Castleton Festival ‘gets ready to get ready’

Castleton production chief John Harris stands near what will be, by June, an outdoor dining area beside the Festival Tent.
| Rappahannock News
Castleton production chief John Harris stands near what will be, by June, an outdoor dining area beside the Festival Tent.

John D. Harris, the Castleton Festival’s chief operations officer, stands near his desk in the cavernous storage shed next to the even more cavernous Festival Tent – the tent-topped hall that’s become home to some of the region’s most impressive opera and classical music performances for going on four years now.

Although, in just over a month, three full-scale operas will need to be almost-simultaneously rehearsed in this same shed, in the Festival Tent and the nearby Castleton Theatre House, Harris is calm, cheerful even.

“We’re trying to get ready to get ready,” he says, as we head out to the former pasture beside the big tent – a structure that he designed last year to be semi-permanent, and where this spring afternoon workmen are busy installing a stripped-down, highly flexible lighting system. That’s another Harris idea, so the festival won’t need to rent one in the future (as it does the seating and sound equipment).

Castleton 2012

The Castleton Festival, a month of operas, recitals, musicals, and concerts, unfolds its fourth season in the rolling hills of Castleton Farms in Rappahannock County this summer when young artists and experienced virtuosos come together for 21 performances from Friday, June 22 through Sunday, July 22, including performances at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas.

Founded by Maestro Lorin Maazel and Dietlinde Turban Maazel, Castleton brings together more than 200 young singers, musicians, conductors, stage directors, costumers, and set designers who spend the summer living and working alongside experienced artists under the mentoring baton of Maestro Maazel.

The Festival opens Friday, June 22 with “An Italian Extravaganza” concert and gala featuring special guest mezzo soprano Denyce Graves performing selections from Puccini, Verdi, Rossini and Respighi.

The 2012 Summer Festival season brings three new productions: Rossini’s “Il Barbiere di Siviglia” (June 23 and 29, July 1), conducted by Maazel, arguably the funniest of all comic operas; Bizet’s famed opera “Carmen” (June 30, July 6 and 8), also conducted by Maazel; and Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” (July 13-15), especially created for CATS (the Castleton Artists Training Seminar), under the baton of Levi Hammer. With this bittersweet complex love story told in three-quarter time, the Castleton Festival is making its first reach into the musical theater repertoire.

The Castleton Festival will also bring two Maazel-directed programs to Merchant Hall at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas: “Gershwin and Company, an All-American Evening” (June 28) featuring pianist Kevin Cole; and “Grand Opera in Concert: Puccini’s La Boheme” (July 7).

Young musicians from across North America, Europe and Asia will travel to Virginia to play in the Castleton Festival Orchestra, performing the operas and special concerts including Festival premieres of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 paired with a Concerto for Violoncello and Orchestra by the Washington, D.C. composer Máximo Flügelman (June 24) and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (July 7). A unique violin solo recital with award-winning Jennifer Koh (July 21) performing all Bach violin solo sonatas and partitas will round out the concert performances.

The Festival’s Family Day on Tuesday, July 3 offers tours and an open house with a 7 p.m. concert featuring homegrown bluegrass legends Seldom Scene, followed by a fireworks display.

Throughout the Festival, Fine Dining with food and wine pairings by chef Claire Lamborne, proprietor of Claire’s in Warrenton, Virginia, will be available in the Great Room at the small Theatre House on 663 Castleton View Road, before and after performances, by reservation only. Casual Castleton a la Carte Café selections will also be available at the Festival Theatre foyer on performance days.

This season, Castleton teams with Rutgers University to provide fellowships and college credit to dozens of young music professionals who will become part of the Castleton family, living, training and rehearsing with festival artistic director Maazel, opera star and  the festival’s general manager Nancy Gustafson, famed actor and associate artistic director Dietlinde Turban Maazel, stage directors William Kerley and Dorothy Danner,  and  a roster of superb musicians, renowned faculty members and mentors, to prepare for five weekends of great performances.

WHAT: The Castleton Festival: new productions of “Il Barbiere di Siviglia,” “Carmen” and “A Little Night Music” and beloved classics played with fresh energy from the youthful Castleton Festival performers, under the baton of Maestro Lorin Maazel. Complete schedule available online.

WHEN: Friday, June 22 through Sunday, July 22 

WHERE: The Castleton Festival Theatre, 7 Castleton Meadows Lane, Castleton, Va., in the rolling hills of Rappahannock County, 60 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and 45 minutes from Charlottesville.

The Festival’s encore of “La Bohème” (June 28) and a Gershwin and Company All-American concert (July 7) will take place at the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas. For tickets and information, visit

WHO: Legendary conductor, composer and violinist Maestro Lorin Maazel, top musicians and singers of tomorrow, special guests conductor Levi Hammer, famed mezzo soprano Denyce Graves, violinist Jennifer Koh, and pianist Kevin Cole.

HOW: Tickets are $20, $50, $85 and $120 for most performances with discounted subscription packages available for three or six performances. Purchase tickets at the Castleton Festival website or contact the Castleton Concierge (866-974-0767 or for tickets and information on accommodations, dining, and transportation.

Harris has worked in opera for more than 25 years as a technical and production director, for the Houston Grand Opera and, more recently, for the Virginia Opera. He built his own business, Virginia Scenic, into one of the country’s premiere scenic studios for opera, constructing sets for more than 200 operas and 30 companies. He’s a pragmatic guy.

“When you’re starting your own festival, in a very family way,” he says, speaking of Maestro Lorin Maazel and Dietlinde Maazel’s decision four years ago to build a music festival from the ground up at their 550-acre farm in Castleton, “well, this was a very free-flowing thing. We want to have this show, and we’d like to do this . . . but as it grew, it had to embrace what it was becoming – a major viable music festival, and one not just being discussed here in Rappahannock but all over the country, and all over the world.”

So Harris’ focus this year, he says, has been on ironing out the details. For instance, he says, festival-goers at Castleton have proven over the years that “they like to come early, and they like to have something to eat, and they like a string quartet or a singer in the lobby.” So, he’s planned to move five or six picnic-table pavilions outside the Festival Tent lobby – a large room beside the performance space where, this year, a la carte sandwiches, salads and carry-out foods will be available, provided this year by Claire’s of Warrenton. Small, impromptu performance spaces will be set up in the lobby, as well as, possibly, out among the picnic pavilions.

The festival’s biggest change this year – having been approved by Rappahannock County to have seating for 650 in the Festival Tent – allows the festival organizers to do what Harris called “right-sizing.” To Rappahannock festival-goers who’ve avoided the place because the ticket prices were steep, the additional 200 seats enable the festival to offer four tiers of pricing for every performance – from $20 to $100.

The festival will also be offering fine reserved dining in the Great Room of the intimate Theatre House – a place where, in the past, it has fed the 200 or so young musicians who spend the month living and working at the farm during the festival. Those who eat at Theatre House will also get reserved-parking privileges both there and at the Festival Tent, which is about a half-mile away.

To help accomplish this, the Maazels made a $30,000 donation this winter to the Castleton Volunteer Fire Department, which the fire company is using to install a new kitchen and completely renovate its hall – which, in turn, will be where the festival’s residents will be eating their meals.

Roger Piantadosi
About Roger Piantadosi 544 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.