It’s a CATS life at the Castleton Festival  

After choir practice and chores, the cast of Castleton's "Our Town" paused to pay their respects last week at our town's Masonic Cemetery.
After choir practice and chores, the cast of Castleton’s “Our Town” paused to pay their respects last week at our town’s Masonic Cemetery. Tjark Lienke

The Castleton Artists Training Seminar (CATS) is a crucible for artistry. Each summer, seasoned performers — at home on the world’s greatest stages — tutor up-and-coming young artists, helping them refine their skills and prepare for the next steps in their burgeoning careers.

CATS members plunge into an intense regimen of classes and coaching on: operatic and song literature, vocal technique and interpretation, acting for the stage, performance techniques, movement, foreign languages and diction, audition preparation and career management.

This summer’s CATS artists come to Castleton from 15 countries and 32 U.S. states. At the Castleton Festival farm, they live and work closely for six weeks with world-famous singers such as Denyce Graves, Allessandra Marc, Eduardo Chama and Stanford Olsen. It is an educational immersion, a concentrated apprenticeship or mentorship, where young performers watch how the masters do it and learn by their example

The principal conductor at the Castleton Festival this year is Rafael Payare, a protégé of festival co-founder Lorin Maazel. In July 2012, Payare made his debut at the Festival conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 and he has had a close association with the festival ever since. Payare, acclaimed for his exciting and evocative style, coaxes the best from all the performers. Even though CATS members can read music and they understand the written dynamics, a conductor of Payare’s talent unifies the collective musicianship of the singers and orchestra and draws from them the nuanced emotions of the music, creating that “sweet spot” of a piece that moves us so.

CATS member Melissa Chavez was a principal soloist with the Castleton orchestra in June, under Payare’s direction, where she sang “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s opera, “Romeo et Juliette.” When I asked her to tell me about what she learned from working with Payare, she gushed and said, “He has a great sense of how to shape each line and how to make the music come to life.”

Young talents of the CATS program perform scenes from popular operas and musicals this week. Ekaterina Metlova performs at an earlier Castleton presentation.
Young talents of the CATS program perform scenes from popular operas and musicals this week. Ekaterina Metlova performs at an earlier Castleton presentation. E. Raymond Boc

CATS training runs in conjunction with the Castleton Festival and each young artist is assigned roles in a few different festival shows. It’s “on the job” training. Last weekend, for example, you might have seen CATS member Zoe Hart onstage in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, singing “Ode to Joy” as part of the 58-member chorus (conducted by maestro Payare) and again onstage that weekend playing the lead role of Emily in Thornton Wilder’s classic play, “Our Town.”

The cast of “Our Town” is composed entirely of CATS members, plus five guest performers from Rappahannock County, including three children and adults Hugh Hill and Richard Viguerie. “Our Town” has no music, aside from a church-hymn scene, so it’s an opportunity for CATS members to concentrate solely on their acting and stage presence.

Dietlinde Turban Maazel, artistic director and co-founder of the Festival, directed “Our Town.” An award-winning German actress and a professional teacher, Maazel is on the faculty at the Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University, where she teaches interpretative and performance skills (in German, French, Italian and English repertoire) and a new course that she created for Rutgers, “Acting for Singers.” She teaches the acting classes at Castleton.

“I’ve taken her acting classes four times and I learn many new things each time,” said Chavez. “Her technique is very improv-based, which helps tell a story in a way that relates well to singing. . . . When you walk onstage, even if you’re just a chorister, you have to create ‘character’ and invent and redefine your character every night. Another thing Dietlinde teaches you is responding to the people around you.”

So CATS helps young artists by elevating their technique, nourishing their potential and grooming them to succeed. And we, the local audience, get to watch current and future stars of opera hone their craft, practically in our backyards. Lucky us.

In the coming days: CATS members will perform in “Our Town” (sold out) and “Romeo et Juliette” on Saturday (July 18), and Ravels “Lheure espagnole” (“The Spanish Hour”) on Sunday (July 19). Today (July 16) and Sunday they will be featured, performing selected opera scenes. For more information, visit or call 866-974-0767.