Castleton Festival struggles for an identity and future beyond Lorin Maazel

Lorin Maazel sold his violin last year. It was a Guadagnini, made in 1783, and the maestro felt so close to it that when he played it at Carnegie Hall in November 2000, the program featured an article written by the violin (with a little help from his wife, German actress Dietlinde Turban Maazel) about its history and how much it enjoyed being in the maestro’s hands.

However, Maazel has another pet now that means even more to him. Four years ago, he started a festival in his back yard in Rappahannock County, Va., and since then he’s learned firsthand just how much a festival costs to keep going. So he sold one of his most valuable possessions and got $1.08 million to seed an endowment to ensure — he hopes — that the festival will live beyond him.

Castleton is very anxious to defend its legacy and affirm that it can thrive even without its founder at the helm. “A mini-Glyndebourne,” says Dietlinde, referring to England’s leading summer opera festival, known for picnics on landscaped lawns and top-flight productions. Yet at the same time, Castleton can’t shake its mom-and-pop start-up flavor. Its family feeling is one of its hallmarks: Young artists come to the Maazels’ farm and live for the summer in dorm-like spaces, eating and working together, as if they were on a communal farm. Even the audience is embraced. After difficulties with the caterer last year, Dietlinde, seeing couples roaming the grounds looking for food, simply invited them in for dinner.

In short, for all that Castleton is looking to the future, it’s a little foggy about establishing exactly what it is right now.

Certainly each of its four seasons has had a different character. This is no surprise: Any new festival goes through a process of evolution, particularly one that, like Castleton, happened more or less by accident, as Maazel kept expanding his ideas about what kinds of things he could do with the home theater — seating 110 people — on his 550-acre estate. At the beginning, it featured young artists in Benjamin Britten chamber operas; then, it added a tent for orchestral performances; then it turned the tent into a permanent structure and began producing meat-and-potatoes, standard-repertory opera — Puccini’s “Il trittico” or “La Boheme” — in addition to the offbeat chamber stuff.

At the same time, companies around the world, interested in working with Maazel, began approaching the festival about co-productions; Castleton’s productions and artists have now been seen in California, Italy and China. And those companies weren’t so interested in the unusual fare, such as De Falla’s “Master Pedro’s Puppet Show” or a fully staged performance of Ravel’s masterpiece “L’Enfant et les sortileges”; they wanted standard repertory that sells tickets. This is proving to be a mixed blessing for this year’s festival, which has, as a result of its co-productions, gone entirely mainstream with its opera offerings: Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” and Bizet’s “Carmen.”

Run by a tiny staff, headed by a general manager, the soprano Nancy Gustafson, who has a lot of opera experience but no administrative experience, Castleton this year gives the impression that the tail may be wagging the dog as far as “the vision thing” goes.

Or perhaps the problem is that Castleton has too much vision. It has so many goals that it loses sight of what it wants the takeaway message to be. The young-artist component of the festival has been expanded this year with a broadening of the Castleton Artists Training Seminar, or CATS, which is conceived as a potential revenue source: Young singers pay to attend it, and as of this summer, can get college credit for it through its partner institution, Rutgers. It’s not actually bringing in that much revenue, at $3,000 per student for the summer, with a number of scholarship students in the bargain. “If you do the math,” Gustafson says, “it’s not even close to covering; we figure each CAT costs us $6,000.” But the number of participants has grown this year to 49, and they are putting on their own full production: Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music.”

“It’s been chosen to give the CATS a real theatrical performance experience,” Dietlinde says. “I see, wherever I guest teach, a complete lack of performance training. The departments in university programs don’t talk to each other; you have great theater and vocal programs, but they don’t seem to merge. I get these dull singers just concentrating on their vocal cords. . . . I want them to have good acting training.”

This is sound thinking, if Castleton is to be a true teaching festival. But it’s a far cry from the kind of work that originally made Castleton so interesting — and it puts the festival in lockstep with the many other summer “opera” festivals that juxtapose operatic offerings with Broadway musicals, from Ash Lawn in Virginia to Glimmerglass in New York.

Another vision is expanding the festival’s local reach. Castleton has announced a pilot program that will allow anyone who’s interested, over the age of 7, to sign up and “shadow” a Castleton artist for a day, whether practicing, trying on costumes, building sets or getting ready to go on stage. It makes a point of hiring local workers for its crew. The local volunteer fire department is even getting into the act; this year, its firehouse will be the main venue for feeding the festival’s more than 200 artists.

Financial need, of course, is affecting all of Castleton’s vision. Though Gustafson will tell you that fundraising is going great guns, there’s a marked difference between the deep-pocketed festival of two years ago and the sparer incarnation this year. Last year’s budget was over $3 million; this year, Gustafson says, they’re hoping to come in at under $2 million, and last year’s 260 artists have been reduced this year to 210. The festival has eliminated its New York office, stopped individual car service for each singer arriving at Dulles and is even looking to save money on rehearsal time; since the “Carmen” cast already sang the opera in Bari, Italy, the rehearsal period at Castleton is being cut to 12 days (still a generous amount of time in most international houses).

The festival’s lack of a firm direction may also reflect the inexperience of its well-meaning administration, eager to take all the offers that come along. Dietlinde says that one goal is to become a touring festival, making five or six stops a year, although so far it isn’t clear that the co-productions have actually saved the festival money (the cost of shipping the sets from Italy was considerable).

But the result of all this variety means that the festival is becoming identified in just the way its administrators don’t want. While Castleton works to establish its independence from its founders and prove that it can thrive without them, it remains, in all of its various manifestations, best described as the festival where you get to work with Lorin Maazel.

Maazel is 82. He and his wife are working, she says, on “a long-range business plan to make people understand that, yes, we’re the founding mom and dad, but that the Castleton Festival has to stand on its own, eventually, beyond us.” But even Maazel’s most public act of funding — the sale of his beloved violin — only tightens Castleton’s identification as “his” festival. If Castleton is truly to thrive without him, it may take another strong personality to do it.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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