At Castleton, it’s homes away from home

It’s no mystery where the sweet sounds and dulcet tones of the Castleton Festival come from. One trip to Rappahannock County’s ever-growing summer music and opera festival reveals any number of talented singers and musicians gracing both the stages and the countryside at the Maazels’ Castleton Farm.

Singer Melissa Chavez (left) relaxes in one of Rappahannock’s many scenic fields last summer with her Castleton Festival roommate and fellow young artist, Meredith Cain-Nielsen. Courtesy photo.
Singer Melissa Chavez (left) relaxes in one of Rappahannock’s many scenic fields last summer with her Castleton Festival roommate and fellow young artist, Meredith Cain-Nielsen. Courtesy photo.

But where do those talented people go when they’re not performing? For a month or more (this year’s festival runs from July 3-28), a performer’s temporary home is either at one of Castleton Farm’s own properties or the permanent home of generous locals, who routinely open their guest rooms and cottages for up to six weeks to welcome in relative strangers.

About two dozen such families have already signed up to accommodate festival performers this year, said Castleton housing coordinator Brad Vernatter. And while that’s “a bit more than usual,” Vernatter stressed that the festival could always use more housing volunteers.

“The Castleton Festival houses young artists in both on-campus housing and with hosts in the surrounding area. The on-campus housing is wonderful, but there is not enough room for all of the young artists,” said singer Melissa Chavez, a performer last summer who will be back again in July. “It’s remarkable how many generous and caring community members welcome young artists into their homes each summer.”

“Staying with hosts is . . . not only a wonderful way to experience a home away from home but to connect with supporters of the festival on a more personal level,” said mezzo-soprano and four-time Castleton Festival alumna Julia Harden.

“Most musicians are funny people to those not in the business. We have bizarre sleep patterns, odd wake times, eating schedules, diets and so forth,” Harden said. “It can be hard to adjust to having someone in your home like that. Of course the artist always feels a bit intrusive coming into someone’s home, but the unfamiliarity passes quickly.”

Harden said last year’s festival was her first time staying with a host family (she had previously chosen to remain on the farm, but switched on the advice of a friend), and she thoroughly enjoyed her experience.

“As an artist it’s so important to have someplace to emotionally relax . . . Music is nothing if not personal, and personal in the way that we give of ourselves wholly when we perform,” said Harden. “I love being able to socialize with those invested in the art form and create lasting bonds that go beyond the festival close dates.”

“I can’t wait for this year’s festival,” exclaimed Beth Hall, a veteran guest-housing host. An opera lover since she was five, Hall, who usually houses seven during the festival, said she decided to start offering her home after tickets to the Washington National Opera became “too pricy.”

“They’re really a benefit to the county,” said Hall, who said she has housed musicians and artists from all over the world, including Sri Lanka, Bulgaria, Malaysia and Canada. “And the quality of the music is very good.”

“I wish I could say I do more for them,” laughs Hall, who noted that the festival provides food and transportation for all its participants, so all she really does for her guests is wash sheets and towels. “I get more from them than they get from me . . . It’s party, party, party for me!”

“As a musician you get used to living on the go,” said cellist and two-time local-housing alum Daniel Lelchuk, who said both years he’s been immediately made to feel like part of the family. “It’s definitely a unique atmosphere [that’s] not at all like the dorm rooms.”

Though the artists can’t request a specific place to stay, all those who are considering “off-campus” housing are presented with an informational survey, which asks personality questions and is used to match the performers with the best house possible.

Cellist Daniel Lelchuk (right) poses last summer with Castleton Festival Orchestra concertmaster Pacalin Pavaci. Courtesy photo.
Cellist Daniel Lelchuk (right) poses last summer with Castleton Festival Orchestra concertmaster Pacalin Pavaci. Courtesy photo.

“They do an excellent job of matching you with a host,” said Lelchuk.

“All the host families homes are amazing at Castleton. Those sponsors who take us in are truly wonderful people and I for one am so grateful to all of them,” agreed Harden. “I know that it’s bizarre to have some stranger living in your house.”

“They have full privileges at my house and they’re just the most marvelous kids,” said Hall. “They’re extremely responsible young adults who take care of themselves . . . Their parents did good!”

“Those that let their house completely to the artist usually encourage us to make ourselves at home,” said Harden. “I was lucky enough to have my own bedroom and bathroom, I was free to use the phone for calls home, I was offered use of the kitchen to cook myself meals should I wish. I know many of the other host families operate the same way – they are the height of generosity!”

“I love to meet new people and spend time with them, so this seemed like a good fit for me,” agreed Chavez, who stayed with Hall last summer. “Her home is beautiful and welcoming, and from the very first moment I walked in the door and met Beth, I felt at ease. She’s a seasoned Castleton host and she was wonderfully supportive and helpful. My roommate, Meredith Cain-Nielsen, and I had a fantastic summer living in her home.”

Most performers have strict and demanding schedules during the festival, which doesn’t often allow them to relax as much as they might like. Hall said her guests are routinely up by 8:30 a.m., and it’s not unusual for them to return at 11 p.m.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t stop either the performers or their host families from enjoying many of the things unique to Rappahannock. Lelchuk said he fondly remembers sitting by the pool reading Anton Chekhov during one of his stays, and would frequently take his breaks at the Laurel Mills Store and chat with the regulars.

“The neighing of horses is now a welcome sound,” added Lelchuk with a laugh.

“Most all of the hosts who were still living in their homes during the festival treat us like members of their family,” said Harden. “I’ve been offered rides, meals on weekends and watching movies together.”

“One of the unique experiences that come from living in a home off of the Castleton property is that you really become a part of someone else’s family,” said Chavez. “After the festival ended, I stopped by to visit with Beth [Hall] when I was in the area and we have kept in touch by email through the past year.”

As far as Hall is concerned, however, it’s the hosts who benefit the most. Hall said she’s been treated to private concerts from the performers as a thank you, including one year where her guests serenaded the 24 Crows restaurant in Flint Hill and another where her guest chorus sang at her church service.

“I get to follow their careers through [music] magazines . . . It’s a whole different way of life and it’s so interesting to see up close,” said Hall. Hall added that many of the performers who stay with her also enjoy seeing snakes and bears in the backyard, one of many sights they may not get to see anywhere else.

Their one complaint? “It’s awfully dark out here,” Hall laughs.

“This coming year will be my second year with the Castleton Festival, and I don’t have my official housing assignment yet, but I’m looking forward to another incredible summer,” said Chavez.

Those interested in providing lodging to performers, either this year or for future festivals, should contact Vernatter at either 540-937-3454 or bradv@castletonfest.org. The deadline to offer housing for this year’s festival is June 1.

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