A Rich History of Beautiful Singing at Caramoor

By Vivien Schweitzer
Originally appeared in the 2017 Summer Season Program Book

Since the founding two decades ago of a summer program dedicated to early 19th century Italian opera, the beautiful Caramoor estate has become a sort of Bel Canto Bayreuth. Many local opera fans have made an annual summer pilgrimage to hear rising stars and established artists perform repertory staples and rarities by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi.

Rossini La donna del lago_July 19 1997_Vivica Genaux©Susan Harris
Will Crutchfield conducts mezzo-soprano Vivica Genaux, and soprano Marguerite Krull in 1997’s La donna del lago by Rossini. @Susan Harris

This year marks both the 20th anniversary and the finale of Bel Canto at Caramoor, which was established in 1997 with a performance of Rossini’s La donna del lago that revealed, in the words of New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini, “a work of musical and dramatic cohesion” and an “elegant and humane music drama.” Vivica Genaux, the first in a series of leading bel canto singers who came to prominence through early Caramoor appearances, sang the role of Malcolm, and as James Jorden reported in Parterre Box, “the thunderous ovation following ‘Mura felici’ surely must be a ‘star-is-born’ moment.”

Marian Anderson and Alfred Wallenstein in 1958
Marian Anderson and Alfred Wallenstein, 1958.
Long before Bel Canto at Caramoor was inaugurated by Will Crutchfield, however, opera and vocal music were staples of Caramoor’s summer season.

Long before Bel Canto at Caramoor was inaugurated by Will Crutchfield, however, opera and vocal music were staples of Caramoor’s summer season. Beginning in the 1950s, programs included Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio, Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea and Il Combattimento de Tancredi e Clorinda, and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas. Marian Anderson and Jan Peerce headlined the gala opening of the Venetian Theater in 1958, with Alfred Wallenstein conducting a scene from Gluck’s Orfeo and Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings.

Marilyn Horne said at a press conference in 1997 to announce the founding of Bel Canto at Caramoor that she thought the elegant estate in Katonah the ideal spot for such a project. “It’s beautiful. People love to go there; the acoustics are great; the orchestra [Orchestra of St. Luke’s], is wonderful.” Critics and opera buffs have agreed. Opera buffs have flocked to the Venetian Theater every summer – some arriving on the Caramoor Caravan, the bus service inaugurated in 1965 to transport guests from New York City to Katonah.

Benjamin Britten's Curlew River. ©Audrey Michaels, 1966.
Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River, 1966. ©Audrey Michaels

Caramoor has long been a mecca for off-the-beaten-track repertory. Myriad twentieth-century works and Baroque and Classical rarities were showcased during the early years. Opening night in 1963 featured William Walton’s Façade, as well as de Falla’s El Amor Brujo with the mezzo-soprano Shirley Verrett.

Lesser-known corners of the repertory were also highlighted by Julius Rudel, an Austrian-born conductor who was a driving force of opera at Caramoor during his tenure from 1964-1976. Rudel, who died in 2014 at 93, was much admired for his accomplishments during a lengthy stint as director and principal conductor of New York City Opera, where he programmed works by American composers, musicals, and contemporary European opera alongside repertory staples. Rudel brought that spirit of innovation to Caramoor, where he led performances of rarities like Cavalli’s L’Ormindo and Strauss’s Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron). He championed the music of Benjamin Britten, conducting the American premieres of Curlew River, and The Burning Fiery Furnace in the 1960s, as well as The Prodigal Son. Rudel also conducted Orff’s Die Kluge and Henze’s El Cimarron in their New York area premieres.

Catherine Malfitano and Sandra Walker in Cavalli’s L’Ormindo, 1975. ©Burt Charmatz

Singers who performed at Caramoor in the 1960s, 70s and 80s included Elly Ameling, Arleen Auger, Kathleen Battle, Phyllis Curtin, Jan DeGaetani, Maureen Forrester, Catherine Malfitano, Jessye Norman, Roberta Peters, Beverly Sills (Lia in Debussy’s L’enfant prodigue in 1967 and the title role in Handel’s Semele in 1969), Benita Valente, and Frederica von Stade.

Beverly Sills and Julius Rudel in Handel’s Semele, 1969. ©Beth Bergman

Will Crutchfield, who has directed the Bel Canto at Caramoor program for its entire duration, continued Rudel’s tradition of innovation, presenting obscurities alongside repertory favorites. In a recent phone interview, he said that the program initially had one main goal: “to show the masterpieces of this repertory in a new light and to take them seriously as an important chapter in the history of music drama.” This was especially important twenty years ago when bel canto works were still derided in some quarters as formulaic works that merely showcased virtuosic singing.

Thanks to the efforts of Crutchfield and his colleagues, listeners have had a chance to better understand the bel canto repertory.

Attitudes towards the repertory have changed and “I think we have played our part in that,” said Crutchfield. “These are operas by great poets and composers and they are no more ‘formulaic’ than Beethoven’s concertos,” he said. “But to know that, you have to know more than two or three of them, and you have to perform them on their own terms instead of chopping them up to ‘get to the good parts.’ You cannot understand what the good parts are – or how they are good – if you don’t study the whole libretto and the whole score.”

Thanks to the efforts of Crutchfield and his colleagues, listeners have had a chance to better understand the bel canto repertory. Scholars including Philip Gossett and Andrew Porter have offered insightful pre-performance lectures about history, critical editions, and interpretative decisions.

Will Crutchfield conducting Rossini’s Guillaume Tell in 2011. ©Gabe Palacio

An integral part of Bel Canto at Caramoor is the six-week summer training program for young artists. The program has more than 600 alumni, some of whom have performed in main stage productions. This training, according to Crutchfield, “becomes more important with each passing season, as we get farther away from the cultural roots of the art form we’re trying to pass on to the future.”

The Bel Canto at Caramoor young artist program has been a laboratory for focusing on the fundamentals that Crutchfield believes are often neglected in typical conservatory education: “things like steadiness and consistency of tone, control of dynamics, clarity of fast notes, balance of strength throughout the range, coordination in getting from one note to another – basics of the kind that are still clearly defined for pianists and violinists, but not for singers.”

“…it’s a highlight whenever a singer … gets further into the heart of a role or sings a phrase better…”

Asked to name the highlight of his Caramoor tenure, Crutchfield said “there have been too many to name, but for me it’s a highlight whenever a singer, whether a guest star or trainee, gets further into the heart of a role or sings a phrase better than they might have done without the framework of support we try to give them.”

Angela Meade in Rossini’s Semiramide, 2009. ©Gabe Palacio

The soprano Angela Meade was one young artist for whom Caramoor proved a milestone. She made a memorable debut in 2009 singing the title role in Rossini’s Semiramide, alongside Vivica Genaux as Arsace and Lawrence Brownlee as Idreno. Meade returned for a triumphant performance as Norma the following season, which Anthony Tommasini described in a New York Times review as “stunning.” Meade, who also sang the title role of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in 2014, has since gone on to appear at the Metropolitan Opera and elsewhere, and is an Artist-in-Residence at Caramoor this season.

“Being offered the title role in Semiramide and subsequently my first Norma the following season,” she said, “thrust me into a world of huge stamina pieces. It taught me how to pace myself and how to take care of myself. It taught me about my boundaries and what material my voice was made for. It helped open the door to a repertoire I felt like I had something to say in.”

Opera buffs who have eagerly made an annual pilgrimage to Katonah each summer can look forward to the next chapter of opera at Caramoor

Crutchfield’s opera revivals and training program are moving to a new organization, Teatro Nuovo, and to a new summer home at SUNY Purchase in 2018. Operas by Rossini and Mayr will headline a 9-day Bel Canto festival including recitals, lectures, and masterclasses. And opera buffs who have eagerly made an annual pilgrimage to Katonah each summer can look forward to the next chapter of opera at Caramoor, which will bring a variety of orchestras and ensembles to explore other areas of the operatic canon. July 2018’s offering will be a Handel opera performed by Philharmonia Baroque conducted by Nicholas McGegan. Caramoor may no longer be a Bel Canto Bayreuth, but it will continue to be a destination for the changing face of opera, with many more evenings of ‘beautiful singing’ in the Venetian Theater.

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