The Castleton Festival: right turn, no red

For its fifth season, the Castleton Festival itself — like the out-of-town concert- and opera-goers gratefully following all those blue VDOT directional signs that went up in March — seems to be finding its way.

With a new nonprofit and expanded, connected and fundraising-focused board behind it, the annual summer music and opera festival — started in 2009 by renowned conductor Lorin Maazel and his wife, actress-educator Dietlinde Maazel, on their 500-acre Rappahannock County farm — is already seeing the benefits of its overall move toward “sustainability.”

A new VDOT sign helps festival-goers find their way.
A new VDOT sign helps festival-goers find their way.

“Maestro Maazel and Dietlinde Maazel have shown tremendous vision, and tremendous flexibility, by helping us to do this spinoff of a new organization and a new board,” said Howard Bender, the festival’s director of development and institutional advancement for the last year and a half. “It means they have a vision for sustainability, that they’re thinking five, 10, 20 years down the road. We spent many hours, all of us, so that, artistically, Maestro would have the final word — but now the liabilities, and the operational responsibilities, are on a corporation, not with Maestro and his family.

“It’s good professionally, it’s good for the family,” says Bender. “But they had to say, ‘Yes, we get it, we’re flexible.’ ”

Castleton Festival general manager Nancy Gustafson pets one of the wagon-pulling Percherons belonging to Matt Hickey of Classic Carriages in Staunton, at the opening of "The Girl of the Golden West."
Castleton Festival general manager Nancy Gustafson pets one of the wagon-pulling Percherons belonging to Matt Hickey of Classic Carriages in Staunton, at the opening of “The Girl of the Golden West.”

He’s speaking of the transition from the Maazels’ own Chateauville Foundation to a new Castleton Festival organization, a 501(c)3 nonprofit that now leases the 650-seat Festival Theatre and 150-seat Theatre House from the Maazels, and essentially runs the festival, executes fundraising and marketing plans — and seeks grants.

Speaking of which, “our support from the National Endowment for the Arts went up 71 percent last year,” Bender says, referring to the NEA’s increased support for the festival rising from $17,500 to $30,000 in a year. “If we’re at about $2.7 million in annual capitalization,” he says, referring to Castleton Festival’s annual operating expenses, “that’s a huge number.”

Along with a increases in last season’s attendance and ticket sales, festival funding from the Virginia Commission for the Arts has risen from $5,000 two years ago to $43,000 this year, adds Bender, who joined the Castleton Festival full time last year after coming aboard as a consultant. His arrival at Castleton followed careers in arts administration and development in Ohio and Virginia, and as a tenor and high baritone in professional opera companies in New York, Houston, San Francisco and elsewhere.

The organizational changes “feel right,” Bender says, “because the Maazels’ Castleton vision is a vision worthy of great philanthropy — and that’s being recognized nationally, and on the state level, and by each person who comes onto our board and says, ‘Wow. It’s going to be so easy to raise money for this.’ ”

Zac Harris, a horse trainer and farrier based in Chatham (and son of Castleton Festival operations director John Harris), greeted arrivals at Saturday’s premiere of “La Fanciulla del West” and entertained crowds on the terrace during intermissions. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.
Zac Harris, a horse trainer and farrier based in Chatham (and son of Castleton Festival operations director John Harris), greeted arrivals at Saturday’s premiere of “La Fanciulla del West” and entertained crowds on the terrace during intermissions. Photo by Roger Piantadosi.

Judith Richards Hope, a Rappahannock resident with an international network of friends some say rivals the fan club of her famous late father, Bob, is chair of the new Castleton board, and is one of several who also served on the Chateauville Foundation board. She says the specific purpose of the new board is outreach: “Not only to the musical community, around the world, but to the local community. It’s very Rappahannock- and Virginia-focused,” she says.

Local members of the currently 20-member board include Hugh and Nedra Smith, Jennifer Manly, Cliff Miller, Nina May, Alexia Morrison, C. Scott Willis, Cheri Woodard and Washington Mayor John Fox Sullivan. On the organization’s advisory board, such local luminaries as Bill and Linda Dietel, Col. John Bourgeois and County Administrator John McCarthy share billing with the likes of Polish composer-conductor Krzysztof Penderecki, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, pianists Yefim Bronfman and Emanuel Ax, opera star Denyce Graves, Irish flutist Sir James Galway, actor Jeremy Irons, the NSO’s Christoph Eschenbach and the Maazels themselves.

Ekaterina Metlova and Jonathan Burton as Minnie and Dick Johnson/Ramerrez in Castleton Festival's production of "Girl of the Golden West." Photo by E. Raymond Boc.
Ekaterina Metlova and Jonathan Burton as Minnie and Dick Johnson/Ramerrez in Castleton Festival’s production of “Girl of the Golden West.” Photo by E. Raymond Boc.

“We’re all committed to find support for this wonderful festival so that it can continue,” she says. “With a formal board of directors now, and our dazzling advisory board, foundations and philanthropists are much more interested in the Castleton Festival, because we’ve made a statement — that the festival is going to be around and is going to be strong and continue for many years. And they are interested.”

This year’s encouraging signs of success at Castleton extend beyond the actual signs that Virginia Department of Transportation workers arrived in March to erect along U.S. 211 (and, more important, along the winding, unlit two-lane roads between the highway and Castleton’s facilities).

Supporters and friends attending the festival’s opening night performance of Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” were greeted by a lone horseman as they arrived at the Festival Theatre parking lot, where a conestoga wagon and matching Percherons were also available to be admired, if not petted.

The opera that followed, its relentlessly complex and evocative score aced by Maazel and his young orchestra, with fantastic-realistic sets by Davide Gilioli and sure-handed direction by Giandomenico Vaccari, received some fairly positive reviews, including one in last Sunday’s Washington Post by Anne Midgette, who’s been tough on a few previous Castleton productions. [Another positive Post review, of Castleton’s “Otello” and “La Voix Humaine” productions, penned by Joan Reinthaler, appeared after this report was published.]

Earlier in the week, more than 100 school children showed up for Castleton’s first “Opera Alive” outing, visiting the “Fanciulla” dress rehearsal, afterwards meeting orchestra members, costumers and production folks and members of the Castleton Artist in Training Seminar (CATS) program, which brings 50 singing, acting and other students to the festival each year to work and learn alongside the 180 young professional singers, musicians and technicians who perform.

“These kids were blown away,” Bender says, “they were completely silent for an entire three-hour opera, and afterwards asked fabulous questions. I think 95 percent of them said they’d come back to Castleton for another opera. They see the teamwork  it takes to put on a production like this, and it blows their minds, and they’ll carry this with them their entire lives . . . When these kids stood up and the end and Maestro Maazel came out, they went nuts, they tore the place apart. I saw the look on his face. It was him who said to me, last August, ‘Howard, I want you to bring kids here.’ ”

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 539 Articles

Former Rappahannock News editor Roger Piantadosi is a writer and works on web and video projects for Rappahannock Media and his own Synergist Media company. Before joining the News in 2009, he was a staff writer, editor and web developer at The Washington Post for almost 30 years.