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Remembering Boston’s Divine Sarah


sarah-caldwellWith opera returning last week to the Boston Opera House thanks to Boston Lyric Opera’s production of Carmen, an older opera buff’s fancy turns to thoughts of the Caldwell era in that house, and perhaps as well to rumination over the state of grandly staged opera—or the lack thereof—in our fair city.

Most will agree, I suspect, that the tenure of Sarah Caldwell’s Opera Company of Boston (OCB) on Washington Street (and earlier at the Orpheum and elsewhere) constituted the golden age of opera in Boston during the last half century. The Opera House (originally the B. F. Keith Memorial Theater, which opened in 1928 and was the scene of movies and vaudeville until acquired by the OCB in 1979) never proved a perfect opera venue: the orchestra pit too small for most Wagner or Strauss, uneven acoustics, and inadequate space backstage and in the wings, to name just a few limitations [some mitigated by recent renovations]. But despite those obstacles, or perhaps because she felt challenged by them, Caldwell often created magic on that very stage.

Both as part of the audience and as an OCB Board member I came to conclude that Sarah was at her best when engaged by a work that, in one way or another, was new to a Boston—or indeed, American—stage. Who can forget the special excitement which attended the OCB productions of Sessions’ Montezuma, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Invisible City of Kitezh, Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Tippett’s The Ice Break, Glinka’’s Russlan and Ludmilla, Boris Godunov in Mussorgsky’s original orchestration, Verdi’s Stiffelio, de Falla’s La Vide Breve? This long list is by no means exhaustive of the wonderful and often little-known repertoire that she enabled us to experience.

An adequate conductor, Sarah was also very much a woman of the theater—complementary talents not often conjoined. She occasionally delighted in spectacular coups de théâtre such as the dramatic unveiling of the finished statue at the end of Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini; the flickering lights which illuminated and lent a particular ghastliness to the violence in Zimmerman’s Die Soldaten; and the title character’s being spun round and round on a blade as he tilted with a windmill in Massenet’s Don Quichotte. One remembers, too, her enlisting Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca to spice up Orpheus in the Underworld, and Victor Borge running amok in Die Fledermaus.

It was my sense that more traditional opera fare—necessary for box office purposes—engaged and inspired Caldwell’s imagination somewhat less than works which were new or novel. But she always approached traditional works professionally, and in the course of doing so brought to Boston many major voices such as James McCracken, Eva Marton, Shirley Verrett, Regine Crespin, Jon Vickers, Rosalind Elias, Mignon Dunn, Simon Estes, Tatiana Troyanos, Magda Olivero, and Evelyn Lear, as well as great artists with local connections including Beverly Sills, Donald Gramm, d’Anna Fortunato and Eunice Alberts.

I recall suggesting to her, naively in retrospect, that OCB consider mounting either of my two favorite rarely performed operas (at the time, never performed in the United States): Richard Strauss’s early Feuersnot and Hans Pfitzner’s monumental Palestrina. She was particularly enthusiastic about the latter, but both operas would have required large and mostly imported casts which the OCB simply could not afford absent a huge financial contribution from an opera angel similarly enthralled by one or the other of these two wonderful works. And ultimately, as we know, it was economics that brought the OCB down. The condition of the house on Washington Street progressively deteriorated until it was ill-suited for the performance of anything, and both it and the OCB closed in 1990-91.

These days we are not bereft of opera in Boston. In addition to Boston Lyric’s we can look to occasional fully staged productions by the Boston Early Music Festival and by local music conservatories. We are enormously indebted to Gil Rose’s Odyssey Opera; their recent performance of Dvorak’s Dimitrij was a triumph which acquainted us with a work well worth presenting on major stages; to Martin Pearlman’s Boston Baroque for the operas of Mozart and earlier composers; and to the Boston Symphony Orchestra for its recent, magnificent essays of Strauss’s Elektra and Der Rosenkavalier. Of course, the performances noted in the last sentence were undertaken in concert and not fully staged, and hence were not in the tradition of “grand” opera. More troubling, Dimitrij received only a single performance in a Jordan Hall dotted with empty seats; I could not help but speculate whether that would have happened in Carnegie Hall had Eve Queler and her Opera Orchestra of New York performed the same work.

Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca spice up Orpheus in the Underworld
Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca spice up Orpheus in the Underworld

Why has fully staged opera, grandly performed, not been part of the Boston music experience since the OCB’s departure? We all can speculate about the reasons: Boston’s proximity to New York City and the Met; too much competition from the MFA and BSO in a finite universe of patrons; an aging opera audience not adequately replenished; the lack of an optimal, purpose-built performance venue; and (persuasive to me) the absence of enough large scale corporations in the Boston area to make a difference. Regarding the last cited reason, I have been impressed by the very substantial number of corporations listed as major donors on the walls of the wonderful opera houses in Seattle and Toronto, both of which have thriving, significant opera seasons. Our corporate demography in Boston is such that this would be difficult to replicate.

Alas, I for one am not confident that opera in the grand tradition will return to us soon. In the meantime, we must be content with and thankful for opera modestly staged and cast, and for often memorable, exceedingly well-cast performances of opera in concert. And we should not be too hard on ourselves for looking back with a mixture of gratitude and wistfulness to the era of Sarah Caldwell and her Opera Company of Boston, lamenting that its promise was, in a way significant for the long term future of opera in our city, ultimately unfulfilled.

Ron Sampson is a retired Boston lawyer and long-time opera lover who is a past Board President of the Longy School of Music and The Harvard Musical Association.


8 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. My memory of OCB is a performance of “Der Freischütz,” with William Wildermann. I had become fascinated with that opera and, although I rarely went into Boston for concerts or other performances, that was not to be missed, and not to be forgotten.

    It’s really unfortunate that the financial support Ms. Caldwell deserved was lacking.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — October 5, 2016 at 6:52 pm

  2. I don’t know if Sarah’s operas were grandly staged, but they were certainly grandly conceived. Name another Boston opera intendant who made it to a Time Magazine cover. Caldwell had an uncanny ability to involve unforgettable singers. Paying the rent? That was someone else’s job.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — October 5, 2016 at 7:18 pm

  3. We got to perhaps two-thirds of Caldwell’s productions, including the ambitious two-night stand of Les Troyens, (one on a dreadful rainy night that seemed to deter no one). Although I know it is anathema to friends whom I highly respect, who disagree, I still cringe when I think of her visiting Czechoslavia simply to get a better understanding of Czech social customs, etc., for her production of The Bartered Bride. Why? Not because it was perhaps unnecessary — the opera does not rise or fall on the accuracy of social customs — but because it was so costly. My husband was asked at one point to be treasurer, and he took one look and recoiled in horror. If we were Mr and Mrs Got-Rocks, OK, but we weren’t, and she also was (in)famous for not heeding voices of caution. No one would have wished her to shave costs on her cast — her choices were impeccable — nor her staging. (Although I do have to say, then Aeneas’s ship hoving into view at the beginning of Act 2(? of that Troyens) with a prow, then a hand appearing stage left, I was close to dying of laughter.) The problem washer complete disregard for cost beyond the unquestioned expenses; she would not listen to anyone and so scared off many potential donors. A damned pity, it was. And we were so close to getting that Opera House.! Double damn.

    Comment by Toni Norton — October 8, 2016 at 10:25 am

  4. When I graduated from NEC in 1977 with my Master’s degree, Sarah was already a legend. I have vivid memories of Sarah’s Falstaff, complete with splashing the Knight in the drink, and a small boat that really worked. Also I saw her Barber of Seville with a gorgeous Beverly Sills as Rosina and handsome Alan Titus as Figaro. I feel very fortunate to have worked with her and the touring arm of OCB, Opera New England in 1979. It was a beautiful production of Hansel and Gretel with Rosalind Elias as the Witch. I primarily enjoyed my position of “Fly on the Wall” as the Sandman/Dew Fairy. My Sandman costume made me look like a rolling pile of sand, but my Dew Fairy pleased my young sensibilities as I looked like a Sprite all in shimmering blue!

    Comment by Ellen McLain — October 11, 2016 at 10:14 am

  5. Sorry. That Orpheus auf der Unterwelt (1982, my Dad always called it that) was Sarah’s last production I ever saw and it was a wretched conception and production. Only consolation was seeing Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca in the flesh. But my favorite aria from Orpheus was cut to allow the plot to be warped so a totally non-Offenbach song could be inserted just so the two could act together; fortunately all three are gone so they won’t pull that stunt again. One also thinks of those she ripped off with Roger Sessions’ “Montezuma” which they paid for but eventually never saw and never got refunds. I knew a man who gave up on her and refused to go anymore: she lacked artistic integrity, he said.
    Real tragedy, when one remembers her in her prime in the 1960’s; I saw her Moses und Aron (my Dad was in the chorus) and we became subscribers for several seasons. The Rake’s Progress–a gem. Berg’s Lulu. Opera with her could be an exhilarating adventure yet Sarah could handle traditional staging well too. In successive seasons I remember a wonderful traditional Tosca, then an avant garde one that was, well, Eurotrash but without the trash and being thoroughly American. (One must be up on European left-wing social and political trends to understand the cant and slant of Eurotrash like the BLO Carmen I decided to pass up.) Then the period of wandering locales, Schweik at the Rockwell Cage; Daughter of the Regiment at a Tufts gym–but they worked. An infatuation with Left-Wing politics proved her undoing; a project with the faltering Soviet Block brought her down finally ca. 1990, a sad end to an amazing career. Her approaches in the ’60’s and ’70s would seem dated today–but they were “period pieces” in the true sense of the word and “Rake” caught the 1966/67 era perfectly. Those of you too young to have been there (I was 15 for Rake) will envy those of us who saw Sarah in her prime in the ’60’s.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — October 11, 2016 at 12:17 pm

  6. Face it, opera is expensive to do both in money and more importantly in personnel. The post-WWII Bayreuth of minimalist sets was an example of making lemonade from the lemon of diminished resources. Note the trends in Broadway Musicals, for full staging with orchestra without mikes one has to go to Glimmerglass Festival (Oklahoma! in 2017 BTW) otherwise it’s mikes and electronics–and productions geared to the tourist trade. Is the Met in New York really a danger to the opera trade in Boston? I think not; the Met was something one went to to appear cultured (the Charlie the Tuna Effect I call it) while the City Opera did Opera That Matters. I actually saw this when I went to City Opera one night: the Met was doing some warhorse; their attendees were all dressed up while those of us going to Rameau’s Platee weren’t fashion models. This fall’s season in Boston is opera galore and a scheduling nightmare come November when four operas in four days is up against a rare-mileage train trip.
    One should note that there is a new website jointly run for a number of local opera groups/companies with perfermance listings; its name escapes me now and I’d have to log off to find it. This is very promising because the real problem here in Boston is finding out what is being done and a central resource would be invaluable. Right now I rely heavily on announcements/ads in programs and the Boston Musical Intelligencer to find out who’s doing what.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — October 11, 2016 at 1:11 pm

  7. Boston Opera Calendar is the name. “Google” it–but still read the BMI.

    Comment by Nathan Redshield — October 11, 2016 at 1:14 pm

  8. I am well aware of Sarah’s habit of announcing productions, and then sometimes not following through, but the Sessions Montezuma was one she did produce admirably. I attended three performances of it. Frequently I attended every performance of a run. We were blessed to have Beverly Sills and Donald Gramm as regular members of the company. I can never forget the Charpentier Louise at the Cyclorama, Lulu & Moses und Aron, the young Domingo with the still youthful Tebaldi in Boheme, Sills & Domingo in Rameau, the Phyllis Curtin/Thomas Stewart Dutchman at the MIT Kresge Auditorium, Vickers in Benvenuto Cellini, Sills & Troyanos in Capuletti, Silja in The Makropulos Case, the several Verdi stagings with Verrett & McCracken, Crespin as Dido & Carmen, the amazing Russian and Ludmilla or Invisible City of Kitezh, and especially the two runs of War and Peace.

    Comment by Dennis Milford — October 13, 2016 at 1:45 am

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