
© Leslie Maazel 2013
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Tyler Nelson, Cecilia Hall and Jonathan Beyer in Castleton's 2012 Barber
© Leslie Maazel 2013

In June 29, 2012, an enormous phalanx of thunderstorms barreled out of the Midwest and slammed into the mid-Atlantic states, downing thousands of trees, knocking out power to millions of homes and killing almost two dozen people from Ohio to New Jersey. The great "derecho" of 2012 hit north-central Virginia just about the time audiences at the Castleton Festival had returned to their seats for Act II of The Barber of Seville. It cut off the electricity, made a mess of nearby roads and terrified the audience, but the theater, which looks like a large white tent, withstood the blast, and the young singers were soon giving an impromptu concert by flashlight.

It was a small but important test of the young festival's resiliency. Last summer was only the fourth year of the Castleton Festival, held on the estate of conductor Lorin Maazel, eighty-three, who has lived quietly with his family in rural Rappahannock County for decades. When the lights went off, the fledgling festival faced a classic show-must-go-on test of its resources and professionalism. By the next day, a truck-sized generator had been found in New Jersey and delivered to the festival grounds, some sixty miles southwest of Washington, D.C. The day after that — while ordinary folks throughout the region sweated out what would be days without power — the festival was performing again.

It wasn't quite so dire a challenge as the 1967 fire that destroyed the original wooden opera house used by the young Santa Fe Opera, but it proved Castleton had its act together, that it isn't just the plaything of a famous conductor who wants to dabble as an impresario in his backyard. Today, as the festival prepares for its fifth season, with performances of Verdi's Otello and Puccini's Fanciulla del West, Castleton is emerging as a contender among larger and more seasoned summer venues. Its reputation as a hands-on learning environment with a casual but serious atmosphere has gained the attention of first-rank vocal students, who are every year being coached into more substantial and polished performances. With Wolf Trap dominated by pops concerts in the summer months, Castleton has given residents of Washington, D.C., a destination for off-season music, including orchestral concerts and recitals. 

Neither Maazel nor his energetic wife, German actress Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, who plays a large role at the festival, sees this event as fitting neatly into the mold of any other summer festival. It isn't a young Glyndebourne, a budding Santa Fe, an East Coast Aspen or a southern Glimmerglass. 

"I don't know that we've ever sought an identity," says Maazel, who stresses the organic development of the festival out of his interest in teaching, coaching and preserving classical music. "We're about young people making their way in the world of opera and symphonic music, a spawning ground of the talent of the future, a place where they can try it out, hone their skills under the sharp eye of experienced professionals."

"We don't want to compete with the big, big festivals," says Turban-Maazel. "We don't want to grow in numbers," she adds, meaning they are very happy with their theater tent, inaugurated in 2011, which holds a mere 650 people, seated on risers. "We want to keep our repertoire really in service of the young singers." 

And yet, in fits and starts, an identity emerges. The main festival venue sits atop a small, grassy hill, with views of the surrounding fields. Last summer, giant round hay bales dotted the landscape, which has the thick, sweet, overripe green smell of Virginia's horse country, a magnet for wealthy racing enthusiasts and second-home types from up and down the East Coast. The theater looks like a tent but is more substantial, with insulation and air conditioning that beats back the sodden summer heat, which can push over the 100-degree mark. During intermission, the landscape surrounds you, not like a glorious backdrop or a manicured garden but with the unprepossessing simplicity of the working farm it is. Everything feels provisional, as if the whole circus might pack up and wander away never to return, and yet year after year, the professionalism of the experience, from the box office to the food offered for picnics, gets better and better.

The festival grew out of the Maazel family's love for the landscape, and from an abandoned experiment in education they tried decades ago. In the late 1990s, when the couple was raising children, they started a day school on the grounds of the farm, converting barns into school space and inviting other local children to participate. For four years, Turban-Maazel conducted an experiment in holistic education, focusing on "nature, gardening, arts, with the ABCs and lots of music-making." But county officials took a dim view of the unofficial school, and it shut down.

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A view of Castleton Farms
© Leslie Maazel 2013

Around the same time, Maazel realized that a large, very sturdy and disused chicken coop on the property had potential as a performance space, and he eventually converted it into what is now known as the Theater House, complete with a miniature 140-seat opera house. 

Relations with the county were improving. John McCarthy, Rappahannock County Administrator, remembers with bemusement the process of giving permits for the chicken-coop-to-opera-house conversion.

"That's not the kind of thing we do a lot of inspections on," he says, adding that Maazel was meticulous and exacting and knew just what he wanted. McCarthy is now a regular at the festival, which he describes as "far and away the largest cultural activity we have."

What emerged from the old chicken coop was an odd, lovely little folly, a miniature opera house and theater consecrated in June 1997 with a chamber-music recital by Mstislav Rostropovich. Zoning restrictions meant that they couldn't charge for admission, but they took donations, and bit by bit the quirky little theater emerged as one of the region's best-kept secrets — a place to see top-tier musical talent giving intimate performances in a low-key environment. By 2006, the Maazels were ready to take it to another level: they began inviting young artists to come and be in residence on the farm in the summer, and they staged a production of Benjamin Britten's Turn of the Screw. In 2009, the Castleton Festival held its first season.

The first few years concentrated on smaller repertory, especially the operas of Britten. In 2010, the festival started using a seasonal tent to stage larger works, including Puccini's Trittico, and in 2011, it upgraded to the current, fully functional and permanent theater. This year's foray into two large-scale and vocally demanding works is consistent with the festival's reputation for unpredictability. Maazel sounds confident about pulling it off, once again.

"We have the facility to underpin a major operatic effort of this nature, and we have the young talent to flesh it out," he says. "Everything is a risk, and that's what new festivals are about."

As Castleton heads into its fifth season, its reputation among singers is growing. Davone Tines, a bass who graduated from Juilliard in May, sang in last year's Barber and is returning this summer. 

"Last year, not many people knew exactly how to become part of it," he says. "It was sort of a secret." But now, he notes, "It is becoming more and more of an open thing. It has a very solid reputation." While Castleton competes with other festivals such as Aspen and Tanglewood for student talent, Tines says it has unique strengths: "It is in a balanced place, between big and established and small and personalized." The opportunity to watch Maazel, whose resumé includes a stint at the head of the Vienna State Opera in the 1980s, is one of the key benefits of the summer experience. Maazel, who has a reputation as a taskmaster, seems to have mellowed just a bit: "He is definitely commanding and knows exactly what he wants, but if the preparation is there and the willingness is there, he is very amicable," says Tines.

As the festival continues to build loyalty among musicians and audiences, concern grows about its future. While Maazel puts in long days during the festival and continues to maintain a busy international career, including serving as music director of the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra since 2012, it's clear that Castleton needs to plan aggressively for its future. According to soprano Nancy Gustafson, who serves as the festival's general manager, "There is definitely a road map" to making the festival self-sustaining. One of the first priorities is to reduce the amount that Maazel funds out of pocket. Last year, the maestro auctioned off a prized 1783 Guadagni violin for more than $1 million to help jump-start an endowment. 

Ticket sales were up thirty percent last season, and the festival is working to cut costs. The orchestra has been downsized from ninety to seventy-one members, with extras brought in when needed. "Everywhere we can, we have cut back on the budget," says Gustafson. The goal is to broaden support for the festival and relieve not just the burden on Maazel but the dangers any organization faces if it relies primarily on one donor. Maazel's international reputation has helped build a far-flung network, with support coming from London and a fundraiser in Chicago, according to Gustafson.

So far, the frugality hasn't been noticeable to audiences. Last year's Barber of Seville was fresh, well sung and consistently entertaining. There's a pleasing cognitive dissonance to the best of Castleton: you look down from the fresh-faced cast, which may be giving a high-level conservatory performance, and there's Lorin Maazel, superstar, in the pit, leading it with a sure hand. There's a tendency to want things to grow, to become more established, to see a bricks-and-mortar opera house grow where the tent now stands, and to look for marquee names among the cast members. But Castleton was never meant to rival Santa Fe or the major European festivals; for now, it seems content to keep to its current scale and hew to its original pedagogical mission. spacer 

PHILIP KENNICOTT is art and architecture critic of The Washington Post. 

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