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Castleton Farms: the Maazel family’s retreat and young singers’ haven

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In the dressing room off the master bedroom, mezzo-soprano superstar Denyce Graves is choosing between a glittery black gown and a shimmery silver tunic. In the music room nearby, soprano Joyce El-Khoury has donned a full-blown scarlet va-va-voom gown and is topping the outfit off with dangly earrings. Down on the front lawn, a pair of two-week-old lambs is, yes, gamboling around a 280-year-old beech tree.

The divas — and ruminants — are at Castleton Farms in Virginia’s Rappahannock County, in the shadow of the Blue Ridge. The dressing room and music room are part of the stately red brick pre-Civil War manor house that is home to conductor Lorin Maazel; his wife, the German-born actress and singer Dietlinde Turban Maazel, and their children. The house also “belongs” to the scores of musicians and singers who are part of the Maazels’ Chateauville Foundation musical programs and the Castleton Festival, the opera festival now entering its third season (June 25 through July 24). Graves and El-Khoury are here to do publicity pictures for the festival; keeping things in the family, the photos are being taken by the Maazels’ younger son, Leslie, whose luminous landscape shots anchor the festival’s Web site.

Just another day in a privileged world where life, art and work are frequently the same thing.

The Maazels have called Virginia home for more than 20 years. Which is not to say they’ve spent the bulk of their time here. As Dietlinde Maazel explains it as she tours us through the house, rather than remain in Virginia and have Maestro/Father swoop in once a year from his worldwide conducting schedule to say hello to the children, the Maazels decided to travel as a family to orchestra dates, home-schooling the kids and exposing them to the sometimes glamorous, often hard-working world of opera and classical music.

Even when Lorin Maazel, now 81, was musical director of the New York Philharmonic from 2002 to 2009, the family always returned to Virginia, to a house with a long and varied history.

At the time of the Maazels’ purchase in 1988, the place had been a bed-and-breakfast for about a year. But it had spent most of the 20th century as a private home. Before that, during the Civil War, it served as a hospital, like so many similar houses across the region. Recently, Dietlinde Maazel says, descendants of the original builders, the Browning family, got in touch to say that in the 1700s their forebears had lived in a wooden mill, now lost to time, on the stream that runs through the property’s original 98 acres, before they built the manor house with bricks made by hand on the premises in 1857.

When the Maazels bought the house, it had a back porch (“kinda broken down,” Dietlinde says) with an awning, the only area where indoor and outdoor living met comfortably. From its short run as a B&B, there was wallpaper on every wall and carpeting everywhere. Today, in place of the sagging porch stands a large, handsome glass-and-iron conservatory, ordered prefab from England in 1997. Overhead now, there’s the incongruous sight of an antique Jugendstil chandelier that provides light while white-paddled ceiling fans churn the still air. The Maazels stripped away the carpeting throughout the house to reveal wide-plank floors with incomparable patina. There’s no more pattern on the walls, just paint in soothing neutral colors.

On this warm, sunny day in May, the back and front of the house are like two different climates. Inside the conservatory, despite the custom translucent shades that cover every segment of the glass roof, the temperature has climbed throughout the morning, making it obvious that it is a marvelous place to spend time . . . in the winter. (There’s a reason these structures are sometimes called winter gardens.) The area at the front of the house, on the other hand, is breezy and cool; this is where the ancient beech tree stands guard, joined, on the other side of the front walkway, by a large black oak. A dozen steps above the sloping grounds, the front door is centered behind four large white wood columns and a small landing of well-aged black and white marble tiles in a checkerboard pattern.

On either side of a center hall at the main level are what may once have been double parlors. They now make up what the Maazels call the music room, outfitted with seating and a piano. “We rarely just sit here,” Maazel says, “but musical events take place here.” In addition to the summer opera festival, Castleton Farms maintains a regular schedule of musical evenings in the 130-seat Theatre House, set on the rolling grounds of the farm on the foundations of an old, large-scale chicken house.

Next to one of the fireplaces in the music room (there are 10 throughout the house) stands an antique spinning wheel. “I went and found a real one in Italy,” Maazel says, “and I learned to spin for my debut as Gretchen in ‘Faust.’ It’s not that easy,” she adds, “to sing and spin wool.” No doubt!

Across the hall is the Maazels’ large master bedroom, with two fireplaces of its own, a large bed with simple but dramatic muslin bed curtains, a cluttered oversize desk and bookcases, and a bath and dressing room.

One level up are a guest room, three children’s bedrooms and two bathrooms. Although the children are college-age or older now, their rooms reflect an earlier time as evidenced by the drawings on the wall and collections of toys and natural artifacts displayed around the rooms.

 All the bathrooms and the kitchen are at the rear of the house. In the 1960s, Maazel explains, the earlier owners appended a kind of square tower to the back of the original house and added the plumbing. Near the kitchen are the former dining room, which is now her paper-flooded festival office; the warm conservatory, and a small sitting room that, despite the absence of books (which dominate almost every other room), is called the library. Student singers cluster around the center table here for German-language lessons.

 Castleton Farms’ grounds, now 550 acres, hold a permanent tent for the opera performances in addition to the Theatre House. And there’s a surprisingly elaborate spa complex down the hillside from the main house, reached by subterranean hallways that look and feel like airplane jetways.

In addition to a Ping-Pong table used by the Maazel offspring, the spa building features a steam room large enough to hold 20 people comfortably — singers’ voices are well tended here. Across the hallway is an equally large sauna. Inside the main spa area, with its high, vaulted cedar ceiling (a replica of the theater ceiling) is a swimming pool surrounded with cushioned walkways.

In the early days of the Maazels’ workshops, called the Castleton Residency and begun in 2006, young artists could avail themselves of these lush spa facilities, which are geothermally heated. Now that there are usually about 200 singers, musicians, conductors and set designers each summer, the complex is limited to faculty. The students cannot all be housed on the property, either. “Our students fascinate some of the gentleman farmers around here,” Maazel says. “The word is out to watch out for sopranos in the road!” 

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