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Spring-Summer 2000
Vol. 62, No. 3

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Castle: The Old Lady's own private opera

It doesn't get much better than receiving "a gift from God."

And mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle '66E (MM) knows what that is like. She says hers came wrapped in the character of "The Old Lady" in Strawberry Fields, a one-act opera composed by fellow Eastman alum Michael Torke '84E. The work is part of the Central Park trilogy, which had its world premiere at the Glimmerglass Opera last summer and was telecast by PBS earlier this year. Completing the trilogy are The Festival of Regrets, in which Castle played the supporting character of "The Mother," and The Food of Love.

Strawberry Fields, which Castle flatly describes as "a masterpiece," tells the story of an old woman who goes to Central Park to see an "opera"--one that exists entirely in her imagination. In the park, her dementia worsens, and she mistakes a friendly young man for her late husband. When her children arrive to take her to a rest home, she resists, intent on seeing her imagined opera played out by various unknowing passersby.

Based on a libretto by playwright A. R. Gurney, Strawberry Fields was Torke's first venture into opera. The prolific--and popular--composer until then had stuck to orchestral and chamber works, although a number of them had been choreographed by Peter Martins of the New York City Ballet.

"The libretto was perfect on paper," Castle says, and Torke "provided the perfect complement in music. He brought the role to life.

"The music might be chatty, then very rhapsodic, or very friendly. It sounded the way I thought the character was feeling."

In developing her role, Castle enjoyed a tremendous advantage over, say, a performer preparing to sing "Aida"--she was able to work directly with the composer. That collaboration laid the foundation for a friendship that has lasted beyond the Fields production, she says, referring to Torke as "generous" and "a warm and brilliant man."

Torke: "An unexpected gift"

"Joyce is a miracle," Torke says in turn. "She immediately understood 'The Old Lady' from the depths of this character's joy and pain. It was an unexpected gift to have someone lift Pete Gurney's and my work to artistic heights that we hadn't imagined. In a way, the experience has changed my life. I plan to do much more work in the operatic field because Joyce has shown me how satisfying it can be."

Satisfying, indeed, but opera is always challenging, Castle notes.

"In rehearsal on day one I was reaching, trying to figure out the character," she says of her Fields role. "I knew all the notes and thought I understood my part, but then, when you see everyone on stage with you and you hear the orchestra. . . ." That, she admits, is very different.

"There are many parts to the puzzle in an opera," she says, "and you just hope that by opening night you get there."

The 14-year veteran of the Metropolitan Opera need not have worried. Opening night went just fine. As Alex Ross of The New Yorker wrote later, "Strawberry Fields seduced me, along with the rest of the audience--not least because of a delicately heartbreaking star turn by Joyce Castle."

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