A Fox in the Henhouse 

Musicians from all over the world gather at a small farm in rural Virginia, seeking opera from a venerable conductor.

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Northwestern Virginia's horse country, with its secluded estates tucked among rolling hills and winding roads, has long been a refuge for the rich and famous — Washington power brokers, corporate honchos, scions of prominent families, plus a sprinkling of movie stars and best-selling writers. Lorin Maazel, the orchestra conductor, and his wife, the singer and actress Dietlinde Turban-Maazel, could have settled snugly and privately into that scene.

Except for that rustic structure that Maazel calls the henhouse, a barn once home to several thousand chickens in a short-lived commercial hatchery. It was one of the buildings whose rustic quality Maazel and his wife came to love after purchasing the 550-acre Castleton Farms in Rappahannock County in the late 1980s. “Then it occurred to me that we weren't going to be raising hens and selling eggs,” he says. “So we decided to convert the place into a theater.” So much for anonymity.

Since 1997, when the henhouse was converted into a venue that Maazel calls “a state-of-the-art facility that I'm told is the finest private theater in the United States,” the 131-seat space has been used for occasional performances by Maazel's friends and protAcgAcs, becoming finally the Castleton Festival, a three-week event launched over the Fourth of July weekend.

“A regular series has taken shape since the 2002-'03 season, and the idea of a festival grew out of those performances,” says Douglas Beck, a former talent agent who's worked with Maazel on several projects during the past decade and serves as the festival's executive director.

This year the highlight of the festival is a new production of Benjamin Britten's “The Turn of the Screw.” Three more rarely staged chamber operas by Britten — “The Rape of Lucretia,” “Albert Herring” and the composer's adaptation of the 18th-century “Beggar's Opera” — as well as two orchestra concerts and several chamber-music evenings round out the festival, which runs through July 19.

This is familiar territory for the Maazel, who is 79. He recently wrapped up a seven-year tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic, capping a career that dates to the 1930s when he was a violin prodigy. He's been in charge of some of the world's premier musical institutions, such as the Cleveland Orchestra and Vienna State Opera, and has appeared with most other major orchestras and opera companies. Now, the conductor says, much of his time will be devoted to working with young performers. Most of that mentoring will take place at Castleton.

This summer's festival gathers about 200 singers and technical staff “from all sorts of far-flung places,” Maazel says. Musicians from the Charlottesville High School orchestra will play alongside students from London's Royal Academy of Music and members of the Qatar Philharmonic, which Maazel helped found in the Persian Gulf emirate. The orchestra is coached by members of the New York Philharmonic, and Maazel will conduct several master classes.

The young singers, instrumentalists, designers and stage technicians find themselves in a very unusual place, Beck says: “It's a challenge to fit into these smaller confines, but it opens up new possibilities. There's such immediacy to the communication between performers and audiences in this small theater, or in an orchestra concert under a tent that accommodates about 250 people. The intimacy of the theater makes directors and singers rethink theatricality. There's a greater focus on more subtle characterization; the larger gestures [used] in a big opera house wouldn't work here.”

And Castleton fills a void. “I'm not aware of any other festival in the United States that is centered on chamber opera,” Maazel says.

It's an environment that Beck likens to Marlboro, the famed summer music camp in Vermont, “where public concerts grow out of teaching and coaching sessions. It's a very special, intensive kind of music making.” S
Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival runs July 3-19 at Castleton Farms in Rappahannock County. Tickets are $50-$80. Call 540-937-4969 or visit www.castletonfestival.org.

Style Weekly music critic Clarke Bustard produces Letter V: the Virginia Classical Music Blog, at www.letterv.blogspot.com.



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