Castleton Festival Opera at Cal PerformancesMar 24, 2011
The presenters at Cal Performances don't often delve into the world of fully staged opera, which is an expensive and unwieldy undertaking in the best of circumstances. But this weekend brings a promising new endeavor, the first local appearance by the fledging Castleton Festival Opera.
Founded and run by conductor Lorin Maazel, 81, and his wife, actress Dietlinde Turban, the summer festival is a two-month training ground for singers, instrumentalists, conductors and stage directors from around the world. In Berkeley, the festival will present two of Benjamin Britten's chamber operas, the mythological tragedy "The Rape of Lucretia" and the buoyant coming-of-age comedy "Albert Herring." Maazel will conduct both operas.
Q: The Castleton Festival was officially inaugurated two years ago, but its roots go back much further. How did it all get started?
A: We bought this property in Virginia about 25 years ago. And on the property was a gigantic old henhouse that had housed at one time 15,000 hens; the eggs were shipped into Washington, D.C., at 4 a.m. every day. Well, we were not interested in the egg business, but we had this building, and after a decade had passed, we thought we'd look into using it for something slightly more constructive - or at least more in line with what my wife and I usually do.
Q: And that would be something artistic?
A: Yes, we had it converted into a theater and concert hall, which we opened in June of 1997 with a concert featuring the cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, the pianist Yefim Bronfman and Mr. Maazel the violinist playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Trio. We raised about $100,000 for a children's foundation that Rostropovich ran in Russia.
Since then, there have been over 100 performances, ranging from readings of Shakespeare featuring Claire Bloom to guitar recitals to performances by Indian dance troupes.
Q: How did you make the transition to a festival?
A: After an appearance by the tenor José Carreras, we put in a small orchestra pit, which enabled us to start presenting chamber operas - including the Britten operas and "The Beggar's Opera" of John Gay. And it was during the course of "The Beggar's Opera," as I watched all these young people living on the farm and learning from one another, that I realized we had a festival in the making.
This had never been my intention - it just sort of happened. But I think that's the best way of going about things, rather than the pretentious method of first gathering millions of dollars and saying, "Now we'll do something really major."
Q: To me, it sounds like a nightmare having all these people in your backyard.
A: Well, it's not really like that. We have a lot of space - nearly 600 acres - and we've lived here quietly and brought up our three children here. And the festival begins rehearsals in the beginning of June and is over by the end of July. The rest of the year there's nobody here, and no commercial activity other than farming.
Q: Farming, you say?
A: We run a farm here, with 150 head of cattle, and the whole farm staff pitches in during the festival. It amuses and delights them to participate in a world that they would otherwise know little about, but which they've now come to know quite well.
Q: Was there something in particular that made you decide to turn to Britten's operas at first?
A: I happen to be a Britten fan, and a lot of his finest music is not performed here. But the choice of Britten was largely determined by the venue, because we only had space in the pit for a Britten-size chamber opera orchestra. His contribution to chamber opera is immense, and it's a great honor for us to make our contribution to his contribution.
Q: You recently ended a seven-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, and now you've signed on to lead the Munich Philharmonic.
A: After my years in New York, day after day conducting perhaps the finest orchestra ever, I didn't know what I would do other than guest conduct and probably conduct a lot less. But it didn't work out that way.
The Munich Philharmonic found itself without a music director, and when I did some guest conducting with them, I was stunned by work they'd done with Christian Theilemann - it was always a fine orchestra, but now it was a great one. They were very keen on having me conduct, and they ended up seducing me.
Q: Are you finding time to keep your hand in as a conductor?
A: As a matter of fact, I just finished conducting a run of performances of my opera "1984" in Valencia, Spain. Writing that piece took a lot of devotion because of the theme and the subject matter, which is all the more appropriate to the world we live in.
The premiere at Covent Garden in 2005 treated it rather abstractly, but you can't do that now. This is a story about the way we live, and what the manipulators and power seekers are up to. First it's your iPhone and iPad, and then it's 4 million surveillance cameras in London.
No one's screaming because it's all very quiet and slow - it's homeopathic - but the end is very clearly delineated. And it's up to all of us to stand up and stop it while we still can.
Q: Have you given any thought to going into politics yourself?
A: No, I leave politics to the politicians. The strength of art is its ability to bring forth certain subject matter clearly and unequivocally, and then it's up to other people to benefit from the eye-opening revelations. But I do hope my next piece will be a comedy.
Castleton Festival Opera: "The Rape of Lucretia." 8 p.m. Thurs.-Fri. "Albert Herring." 8 p.m. Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley. $44-$90. (510) 642-9988. www.calperformances.org.
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/03/23/DDQ51ICULP.DTL#ixzz1HXaTxjyw
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