Very Sad - Sarah Caldwell Dead at 82

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Ralph
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Very Sad - Sarah Caldwell Dead at 82

Post by Ralph » Fri Mar 24, 2006 1:52 pm

From The New York Times:

March 24, 2006
Sarah Caldwell, Opera Conductor, Dies at 82
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI

Sarah Caldwell, the American conductor and opera director, the founding director of the Opera Company of Boston, and the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera, died Thursday in Portland, Maine. She was 82.

The cause was heart failure, her longtime friend and colleague, Jim Morgan, told The Associated Press.

In 1990, 32 years after its founding, facing debt and disarray, the Opera Company of Boston went out of business. But in its glory years Ms. Caldwell's company was a model of adventurous programming, offering imaginative productions in musically insightful performances with distinguished casts.

Taking on difficult 20th-century operas that bigger and better-financed companies shirked from, Ms. Caldwell presented the American premiere productions of Prokofiev's "War and Peace," Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron," Luigi Nono's "Intolleranza," Roger Sessions's "Montezuma," Bernd Alois Zimmermann's "Die Soldaten," Peter Maxwell Davies's "Taverner," and Rodion Shchedrin's "Dead Souls," as well as the world premiers of Gunther Schuller's "The Fisherman and His Wife" and Robert Di Domenica's "The Balcony."

Her company seldom presented more than four productions per season. But from the start Ms. Caldwell attracted world-class artists to her company, notably Dame Joan Sutherland and Beverly Sills. In most of her productions Ms. Caldwell was both director and conductor. Though her double role often made for opera productions with a strong vision, it sometimes divided her attention and made for weakened execution on stage and in the orchestra pit.

Her longest period of success came in the 1970's, when the company was thriving and Ms. Caldwell attracted growing visibility as a conductor. In 1974, she became only the second woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic. (Nadia Boulanger had been the first in 1939 and again in 1962.) For the program, co-sponsored by Ms. magazine, Ms. Caldwell offered only works by women: Grazyna Bacewicz, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Lili Boulanger, Pozzi Escot and Thea Musgrave.

On Nov. 10, 1975, she was the subject of a Time magazine cover story called "Music's Wonder Woman." Two months later, on Jan. 13, 1976, she became the first woman to conduct at the Met. The opera was "La Traviata," staring Ms. Sills, who had cajoled the company into engaging Ms. Caldwell. She conducted 11 total performances.

As a company director Ms. Caldwell was maddeningly disorganized and loath to delegate authority. Only 5-foot-3 and, for most her life, excessively overweight, she was an indomitable but chaotic force. Rehearsal periods were typically fraught with crisis. Ms. Caldwell, sleepless and disheveled, would keep stage crews working all night and fight off creditors all day. Stories abounded of staff members finding their boss catching naps in a stairwell, or atop of pile of costumes backstage.

Yet, with a shoestring budget she often managed to present challenging repertory in inventive productions. Other notable achievements included: Rossini's "Semiramide" with Dame Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne in 1965, a rare work at the time; the United States premier of "Boris Godunov" in Mussorgsky's original orchestration (nine years before the Metropolitan Opera); and the first complete American staging of Berlioz's "Les Troyens" (two years before the Met).

In running her company Ms. Caldwell faced formidable obstacles, including inconsistent financial support from the Boston civic and cultural community and the lack of an adequate theater. The same year her company began, 1958, the long-neglected 50-year-old Boston Opera House was torn down. Ms. Caldwell's new company was forced into a nomadic existent, performing first at Donnelly Theater (razed in 1968), then for one season at the downtown Shubert Theater, then for two years in a series of unlikely facilities (a university gym, a sports cage, a South End cyclorama), before settling for five years into the Orpheum Theater. There she had to contend with a stage only 26-feet deep and no orchestra pit. For each production Ms. Caldwell had several rows of seats from the orchestra section removed to make room for her players. She would conduct sitting in a director's chair, usually in slippers.

In 1978, she bought the B.F. Keith Memorial Theater on Washington Street in the downtown section of Boston, which had been operating as a movie house. Finally the company had a home, a run-down but potentially excellent 2,500-set theater with good acoustics and palatial lobbies. But the stage was just 35-feet deep and the only way to expand would have been to claim a small street that bordered the back of the building, which local residents and businesses opposed. A complete renovation would have cost only $13 million, she estimated. But by 1990, with back taxes looming, Ms. Caldwell sold the theater to a Texas developer, the Theater Management Group, and her company essentially ceased to exist.

Sarah Caldwell was born on March 6, 1924, in Maryville, Mo. Her parents divorced when she was an infant. As a young girl she frequently lived with relatives while her mother, Margaret, was off pursuing graduate studies in music. Ms. Caldwell began taking violin lessons early and by age 6 was giving concerts out of state. When her mother married Henry Alexander, a political scientist at the University of Arkansas, the family moved to Fayetteville.

Discouraged by her stepfather from pursuing a career in music, Ms. Caldwell entered the University of Arkansas as a psychology major. Within a year she was a violin major at Hendrix College in Arkansas. She later earned a scholarship from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.

It was her summers at the Tanglewood Music Institute that shifted her toward opera. There in 1947 she staged Vaughan Williams's "Riders to the Sea." Her idol, the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who directed the institute, was so impressed he invited her to join the faculty the next year. During this period she became an assistant to the conductor Boris Goldovsky, who ran an opera program at the New England Conservatory. By 1952 Ms. Caldwell was running one herself at Boston University, which she kept for eight years.

She started her own company, initially called the Opera Group, in 1958 with just $5,000 seed money. By 1965, renamed the Opera Company of Boston, it had won an important place in American opera. She probably erred in trying to be everything: administrator, fund-raiser, proselytizer. Without a strong administrative overseer, she was allowed to waste time and money by claiming both the director and conductor roles in her productions. During rehearsals the orchestra would be sitting in the pit collecting union-scale pay, while Ms. Caldwell fiddled with some directorial detail on stage.

But when everything came together, the productions could have the kind of cohesiveness usually achievable only in festival conditions. There was a critically hailed production of Berlioz's "Benvenuto Cellini" in 1975 with Jon Vickers in the title role, and a vibrant production of Verdi's "Macbeth" with Shirley Verrett, a frequent Caldwell collaborator who became Boston's favorite diva, as Lady Macbeth. Ms. Caldwell was generally thought to be more gifted as a director. Her ideas were usually backed by enormous amounts of historical research. But her conducting, while technically idiosyncratic and often untidy, was musical and sensitive. And she was a pioneer of colorblind casting in opera.

Her constant search for financial support led Ms. Caldwell into a political quagmire in 1982. She agreed to develop an opera program in the Philippines, signing a contract with Imelda R. Marcos, the wife of President Ferdinand E. Marcos. Ms. Caldwell insisted that the contract was with the Cultural Center of the Philippines, not the repressive government. But the center was in reality a well-financed entity that Mrs. Marcos was using to build her political power base. A year later, facing protests at home from human rights groups and outraged company patrons, Ms. Caldwell pulled out of the deal.

In 1988 she organized an ambitious three-week festival called "Making Music Together," which brought 250 Soviet dancers, musicians, composers and other artists to Boston for some 80 events. The festival was budgeted at $2.4 million. But when corporate support and ticket sales did not meet expectations, Governor Michael S. Dukakis, with the intervention of Secretary of State George P. Schultz, bailed Ms. Caldwell out with increased state support, thus averting diplomatic embarrassment.

Ms. Caldwell, who had lived for years with her mother in a pleasant house in the Boston suburb of Weston, has no immediate survivors. She never gave up hope that she could raise funds and re-start her company. It was not to be. But for a while, as the British critic Andrew Porter stated in The New Yorker, she was "the single best thing about opera in America."
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jbuck919
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Post by jbuck919 » Fri Mar 24, 2006 2:38 pm

How deeply, deeply sad. Boston alone of the great US cities of its size in the US (two others being putatively Washington and San Francisco) still has no opera worthy of the name. Even Baltimore has a separate opera house and a respectable season.

I only ever saw Caldwell in broadcast, but it was obvious from the moment that you looked at her that she was a bundle of contradictions. Her idea of concert dress was a cardigan covering God knows what. It might even have been buttoned unevenly. Her hair hung straight down and might not have been washed in three weeks (in fact she might not have taken a shower in that length of time). That Boston did not come to the rescue when things were obviously falling apart, that she did not have a single benefactor with the skills to nudge her on and rescue her at the same time, is a great, great shame, in fact a tragedy in the history of modern music performance.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

Agnes Selby
Author of Constanze Mozart's biography
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Sarah Caldwell dead

Post by Agnes Selby » Fri Mar 24, 2006 2:53 pm

I am sorry to hear the sad news about a most unusual woman.

Boston was probably the wrong city for a lady conductor, dressed
in unfashionable clothes, to present contemporary operas.

In fact, it is difficult for any opera or an orchestra to survive on a diet
of contemporary music. Perhaps the older public has still many years to
get used to the sound and younger audiences do not frequent
concerts and operas in great numbers.

Agnes.

jbuck919
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Re: Sarah Caldwell dead

Post by jbuck919 » Sat Mar 25, 2006 1:05 am

Agnes Selby wrote:I am sorry to hear the sad news about a most unusual woman.

Boston was probably the wrong city for a lady conductor, dressed
in unfashionable clothes, to present contemporary operas.

In fact, it is difficult for any opera or an orchestra to survive on a diet
of contemporary music. Perhaps the older public has still many years to
get used to the sound and younger audiences do not frequent
concerts and operas in great numbers.

Agnes.
Caldwell advocated contemporary operas, but make no mistake: She was also the master of the traditional repertory and is as famous for her stagings of that as for anything else. By the criterion you suggest, James Levine should be a failure in Boston because he advocates modern repertory, when in fact he is hugely popular and a point of pride for the city, as was for a time Caldwell.

There's nothing remarkable about it. All one has to do is hit the right keys at the right time and the instrument plays itself.
-- Johann Sebastian Bach

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Post by MahlerSnob » Sat Mar 25, 2006 1:37 am

Sad news. I never met Caldwell, but I am institutionaly connected to her in many ways. She was both a graduate and a former faculty member of my school and influenced many of my teachers. It's too bad the company she started in Boston went under. We really do need a decent opera company in this town.
-Nathan Lofton
Boston, MA

WWBD - What Would Bach Do?

Agnes Selby
Author of Constanze Mozart's biography
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Location: Australia

Re: Sarah Caldwell dead

Post by Agnes Selby » Sat Mar 25, 2006 3:18 am

jbuck919 wrote:
Agnes Selby wrote:I am sorry to hear the sad news about a most unusual woman.

Boston was probably the wrong city for a lady conductor, dressed
in unfashionable clothes, to present contemporary operas.

In fact, it is difficult for any opera or an orchestra to survive on a diet
of contemporary music. Perhaps the older public has still many years to
get used to the sound and younger audiences do not frequent
concerts and operas in great numbers.

Agnes.
Caldwell advocated contemporary operas, but make no mistake: She was also the master of the traditional repertory and is as famous for her stagings of that as for anything else. By the criterion you suggest, James Levine should be a failure in Boston because he advocates modern repertory, when in fact he is hugely popular and a point of pride for the city, as was for a time Caldwell.
----------------

Sorry if I offended you in any way. I no longer live in the USA
so I am not familiar with the popularity of contemporary music
in Boston. I only remember people walking out of the Academy of Music in Philadelphia when contemporary works were being performed and by the same token the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Musica Viva Australia have both lost subscribers due to too much programing of contemporary music.

Evidently Boston is ahead of Sydney and Philadelphia in their appreciation of contemporary opera and music. I personally hope to catch up sometime soon.

Regards,
Agnes Selby.

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