Sarah Caldwell

Sarah Caldwell (born 1928) is the founder of the Boston Opera Group, now known as the Opera Company of Boston. She is also a conductor and artistic director of national renown. She has won international accolades for her use of the dramatic elements of opera and for expanding the operatic repertoire. She has headed several international exchange programs and was named National Medal of Arts recipient in 1996.

Sarah Caldwell, founder of the Boston Opera Group (1958), now known as the Opera Company of Boston, was born in the small town of Maryville, Missouri in 1924. Soon afterwards her family moved to Kansas City. Caldwell, a child prodigy in both mathematics and music, began violin lessons at the age of four and was holding violin concerts before the age of ten. She attended orchestral performances of the Kansas City Philharmonic as well as stage performances by the Kansas City Repertory Theater. She graduated from Hendrix College, University of Arkansas, then moved to Boston to attend the New England Conservatory of Music, the Boston Symphony's unofficial educational affiliate.

Caldwell was soon studying under Boris Goldovsky, head of the New England Conservatory of Music's Dept. of Opera. She also studied under Richard Burgin, concert master of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Caldwell's love of music and the theater found its focus in the artistic direction of opera. Goldovsky became her mentor and guide and Caldwell was instructed in all elements of opera, from chorus direction and stagecraft to orchestral conducting and costuming. By the age of 20, Caldwell had staged Vaughan William's Riders to the Sea.

As a member of the Conservatory, Caldwell participated in the annual Tanglewood Music Festival. (Tanglewood, Massachusetts has been holding an annual music festival for over sixty years. Musicians from the Boston Symphony traditionally perform in Tanglewood for eight weeks each summer.) She trained the choruses for various concerts.

Serge Koussevitzky, permanent conductor of the Boston Symphony (1924-49) and founder of the Berkshire Music Center (1940), admired Caldwell's work at Tanglewood and recommended that she be placed on the Berkshire Music Center faculty. Caldwell's success at the Berkshire Music Center led to her being named Director of Boston University's Opera Workshop (1953-57). She also created the Dept. of Music Theatre.

As director of the Opera Workshop, Caldwell was able to promote her concept of opera as a dramatic art form as well as search for compositions unfamiliar to American audiences. As one of her first productions, Caldwell staged the American premiere of German composer Paul Hindemith's opera Mathis der Maler. Caldwell also invited Igor Stravinsky to conduct his only full-length opera Rake's Progress. (Stravinsky's modern opera, composed to a libretto by W. H. Auden and C. Kallman, combines musical elements ranging from Mozart to Italian opera.) Caldwell proved to audiences that Stravinsky's opera could be successfully produced even though an earlier production by the Metropolitan Opera had been given poor reviews.

In 1957, Caldwell, with the help of supporters, founded the Boston Opera Group (renamed the Opera Co. of Boston in 1965). The difficulties of staging full-scale opera productions were considerable but Caldwell's unconventional approach to opera gave her productions an excitement and drama not characteristic of more traditional productions. She insisted upon extensive rehearsals which enabled singers to develop their characters both musically and dramatically. Her commitment to an expanded repertoire led her to stage premieres of several works that were only later put in the repertoire of other opera houses. Through research, she was able to locate and produce previously unperformed editions of familiar pieces. Her goal was to involve the audience by bringing out the inherently dramatic elements of an opera without sacrificing its musical content.

Several of the world's most sought-after opera stars were willing to participate in Caldwell's dramatic production even though they earned less money and had longer rehearsal times. Beverly Sills performed in Manon (1962) and Joan Sutherland made her Boston stage debut in I Puritani. The Opera Co. of Boston also presented the first east coast performance of Lulu (1964), the first American performance of Rameau's Hippolyte et Aricie (1966), and staged the American premiere of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1966).

From 1968-70, the opera company was without a home and was forced to hold performances at a variety of locations including the Kresge Auditorium at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1971 funding was received from The Ford Foundation and from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Orpheum Theater became the new home for the Opera Co. of Boston; another series of dramatic performances began. Operas produced by the Opera Co. of Boston under Caldwell's artistic direction included Kurt Weill's Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1973), the original French version of Giuseppi Verdi's Don Carlos (1973), Sergei Prokofiev's War and Peace (1974), and Roger Huntington Sessions' Montezuma (1976).

In 1978, after 21 years of rented space, the Opera Co. of Boston moved into its first permanent home in the Savoy Theater, now named The Opera House. Productions included Michael Tippett's English opera The Ice Break (1979), Leos Janacek's Czech opera The Makropulos Affair (1986), and the first American performances of Zimmermann's Die Soldaten (1982), and Puccini's Madame Butterfly.

Caldwell's reputation was gaining her both national and international recognition. In addition to conducting orchestras in almost every major concert hall in the United States, from Carnegie Hall to the Dallas Civic Opera House, she was appointed Director of the Wolf Trap Summer Music Festival in Virginia (1980). The first of her cultural exchange programs began as she became involved with special projects in Manila and in Tel Aviv in the early 1980s.

International interest in Caldwell's work took her to China in 1982 for a meeting with the Central Opera Theatre of Peking. Following their meeting, Ming Cho Lee of the Peking opera company produced costumes and sets for an Opera Co. of Boston production of Turandot. Caldwell also produced Shchedrin's opera Dead Souls as part of a Soviet-American Making Music Together Festival (1988). Despite the daunting logistics of rehearsing and preparing a production with artists who did not speak each other's language, the Festival was a great success.

Reviews of Caldwell productions were as widely diverse as her productions were original. Thor Eckert, Jr., of Opera News reviewed the 1984 production of Turandot and criticized the "details here and there [that] spoke more of haste than concept." In reviewing The Makropulos Affair (1986), Andrew Porter wrote that "the Boston company (was) at full strength presenting an opera that matters, and in a way to bring to life what matters about it most."

Caldwell's achievements with the Opera Company of Boston were astonishing, especially when one considers, as P. G. Davis said in a review, that it was "put together … out of chewing gum, rubber bands and sheer gall." It was Caldwell's ability not to let obstacles distort her vision that won her so many admirers. As she once remarked, "The secret of living is to find people who will pay you money to do what YOU would pay to do if you had the money."

Caldwell was the first recipient of the Kennedy Center Award for excellence. She is also recipient of the Rogers and Hammerstein Award and the 1996 National Medal for Arts.


Further Reading on Sarah Caldwell

There is not as yet a full biography of Sarah Caldwell but her career is outlined in The New Grove Encyclopedia of Music, Stanley Sadie, editor (London: 1980) and in The American Music Handbook, Christoper Pavlakis, editor (London: 1974). Other sources of interest include Uncommon Women by Joan Krufrin (1981), Opera News, New York Magazine, and The New Yorker. Both magazines have reviewed Caldwell's more unusual productions. An article by Winthrop Sargent The New Yorker (Dec. 24, 1973) presents an overall look at Caldwell's life and her work and describes how she created remarkable productions with only a minimal of financial backing and a whole lot of imagination.