Friday, October 11, 2013

Meet Our Singers: JOYCE CASTLE, Marquise of Birkenfield

Joyce Castle returns to Seattle Opera as Daughter of the Regiment’s Marquise of Birkenfield (photo from rehearsal, right, by Alan Alabastro). This legendary performer (and professor at the University of Kansas) has given Seattle Opera a series of remarkable characters over the years, including her famous Augusta Tabor in The Ballad of Baby Doe, her 1990 debut (Mère Marie in Dialogues of the Carmelites), and most recently a brilliant Marcellina in Le nozze di Figaro. Seattle is lucky to have this versatile artist bringing one of her favorite roles to town. When I spoke with Joyce the other day, we discussed the complicated journey taken by the Marquise, the many operetta characters that are descended from her, and some of her exciting upcoming projects—including a new recording of a work by William Bolcom and a new opera on A Wrinkle in Time.

Joyce Castle singing "Pour une femme de mon nom"

Welcome back, Joyce! Now, once upon a time you sang Orlofsky in Die Fledermaus for us (conducted by Yves Abel, who’s also working on this opera with you). Is Daughter of the Regiment an operetta?
I think it is. As Yves says, it led right into Offenbach. I have a fair amount of experience doing operettas; I’ve done Gilbert & Sullivan, Offenbach—Public Opinion in Orpheus in the Underworld. And music theater, too.

In Gilbert & Sullivan, I’m guessing you play those haughty contraltos—the Fairy Queen, Katisha...
Yes, Buttercup, the Duchess of Plaza-Toro, Ruth in Pirates...I’ve done a lot of them.

That’s interesting, these characters seem to have a lot in common with the Marquise, your character in Daughter of the Regiment.
They do—including the ‘reveal’ at the end. Usually, at the end, I get to say: “But he’s my SON!” Or, “she's my daughter...”

From Le nozze di Figaro, 2009: Arthur Woodley (Dr. Bartolo) and Joyce Castle (Marcellina)
Rozarii Lynch, photo

That’s right, and how we figured this out because of the birthmark shaped like spatula! [laughs]
And the Marquise certainly gets that moment. She may have started that entire tradition. It makes for great theater, great comedy. The dialogue and the music, the way it’s written is very theatrical.

Seattle Opera hasn’t done too much operetta: Fledermaus comes back every so often, and we’ve done The Merry Widow, but there’s worlds of Gilbert & Sullivan and Offenbach and other operettas we haven’t presented. Are we missing out by not doing more of these lighter pieces?
Let the other theaters do them. We’re doing great work here also with Wagner and Strauss!

From Salome, 2002: Joyce Castle as Herodias
Gary Smith, photo

Both of which you’ve done in Seattle, Fricka and Waltraute (in the Ring) and Herodias (in Salome). But even when you’re in a serious opera, like Heggie’s The End of the Affair, which we did in 2005, your characters often get laughs.
Well, Mrs. Bertram, in The End of the Affair...she is pretty comic. She’s just...a ‘snappy’ lady. She has fun, she likes to dance. I think she thinks she’s younger than she is.

From The End of the Affair, 2005: Joyce Castle as Mrs. Bertram
Bill Mohn, photo

It’s interesting you speak about her in the 3rd person. Are you distanced enough from the character, to know that she’s funny?
Sure, now. When I’m doing the scene, I’m in the scene! But later I’m able to stand back and see the whole show. When I step in, I become part of the story, and I’m not commenting on myself then, I’m just playing the character. If I play the character in a real natural way, it will work—if I believe in her.

From Die Walküre, 1995: Joyce Castle (Fricka) and Monte Pederson (Wotan)
Gary Smith, photo

Tell us about the Marquise. You’ve done this role a lot; is she a funny person, does she get a lot of laughs? She does get laughs. But I’m certainly not playing the Marquise for laughs. If I stand back and look at her... [chuckles], well, she’s quite interesting, she’s certainly happy with herself, very happy with herself. But she needs more. And she’s carrying this huge secret. She has a personality that’s larger than life; but she’s covering up, with this loud voice, or, shall we say, ‘colorful personality,’ she’s covering up something that’s very important, very serious in her life. And people do this in real life. You speak too loud, and maybe there’s something underneath there.

From The Ballad of Baby Doe, 1992: Sally Wolf (Baby Doe) and Joyce Castle (Augusta Tabor)
Gary Smith, photo

Interesting—we’re trying to speak so quietly about THAT, so we compensate by speaking too loudly about THIS. And once she gets it all off her chest, is her life going to be different...is she going to live differently with herself?
Well...she has her daughter. And her daughter is happy. I’m sure she feels better about the life she’s had.

How do you teach young opera singers to perform comedy?
It’s very important for any actor to be inside the character. If you’re inside a character, and really commit deeply to that character, and she happens to be funny, she will be funny. If she happens to be crazy, you’ll see that. But for me to PLAY funny, or to play crazy...that doesn’t work.

From The Turn of the Screw, 1994: Joyce Castle (Mrs. Grose) and Cyndia Sieden (Flora)
Greg Eastman, photo

You’re going to play the piano in this opera.
I’ve played piano since I was 6. My mother started me and my older sister on piano lessons very early.

Did you play any other instruments?
At first I was a cellist, but they sold the cello out from under me, so I started alto clarinet, which some people say isn’t even a real instrument. And then I played tenor sax in the dance band, and when I was a senior in high school I decided to play oboe, because I thought that was a very, very difficult thing to do. But throughout, I played piano.

I imagine that comes in very handy, as a teacher of singing.
Oh, yes. And in Kurt Weill’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. I play Widow Begbick, who has a night club, or cabaret, whatever it is, and somebody always plays the piano onstage. And when I do it, I play it myself.

From Dialogues of the Carmelites, 1990: Joyce Castle as Mère Marie
Ron Scherl, photo

I hear you have a cd coming out.
Yes, William Bolcom wrote a cycle for me, The Hawthorn Tree, on poems by Willa Cather, it’s a chamber work, with a small group of instruments. We just did it with Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, but the recording was made with musicians for The Orchestra of St. Luke’s, from the premiere. It should be out in a couple of months on Americus Records and for download.

When the link is available for download, we’ll be sure to publish it.
That’s what they do nowadays! I was looking at a Sondheim recording I did, so long ago it was on 33 1/3! And that’s also available by download now.

From Rusalka, 2001: Joyce Castle (Jezibaba), Owl, and Gwynne Geyer (Rusalka)
Gary Smith, photo

One last question: tell us a little about this new A Wrinkle in Time opera you’re doing!
Yes, Ft. Worth Opera has commissioned Libby Larsen to write an opera on this very popular book. I’m going to be Mrs. Which. Not Mrs. Witch, Mrs. Which! This is for their Spring ’15 Festival. The composer flew to Kansas City to meet me—same thing happened with Jake Heggie, when he wrote a piece for me, Statuesque, it’s fantastic, to poems by Gene Scheer. This was before we did The End of the Affair, Jake called me up from San Francisco and said, “You know, I really don’t know you very well, can I come out and see you?” And so he flew out, like Libby Larsen did, and stayed overnight, and got to know me more, listen to my voice, and wrote some beautiful things. I’m expecting great work from Libby. They’ve done a preliminary workshop.

Sounds like a fantastic subject for an opera. Those books are so evocative—it was twenty years ago, I was in elementary school when I read them, but I’ll never forget how they made me feel.
I think it will work, people will come.


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