Challenges: A Memoir of My Life in Opera

by Sarah Caldwell, with Rebecca Matlock
Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 2008
256 pp., illus. 35b/w. Trade (in jacket), $27.95
ISBN: 978-0-8195-6885-4.

Reviewed by Katharina Blassnigg
University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna


Rebecca Matlock is a photographer and author, who has known Sarah Caldwell (1924 – 2006) since 1987, served on the board of the Opera Company of Boston, and worked with Sarah Caldwell on her memoirs for several years. For this publication Matlock conducted numerous interviews that she transposed into a first person account in this biography, intercut with a few short sections in which she introduces her relationship with Caldwell and her biography.

Sarah Caldwell is known as an important person in the world of music: She became the first woman to conduct the Metropolitan Opera, and was founder of the Opera Group in Boston that later became the Opera Company of Boston. She frequently worked with famous artists like Plácido Domingo, Renata Tibaldi, Joan Sutherland, and Leonard Bernstein, and was conversant with contemporary music and worked with contemporary composers like Luigi Nono. She was engaged all over the world, and in this book recounts some of her many travels, such as to the Soviet Union, South Africa, China, the Philippines, and Russia. In this it becomes paramount that Caldwell believed in the importance of communication between nations to bridge difficulties and she saw music as the ideal means for building friendships and improving the understanding between different cultures. From hindsight this spirit also emerges from her engagement with the organization of the festival Making Music Together, a cooperation between America and the Soviet Union, divided in two parts, performances by musicians, dancers, and composers from the Soviet Union in Boston and performances by Americans in the Soviet Union.

Matlock’s approach makes clear that Sarah Caldwell did not intend to write a typical autobiography; rather she rather wanted to give a lively account of her life concerned with music, with opera. Through her conversations with Matlock, Caldwell tells us of her memories with an emphasis on unique moments in her experiences. Through her stories the reader can recognize her attitude and her way of working, such as her tendency toward perfection, her attention to detail, and the techniques she used to bring out her extraordinary productions. Instead of a chronological structure, Caldwell subdivided the timelines into a geographical place for each chapter (in Boston; beyond Boston – New York City, around America, etc.; outside the United States – Germany, China, Soviet Union, Russia; etc.), whereby she sometimes compares productions that were separated by several years.

As it is very well known to practitioners in any field, we learn that one of the first tasks Caldwell had to look after at the very beginning of an opera production was fund-raising – she describes how there was not a day when she was not preoccupied with acquiring enough money for her productions. Because of the fact that the Opera Company was an independent organization and lacked a permanent “home” (as Caldwell describes the opera house), she had to look for the right places for the performances — Caldwell always tried to make the best out of the possibilities they had. For example, in 1970 they staged The Good Soldier Schweik by Robert Curka in an indoor athletic facility that was both stage and auditorium at once. The audience was divided into six segments, while the performers used the whole place for their actions. Golf carts were dressed up as army vehicles and several of those drove the musicians to the areas where performances took place. On some others of these vehicles closed-circuit television cameras were placed, which transmitted the performer’s actions live to three big screens on a platform in the center of the room (intercut with filmed footage of some of the singers as well as clips of World War I movies). In this way every participant was able to follow the action at all times.

For getting a good staging of an opera, Caldwell studied sketches of a wide range of historical artifacts: from eating utensils, furnishings to the whole way of life – such as clothes, and other relevant details of the periods. Again and again Caldwell went on research tours and visited the original sites to obtain a sense for the historical setting, which consequently should transpire in the staging of the opera. She tells us about her ambitious projects and realization of ideas, of her extraordinary experiences on these tours, for example on one occasion of the recording of church bells of Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome in an adventurous climb during night time.

Caldwell’s biography reveals how she always studied the scores she was going to conduct particularly carefully and tried in her interpretation to stay as closely as possible to the original intentions of the composer (at the time it was instead common practice to change the original indications for the instrumentation of the orchestra). As a consequence, she conducted all Schumann symphonies with his original scoring and so she did with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (after studying the facsimile of the original manuscript and letters from the time Beethoven was working on it). She also describes how she undertook great efforts to find the rarely surfacing Musorgsky’s original orchestration of Boris Godunov (his own version before it was rejected by the St. Petersburg Orchestra in 1870). This stood in contrast to the at that time common use of altered versions in which almost everything had been “improved” by Musorgsky’s composer friends and colleagues.

Caldwell almost always acted as both, conductor and stage director. In her opinion the director’s task is to clarify the line that is followed through the whole opera. The technique that seemed to work best for her was to discover as precisely as possible what the composer’s vision was, which included her hypothesis, that he first would have imagined a scenario for which he then wrote music, in spite of the fact that, as she recognizes, it may not always have been like this in reality. The most valuable activity for her as a director was to observe the rehearsals while they happened and to weigh up the experiences the audience would have. This also impacted on her decision where she wanted to direct the audience’s attention at any moment – she used natural laws, like a loud noise, to direct the looks at a certain place, or she had a performer look in a certain direction which the audience would follow, and also used changes of the light, sound effects, etc. to produce controlled reactions in the audiences.

In her view, what was seen on the stage needed to relate to what was expressed by the music. She believed that the movement of the idea should emerge a fraction of a section before the music, rather than allowing the music to indicate changes. Furthermore, as stage director she always tried to figure out a dramatic reason for each change in the music. In this respect she emphasizes that the balance of sound usually differs all over the opera houses, and she saw it as one of the conductor’s job to achieve the greatest potential of dynamic values in terms of variations from the softest to the loudest intensity. For the choral scenes for example Caldwell tried different positions for different parts of the chorus (tenors here, basses there) to achieve the best sound for the particular music and the specific sets, which she then integrated in the mise-en-scene.

Sarah Caldwell’s memoirs provide invaluable insights into twentieth-century music-practice to the reader. The book is written in the way Caldwell spoke, in accessible prose with anecdotes in a good storyteller’s manner, and in this way addresses both, friends of symphonic music and opera, and those, who are interested in history of music.

Last Update December 1, 2008->->->->

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo:isast@leonardo.info

copyright © 2008 ISAST