Musician and Vocalist Artist Interviews

An Interview with Joyce Castle, Mezzo-Soprano

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Statuesque Mezzo Joyce Castle on Working with Composer Jake Heggie

If you've never heard of mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, by all means read on. To say she is a hoot to interview is a major understatement.

Flesh & Stone: Songs of Jake, the second CD of songs by the composer of the powerful opera Dead Man Walking (2000), was released in the U.S. on October 15. The CD, on the Americus label, features an impressive roster of performing artists that includes Zheng Cao, Joyce Castle, Mary Phillips, Frederica Von Stade, Eugenia Zukerman, Carey Bell, David Henderson, Dawn Harms, Emil Miland, Richard Worn, and Heggie himself. Heggie has written several works with the voices and artistry of Castle and Von Stade in mind.

All artists donated their services for the recording, because all proceeds benefit Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS, a fundraising program of Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS. The recording, set down as Skywalker Studios in Northern California, is available from http://www.broadwaycares.org.

interview-3-08-castle-gray-background.jpgI had initially hoped to interview Heggie for a story on the CD's release, but was unable to reach him in Europe. Instead, I turned to the versatile mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, for whom Heggie wrote one of the CDs finest song cycles, Statuesque. Ms. Castle also performed the role of Mrs. Bertram in Heggie's recent opera The End of the Affair at Seattle Opera in fall 2005, and repeated the role at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Castle, long a member of New York City Opera, has of late become associated with leading and character roles in contemporary opera, as well as the French repertoire. She is certainly a character and a half over the phone. To quote from her official biography:

"Characterized as "a compelling actress in both comedy and pathos" in Michael Torke and A.R. Gurney's world premiere opera Central Park at Glimmerglass Opera (televised nationwide on WNET - Channel 13 and recorded for release by Ecstatic Records), acclaimed for her  "poignant" portrayal of the Mother in Menotti's The Consul (performed at Berkshire Opera, Arizona Opera, and recorded for Newport Classics), heralded as a "chillingly malevolent" Madame Flora in The Medium (performed at Opera Delaware and recorded and released by Cedille Records), and recognized for her "marvelously sardonic" Claire Zakanassian in the New York premiere of Von Einem's The Visit of the Old Lady (in a New York City Opera production directed by Joanne Akalaitis which was mounted for her), Joyce Castle has employed her formidable vocal and theatrical gifts to sculpt distinctive and memorable characterizations. Praised in the Denver Post for her performance as Elizabeth I in the American stage premiere of Britten's Gloriana, the critic wrote; "...Castle rules the show. Her voice is authoritative with a dark edge to it that makes Elizabeth the commanding presence on stage that she is." She continued her exploration of the operas of Benjamin Britten with Seiji Ozawa at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Italy in performances as Mrs. Sedley in Peter Grimes."

Before proceeding to the interview, I include lines notes on Heggie's cycle Statuesque. The first is by Janice L. Mayer - Associate Director, Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS.

The first cycle to be recorded, Statuesque, was commissioned by the University of Kansas at Lawrence for Joyce Castle and premiered in December 2005. Some of the Bay Area's finest musicians were recruited by Jake to perform this chamber piece which is scored for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, cello, bass and piano. Carey Bell (Principal Clarinet designate of the San Francisco Symphony), violinist Dawn Harms and cellist Emil Miland (members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and also Stanford University faculty colleagues), David Henderson (a regular saxophonist with the SFO) and bass player Richard Worn (Principal bass of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and Director of the Worn Chamber Ensemble) were joined by internationally-renowned flutist Eugenia Zukerman, mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle and Jake Heggie.

Joyce Castle recalled: "I remember phoning Jake Heggie and asking him if he would be interested in writing a chamber work for me. He said ‘Oh sure!' and of course I was thrilled! Jake then suggested librettist Gene Scheer write the poetry. I already knew Gene's innovative music-making and performing, so the team came together beautifully. They conceived the ingenious idea of statues of five women geared in some amazing way for me. That Jake Heggie wrote this cycle for me in 2005, that we have performed it together many times during the past two seasons, that I now have had the opportunity to record it with him at the piano, AND that the proceeds will be used to help those in need is really the icing on the cake!" Two days of concentrated, enthusiastic work on Statuesque followed.

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Emil Miland captured the experience, "I've been here for two days recording Jake's cycle with friends and colleagues in this inspiring atmosphere. The music-making has been pure pleasure - I wish that all of my paying jobs could be this gratifying! Thank you for all that you're doing, Classical Action - and if you ever again need a cellist, I'm your man!"

The following is by Heggie:

Statuesque is a cycle of five songs with poetry by Gene Scheer. It was commissioned by the University of Kansas at Lawrence for mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle and features an ensemble of seven instruments (flute, clarinet, alto sax, violin, cello, bass, and piano). The premiere in December 2005 was given by Miss Castle with members of the faculty at the university, and me at the piano. When Janice Mayer approached me about writing something for her, I was excited and baffled.

"What could I possibly compose for her? She's so ... so statuesque!" And that's how the idea of giving life to statues emerged.

I contacted the gifted writer Gene Scheer. It was our first collaboration in what has become one of the most enjoyable creative partnerships in my life. Gene went to museums and did extensive research to find five great statues that inspired both of us. Henry Moore's moody reclining figure wonders at her own mystery, power, and beauty. Picasso's bust of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse, recalls the joy and disappointment of their long affair. Hatshepsut, the powerful woman who reigned as a pharaoh in ancient Egypt, wonders when it will be her turn to join eternity, instead of always staring into it. Alberto Giacometti's standing woman sees her melting flesh and begs us to look deeper, to see the beauty of her intact soul. And the radiant Winged Victory is just plain fed up with being gawked at by anonymous men who have no interest in her feelings because they are so enamored with her stunning, ample physique. There is a "film noir" feel to these songs which seemed appropriate to me, with a generous tip of the hat to Francis Poulenc and Kurt Weill, two of my favorite composers.

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The Interview Follows on Page 2