Opera Conductor and Impresario Sarah Caldwell, 82

Sarah Caldwell founded the Opera Company of Boston.
Sarah Caldwell founded the Opera Company of Boston. (AP)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 25, 2006

Sarah Caldwell, a towering figure in American opera as a conductor, director and creative force behind dozens of innovative productions, died March 23 of a heart ailment at Maine Medical Center in Portland, Maine. She was 82.

Once called "the best opera conductor in the United States" by Time magazine, Ms. Caldwell built her reputation with the Opera Company of Boston, which she founded in 1957. She led the company for 34 years, mounting one exciting production after another and drawing many of the operatic world's leading voices to her stage.

In 1976, she became the first woman to conduct the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, leading Beverly Sills in "La Traviata," and her fame as a conductor and impresario spread around the globe. She often appeared at Wolf Trap, where her 1974 production of Sergei Prokofiev's "War and Peace" was hailed by Washington Post critic Paul Hume as "one of the great triumphs on that stage."

Known for her tireless energy and eccentricity, Ms. Caldwell often slept in her Boston theater and did much more than simply conduct operas from the orchestra pit. She supervised the casting, stage direction, lighting and fundraising and did research in archives around the world, often uncovering new or forgotten operas.

Fans and critics from across the country flocked to her Boston performances, which included new works and daringly bold versions of classic Italian and German operas. Her stagings were "not just trying to be different," she said, but "grew out of desperate circumstances."

For years, her struggling company did not have a permanent home and gave its performances in an aging movie theater. Money often was scarce, yet Ms. Caldwell arranged for elaborate sets and costumes that led to fresh interpretations of familiar works.

Before her organization collapsed from debt in the 1990s, Ms. Caldwell managed to present the U.S. premieres of Arnold Schoenberg's "Moses and Aron," Roger Sessions's "Montezuma," Michael Tippett's "The Ice Break," the original French version of Giuseppe Verdi's "Don Carlos" and Paul Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler," which had been banned in the composer's native Germany.

One critic marveled at the excellence of her productions, even though they appeared to be "put together . . . out of chewing gum, rubber bands and sheer gall."

Despite tight budgets and rigorous rehearsals, Ms. Caldwell drew such renowned stars as Sills, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Renata Tebaldi, Nicolai Gedda and Jon Vickers to her Boston stage. She hired Placido Domingo when he was all but unknown, paying him $250 a performance.

Ms. Caldwell was featured in a cover story in Time magazine in 1975, and New Yorker critic Andrew Porter said she was "the single best thing in American opera."

"Opera is everything rolled into one -- music, theater, the dance, color and voices and theatrical illusions," she told Life magazine in 1965. "Once in a while, when everything is just right, there is a moment of magic. People can live on moments of magic."

Ms. Caldwell was born March 6, 1924, in Maryville, Mo., and grew up in Kansas City and Fayetteville, Ark. She never thought it unusual for a woman to lead musical groups because her mother had been a music teacher and choral director.

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