Sarah Caldwell

Opera Company of Boston founder


Sarah Caldwell, opera administrator, conductor and director: born Maryville, Missouri 6 March 1924; died Portland, Maine 23 March 2006.

Sarah Caldwell ran the Opera Company of Boston for 30 years. She was not merely the administrator but the music director and the stage director as well, who conducted most of the operas and was responsible for their productions. Although the company lurched from one financial crisis to another, somehow Caldwell survived, continuing year after year to perform a repertory unequalled for its variety in the entire United States. A Caldwell production was probably flamboyant, it might be outrageous, but it was certainly never dull.

Caldwell was born in Maryville, Missouri, in 1924. She attended Hendrix College in the University of Arkansas, and then studied violin with Richard Burgin at the New England Conservatory in Boston. Later she studied opera with Boris Goldovsky. In summer 1946 she won a scholarship to play viola at the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood, and the following year she directed a production of Vaughan Williams's one-act opera Riders to the Sea there. From 1952 to 1960 she ran the Boston University Opera Workshop - her first production was Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress - and in 1957 she founded the Opera Group of Boston, which in 1965 became the Opera Company of Boston.

The difficulties confronting her were immense. To begin with, there was no suitable theatre. Her first production was an open-air staging of Offenbach's Le Voyage à la lune on Boston Common; next she directed Puccini's La Bohème in a cinema; the gymnasium of Tufts University and the field house at MIT also came into service. Not until 1978 was Caldwell able to buy the B.F. Keith Memorial Theater, which was renamed the Boston Opera House. This held more than 2,600 people, but had a very shallow stage that caused a great deal of trouble when the company performed large-scale chorus operas.

Nothing was allowed to stand in Caldwell's way. She conducted the US premieres of many 20th-century operas, including Luigi Nono's Intolleranza 1960 (1965), Schoenberg's Moses und Aron (1966), a magnificent Prokofiev War and Peace (1974) and a splendid Robert Sessions Montezuma (1976); Bernd Alois Zimmermann's controversial Die Soldaten was performed in 1982, Peter Maxwell Davies's Taverner in 1986 and Rodion Shchedrin's Dead Souls in 1988.

One of Caldwell's most amazing achievements was the 1972 complete performance, in French, of both parts of Berlioz' epic Les Troyens. First a theatre had to be found. The Aquarius held 2,700 persons but had no orchestra pit; undaunted, she sacrificed the front rows of the stalls. Then no score was available, so the Bibliothèque Nationale microfilmed the original manuscripts and Caldwell made her own orchestral parts and vocal score. The singers had to dress in the nextdoor building, a training college for beauticians, and run through the snow - it was February - to the stage.

In 1976 Caldwell became the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, with Verdi's La traviata.

Throughout the 1980s the company sank ever deeper into debt, while matters were not improved by competition from the new Boston Lyric Opera. However, in 1988 there was an exciting production of Cherubini's Medea with an electrifying performance by Josephine Barstow in the title role, while in 1990 Caldwell directed the world premiere of Robert DiDomenica's The Balcony. The flamboyant production was in the best Caldwell tradition. After that the theatre remained boarded up.

Elizabeth Forbes

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