“So often you say, the widow: she’s holding the estate, but what does she know?” says Dietlinde Turban Maazel. “And I never wanted to be in that position.”
Maazel, 57, is sitting at a shade-dappled table outside her Civil War-era domicile in Rappahannock County, Va., in a blue T-shirt dress that brings out the color of her eyes. Her golden brown hair, tinged with silver, is pulled back. The effect of girlishness is somehow enhanced by the light German accent that softens the edges of her words and flickers through in conversational habits like the quick “ja, ja, ja,” not quite an American “yeah,” that punctuates her sentences.
Maazel has played a number of roles in her life: superstar actress, subservient wife, home-schooling mom. Last year, her husband of 31 years, the conductor Lorin Maazel, died of a rare autoimmune disorder in the middle of the annual Castleton Festival, a training ground for young conductors, instrumentalists and singers that he founded and funded with her on their 600-acre Virginia estate in 2009. Now Dietlinde Maazel, the widow, has taken over to run an institution that has become her husband’s legacy.
“The board suddenly had to step up [to] being quite an active board,” she says, “because I don’t have those funds anymore. I’ll be lucky if I can just keep all of this afloat.”
Dietlinde met Maazel at the Bambi Awards, Germany’s answer to the Academy Awards, in 1983. For the next three-plus decades, she followed his vision. “He kept saying, ‘Don’t walk away from your career,’ ” she said, “but I didn’t want [it to be] he is here, I’m there, and the nanny is with the kids somewhere else.” Maazel’s vision brought them to Virginia, a state he had vowed to settle in when he first saw it as a student. It led to the construction of a small theater in a building that was originally a chicken house, where the family began hosting performances by the likes of Mstislav Rostropovich — who inaugurated the theater in 1997 — and Yefim Bronfman, James Galway and, of course, Maazel himself on violin.
And it led to the establishment of a summer opera festival in 2009. It wasn’t long before Maazel erected a tent, and then a permanent structure, so he could move from chamber opera in the home theater to what Dietlinde calls “the big ten,” including Puccini’s “Trittico,” “Fanciulla del West,” and “La Bohème.”
Dietlinde played a role in all of this. But to the outside world, it wasn’t always clear what it was. Nancy Gustafson, the soprano, was the festival’s general director; Dietlinde, though a co-founder and a member of its leadership team who took on teaching and acting roles, had no clear title. “With such a giant personality and leader upfront,” she says, “I was always a little bit the Japanese wife, one step behind.”
But then Maazel died.
“When the cat leaves the house the mice are dancing, and that happened a little bit,” Dietlinde says. “Everybody had sort of a different type of ownership where they wanted [the festival] to go, and it got a little confusing. And so a core of the board just asked me to take on the leadership. They said, you can do it, and we want you to be the face of the festival and step up. I must say when you suddenly have to, then you can.”
Stepping up to the plate has been a theme of Dietlinde Maazel’s life ever since, at 19, she accosted the actor and director Michael Degen backstage in a Munich theater, asked him how to go about getting a role, and ended up getting cast as Gretchen in Goethe’s “Faust.” It was the start of a meteoric career that was notable for its eclecticism in a country that makes a sharp distinction between high art and entertainment: Dietlinde appeared in plays by Schiller, in feature films, in TV thrillers and on the covers of virtually every TV magazine and tabloid in the country.
“I could not walk anywhere in a department store,” she says, “without people wanting an autograph.”
She was only 26 when she met Maazel, and walked away from all of it.
“I had done so much so quickly, I felt I didn’t feel I had life to fill it,” she says. “You need a database of life and emotions in order to be a good actor. Otherwise, you kind of repeat yourself or just exteriorize it and become like a lot of the Hollywood starlets, basically a photographed model. And that was never my intention. I was so hungry just to live a little.”
She wasn’t afraid to stand up to her strong-willed husband. She insisted on children, though he, who already had four children by his first two wives, wasn’t sure. (He proved a devoted and engaged father to Orson, Leslie, and Tara.) And she held her own with him in discussions about music. She remembers an episode during work on the Andrea Bocelli album “Sentimento” (2002), for which he orchestrated Tosti songs and played the violin himself.
“It’s a delicious recording,” she says, “but it came back, the first draft, from London, and we listened to it, and I thought, ‘I don’t like that,’ because it was done with the pop sound. Bocelli was totally upfront, and the rest was a soup in the background. And he, such a critical ear, but he was just, I think, into the music, and he said, ‘Isn’t his wonderful!’ And I said, ‘No, darling, you’re going to send that right back and they’re going to remix the whole thing, because it’s awful.’ And he got one of his tempers, slammed the door and was not to be seen for half a day. The next morning, I heard him getting up very early, listening to it again, and then he came to me in the kitchen and he said, ‘You are damn right. We’re going to send this right back to the drawing board.’ ”
She was in part backed up by her own training as a violinist her own training as a violinist — something she concealed from her husband until after they were married. One day when she thought he wasn’t home, she picked up the instrument again — much to Maazel’s shock; Dietlinde had at one point actually considered a solo career.
Taking over a struggling private festival calls on another skill set. Like another area festival, Wolf Trap, in the wake of the 1994 death of its charismatic patron and founder, Catherine Filene Shouse, Castleton is rapidly professionalizing.
“It became apparent that we had to begin a tighter managing style,” Dietlinde says. “When you have the visionary and the funder in one package, then you can say, ‘Okay, he wants 30 more chorus people, that means 30 more costumes, 30 more people living somewhere and eating somewhere, but he wants that for his sound, and if he pays for that, we just make it happen.’ Now, we’ve become much more professional overnight, in that sense. Because there’s much more transparency, there’s a responsibility before the board, there’s a budget that, I’ve brought it down by a million, we’re now a $2 million festival and not a $3 million festival.”
This is not all a bad thing. The orchestra, true, is smaller this year. But the organization has improved. Fundraising has stepped up; ticket sales are far ahead of where they were last year. Dietlinde has secured the 34-year-old Rafael Payare, a product of Venezuela’s vaunted El Sistema training program who worked closely with Maazel in the past few festivals, as principal conductor, and further helped his cause by recommending that he replace the late maestro at a scheduled performance with the Vienna Philharmonic last January. This resulted in a triumphant debut and a flood of other international invitations — fortunately, after Payare’s commitment to Castleton was already secured.
“I don’t think Maestro would have invested so much time and energy into this project, which is very, very good,” if he didn’t think it was important, Payare said last month by phone from Sweden. “I will do whatever is in my power, not much, but I will contribute so that he is not forgotten.”
Other alumni feel similarly. The soprano Joyce El-Khoury has become a member of the Castleton board, out of gratitude to the festival for its energetic support of her own career. “I want to help continue Maestro’s legacy,” she says.
But both of them, like everyone else, are just getting to know the new Dietlinde Maazel, who is at once thrilled by the festival’s new professionalism and filled with ideas as ambitious and sometimes idealistic as her late husband’s.
“My last dream,” she says, looking around the idyllic grounds stretching out behind her, “would be to turn this into a year-round academy” — something her late husband certainly never envisioned.
As for a return to acting: “Well,” she says, smiling, “you never know.”
The Castleton Festival offers a performance of opera excerpts on Sunday and officially opens on July 3 with “Roméo et Juliette” and continues with performances including the premiere of the opera “Scalia/Ginsburg” and a concert with Fabio Luisi conducting, through July 19. www.castletonfestival.org.