In the history of opera, there are few times when a performance of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville was interrupted, as the curtains were drawing for Act 2, by an act of nature.
At the Castleton Festival on June 29, one of the most severe thunder storms of the year, with hurricane-like winds blowing at 75 miles an hour, descended on the East Coast, devastating an entire region of the Virginia coast and leaving more than two million people with no power and water, and leaving desolation behind.
And I was in the middle of it.
As the storm hit, the power fluctuated in the festival tent and, just before the power cut-off, I knew something was not right.
We could hear, from inside, the powerful winds howling and berating the walls and roof of our festival tent. The evening was surreal, as it happened, and at the immediate aftermath as the festival scrambled to get things going.
The storm arrived with full force at around 9 p.m., and the Festival Theatre was right in the center of it—we had more than 500 people within the barn-like performance venue. With so many people inside the complex, we later found out that Governor McDonnell had declared at that hour a state of emergency.
Amazingly, the Festival Theatre (tent structure) remained unfazed and totally intact.
There were moments during the storm that I felt like we might not make it.
Immediately our general manager, Nancy Gustafson, made an emergency announcement to patrons. As Mother Nature attempted to strike us down, the musicians from the festival equipped with their skills, flashlights, and Castleton Spirit took the initiative to give an impromptu performance to the audience to provide hope in a time of need.
Violinist Eric Silberger, a student of Itzhak Perlman, kindly offered to perform a collection of unaccompanied pieces from the violin literature, which included a Fugue from an unaccompanied Bach, two Paganini Caprices, and selections from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess arranged by Jascha Heifetz, accompanied by Silberger’s quasi-singing!
A few singers of the C.A.T.S. (Castleton Artist Training Seminar) program also performed for the patrons: Carl Biehn, Davone Tines, and Jimmy Wilcox. Further, company manager Sarah Simmons (another of my amazing mentors) lightened the mood with a short cabaret performance during the evening.
Although there were a few people that left soon after the announcement of the storm, many stayed behind to watch the ad hoc performances.
In what was a brief moment of triumph, as Gustafson reassured the audience, a small rehearsal piano was wheeled into the house and the main cast members from The Barber of Seville were prepared to sing excerpts from Act 2, complete with costumes, but with limited acting and props!
The next day was filled with uncertainty, except for one known: we had a show in the Theatre House for Stars of the Future to put on. Since there was no power and no wi-fi, there was a lack of communication, which meant that everything reverted to the 1750s in terms of technology.
I realized that living in modern society has certainly made us fragile and dependent on electricity—those few days proved that and made things difficult but interesting.
Nonetheless, senior staff members met at 6 a.m. to decide on the fate of Carmen and the electricity problem for the festival. The final decision was contingent on getting a new truck generator (the size of a large camper van) here by the afternoon.
The afternoon concert on that Saturday was a complete success, with Maestro Loren Maazel, the festival organizer, sitting among the crowd along with fellow Castletonians. The performers put on a spectacular show of songs and opera arias.
Every concertgoer that afternoon was astounded by the resilience of the staff and crew and performers.
However, the fate of Carmen was sealed when Gustafson came into the balcony in which the Maestro was sitting, and we in the audience, listening to a beautifully sung aria from Puccini’s La Rondine, saw a thumbs down and a frown from the Maestro.
Carmen’s fate was sealed, the generator was not here yet and there was not enough time to get everything ready for Carmen that night.
In the end, musicians and the casts of the Carmen production came together and did an ad hoc performance for audience members, in the sweltering heat (as there was no air-conditioning in the tent)—we had prevailed and continued to do our thing. We not only performed chamber music in the lobby area for our displaced patrons, Maestro Maazel came and joined us and hosted the concert. His presence showed compassion to our patrons and solidarity during difficult times. Everyone who came to our performances had gone through all kinds of madness all weekend with no power, water, or the luxuries of modern life.
To bring comfort to others in a time of need is, indeed, the Castleton Spirit.
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