Caldwell, Sarah (1924—)

views updated

Caldwell, Sarah (1924—)

American operatic conductor and impresario, a leading figure on the Boston music scene and the first woman to conduct the orchestra of Metropolitan Opera, known for her innovative but never outlandish interpretations of operatic works. Born Sarah Caldwell in Maryville, Missouri, on March 6, 1924; daughter of parents who divorced when she was aged two (Caldwell avoids listing their names in biographical directories); stepdaughter of Henry Alexander; graduated from high school at age 14; attended the University of Arkansas, and the New England Conservatory of Music; never married; no children.

Entered the New England Conservatory of Music to continue violin studies (1942); won a scholarship as a violinist at the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood (1946); staged Vaughan Williams' Riders to the Sea at Berkshire (1947); engaged as assistant to Boris Goldovsky, founder of the New England Opera Company (1947); headed Boston University's opera workshop (1952–60); founded the Opera Company of Boston (1958); organized a concert of music by women conductors (1976); became the first woman to conduct the orchestra of Metropolitan Opera in New York (1976); organized cultural exchanges involving several hundred Soviet and American musicians (1988 and 1991).

For her new production of the Barber of Seville, Sarah Caldwell had engaged the soprano Beverly Sills to sing the role of the beautiful Rosina. In the story, Rosina is kept a virtual prisoner by her guardian Dr. Bartolo, and Caldwell wanted to use some form of caged bird in the production to visually express Rosina's confinement. Her first thought was to make Rosina's entire room a bird cage complete with swing, but then she conceived the idea of having a bird in a gilded cage carried by Rosina. Caldwell then asked Sills to find a bird, a task a director would not ordinarily expect a prima donna to undertake. But in New York City, Sills found a rare music box in the shape of a bird and called Caldwell from the Madison Avenue shop to ask if the price of $185 was acceptable. Caldwell asked Sills, "Could you bring it close to the telephone?" So Sills wound up the bird and placed it next to the receiver. Then Caldwell directed the soprano, "Now sing." Sills replied, "Are you some kind of lunatic? I'm in a store full of people on Madison Avenue!" Nevertheless, she began to chirp into the telephone along with the mechanical bird, confirming for Caldwell that she could imitate the cadenza the bird was trilling. The purchase was quickly okayed, and when Sills appeared onstage as Rosina carrying the miniature cage, the charm of Caldwell's innovative scene almost brought the house down.

Sarah Caldwell was born in Maryville, Missouri, on March 6, 1924, a precocious child with theatrical instincts. Her mathematical and musical

abilities were evident by age four. After the divorce of her parents when she was two years old, the early years of her childhood were somewhat unstable. Her mother moved to New York to complete her graduate degree in music at Columbia University, leaving Sarah to be raised by an assortment of relatives, involving moves to various places, including Kansas City. Sarah was not unhappy in this extended family, where her creativity appears to have been appreciated. Her favorite holiday was the Fourth of July, for which she loved to stage elaborate backyard fireworks displays. Not allowed to buy the fireworks until July 3, Sarah made the rounds of stores in Maryville in advance, setting aside her purchases. When she brought them home, "I would set them all out on the table and look them over: sparklers, snakes, cherry bombs, Roman candles, firecrackers. Then I'd make my plans." These displays became the first expression of Caldwell's innate theatrical talent.

When Sarah was 12, her mother married Henry Alexander, a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, and the family moved to Fayetteville. As the young girl's love of music grew increasingly apparent, she was encouraged by her mother and began taking violin lessons. Caldwell graduated from high school at age 14 and entered the University of Arkansas; she also studied at Hendrix College. Urged by her stepfather initially to study psychology, she soon allowed her love of music to direct her academic course. In 1942, at age 18, she entered the prestigious New England Conservatory of Music, bolstered by a fistful of scholarships. She studied violin with Richard Burgin, concertmaster of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and later with George Flourel, whom she found more congenial. In 1946, Caldwell won a scholarship to play in the student orchestra at Tanglewood, the world renowned music center in the Berkshires and summer home of the Boston Symphony.

After graduation from the New England Conservatory, Caldwell was offered positions in the string sections of the Minneapolis and Indianapolis orchestras, but she chose to stay in Boston. She became assistant to Boris Goldovsky, the Russian-born founder of the New England Opera Company, where she spent 11 seasons as a props manager, stage director, translator, chorus conductor, and conductor, learning the nuts and bolts of operatic production from Goldovsky and conducting her first opera there, Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera.

Of all the forms of dramatic presentation, opera is the most difficult, because it involves staging, singing, dancing, acting, orchestral playing, and costumes and sets. Caldwell and Goldovsky were very close, but a rift eventually developed between them. According to Caldwell:

Whatever versatility is attributed to me stems directly from Boris. He trained me. But we developed differently. Coming from Philadelphia, where he had witnessed the painful birth and quick death of too many opera adventures, he was reluctant to rock the boat, to press trustees beyond a certain point. And he enjoyed traveling through the whole United States. As for me, I was fascinated with the idea of building a professional opera company at home.

The time came when Caldwell had grown beyond what her mentor could teach. In 1952, she was appointed director of Boston University's opera workshop, and, during her eight years of tenure there, she created the university's department of music and theater, while gradually becoming obsessed with the notion of founding an opera company.

Her timing, unfortunately, could not have been worse. In 1958, the magnificent Boston Opera House, built in 1909, with a spacious stage and the most advanced stage machinery available at the time, was demolished by the city of Boston to make room for a parking lot. During her entire career, Caldwell would never have the opportunity to mount a production in a facility that came close to the structure that was destroyed. Nevertheless, in the previous year, 1957, she had gathered together a group of supporters to found the Boston Opera Group, with a modest nest egg of $5,000.

Over the next few years, Caldwell produced opera anyplace she could—be it a gymnasium, hockey rink, old movie house, indoor track, or converted flower stall. More significantly, with her very limited funds, she was giving ingenious productions of operas no one else would touch. Acting as conductor, administrator, stage director, talent scout, principal researcher, and fund raiser, she drew increasing attention and often rave reviews. Among her particularly memorable productions were Verdi's La Traviata and Falstaff, Berlioz' Benvenuto Cellini, Massenet's Don Quichotte, Bellini's I Capuletti ed i Montecchi, as well as lesser known modern works such as Prokofiev's War and Peace, Schoenberg's Moses and Aron, Alban Berg's Lulu and Roger Sessions' Montezuma. Her shoestring productions were in and out of crises. Once, when trucks rolled up from St. Louis with the stage sets for La Traviata, the C.O.D. charge was $9,600, and the driver would not take a check. Caldwell phoned a supporter, the owner of a chain of local Stop & Shop stores, who had a store manager make the rounds of his stores to collect enough money to cash a check of that size. A few hours later, Caldwell was able to hand the driver $9,600 in bills stuffed in brown paper bags.

Like many people of genius, Caldwell had her eccentricities. She was a large woman, weighing almost 300 pounds, and some of her colleagues considered her commanding bulk to be an asset. Meeting Sarah Caldwell, one recognized her immediately as an unmovable force. Clothing meant nothing to her; as she said, "I'm afraid I do not relate well to possessions." To conduct rehearsals, she generally wore a flowered tent dress covered by a rain coat and houseshoes. For performances, she put on a black tent dress and kept on the houseshoes, stepping into street shoes only when she knew her feet could be seen by the audience. She frequently lost things, from purses to cars, and gave up driving because she could never remember where she had parked.

Although she worked hard to raise money, Caldwell did not always keep strict account of funds. A friend remembered getting into her car, and when they drove off with the windows down, $5 and $10 bills billowed up, "floating all over the car and out the window." Often working nonstop, she would catnap where she could and was once found sleeping on a pile of theater curtains in the aisle. With no home theater for the Boston Opera Company, she virtually moved into whatever facility it was using, in order to get the production up and going in the 10 to 12 days allotted her.

In a profession known for its excesses of temperament, Caldwell was beloved by all who worked with her, musicians and stagehands alike. A whirlwind of activity, she asked for the opinions and took the suggestions of everyone and almost never lost her temper. Her good relationships with cast and crew were a primary reason she could mount such fine productions with so little backing, and she was greatly respected for the infinite pains she took. When she decided to mount Louise by the French composer Gustave Charpentier, she wanted to use a sunrise over Montmartre as one of her settings, so she went with her assistants to Paris, where they rose early in the morning to watch the sun climb over the marketplace near the top of Montmartre; she worked extensively from Charpentier's original production notes.

Caldwell's productions were both daring and fun. In a scene that called for a Trojan horse, she was not satisfied that the one constructed looked large enough, so she hired dwarfs for the roles of the soldiers hidden inside, making it appear larger when they crawled out. Caldwell also liked children and enjoyed using them onstage. During rehearsals, there were often children in the theater, some belonging to members of the cast, others coming in off the street, whom she called her "knothole gang." She felt that animals could add flavor to a scene, and ponies, dogs, cats, bears, horses, monkeys, and llamas were only some of the creatures that turned up on her stage. For the orgy scene in Moses and Aron, she thought animals would add a pagan flavor. As she related:

I had engaged some sheep and goats and a calf from a theatrical-animal supply house, but I hadn't thought about where they were to be kept. The only possible place was under a ramp in front of the stage. But during the final rehearsals the animals bleated and bawled to such an extent that the music could hardly be heard.

After the guest conductor told Caldwell, "It's either me or the animals," the creatures were sent back.

My passion in life is opera. I remember being told when I was quite young that the real trick of living was to find something you like to do best in all the world and find someone else to pay you to do it. And I love what I am doing.

—Sarah Caldwell

In 1958, Rudolf Bing, the renowned director of the Metropolitan Opera, became infamous for claiming, "There is no opera in America worth speaking of outside New York City." Bing had not reckoned, however, with the reputation Sarah Caldwell was in the process of building, which eventually attracted some of the greatest operatic voices to perform under her directions, including Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Renata Tebaldi , Placido Domingo, Nicolai Gedda, and Tatiana Troyanos to name only a few. With the musical instincts of a Mozart and the theatrical techniques of a P.T. Barnum, she attracted and widened an opera-going public of educated middle-class professionals, intellectuals, artists, and journalists eager to witness what she would do next. Lively as they were, her productions refrained from being bizarre nor outlandish. According to the critic Winthrop Sargent, her productions represented "nothing in the way of eccentricity and everything in the way of bringing to light all the musical and dramatic subtleties that a score contains." Breathing new life into an art form enjoyed for hundreds of years, she also became one of America's finest conductors.

The mid-1970s to the 1980s were a good time for Caldwell, even without the opera house she so desired. Since the late 1950s, it had been her dream for the city of Boston to construct a $10 million opera house, with three theaters. Without anything approaching such a space, gathering funds from wherever she could, she nevertheless produced wonderful opera for two decades. In 1976, she became the first woman conductor to lead the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, and that same year she played a pivotal role in organizing a series of concerts featuring the music of female composers, including Thea Musgrave, Pozzi Escot , and Vivian Fine . In the late 1980s, Caldwell was active in an exchange involving several hundred Soviet and American musicians.

With her style of operating, however, and a consistent lack of adequate support, production deficits were inevitable. When recession hit New England, bills mounted until her company was $5 million in debt. While some blamed Caldwell's eccentricity and poor administrative capacities, others felt she simply had bad luck. Caldwell felt the problem was due to constant scrimping and saving. Attempting to save money, she locked herself into a downward spiral. Financial crisis led to artistic compromise that led to disappointing performances and a poor box office. Years of postponements, cancellations, replacements, and undependable announcements no doubt contributed to her problems, and administration was never Caldwell's forte. Also, her personal rise to fame took her out of Boston on guest appearances, and productions suffered from her lack of attention. Ultimately, Caldwell discovered what many of her musical predecessors knew—Bostonians loved opera, they just weren't willing to foot the bill for it.

In the early 1990s, with invitations from all over the world to appear as guest conductor, Caldwell took a sabbatical from opera. Then in her late 60s, she was personally more financially secure than she had ever been, but in her enforced semi-retirement, she went into a temporary depression. In a relatively short time, however, she signed with a new agent and began booking guest appearances, as well as working on a book. There were also a myriad of operas she still wanted to stage, including an "ecological" Ring cycle, a revival of her Turandot, and Robert Schumann's Genoveva. And an opera house for Boston was a dream she still refused to give up.

In Western cultural tradition, music has rarely been an easy profession for women. Operatic singers became increasingly common after the 18th century, but it is only in the 20th century that women have been accepted into major symphony orchestras. Opportunities to hear their compositions played, to stage operas, or to conduct have remained rarer still. Armed with outstanding gifts and seizing the role of impresario, Sarah Caldwell challenged centuries of European musical tradition. While her resources remained slender and acknowledgment of her work was sometimes slow, the career that began with childhood fireworks is defined today less by individual eccentricities than by a body of work of musical and theatrical genius.


Appleton, Jane Scovell. "Sarah Caldwell: The Flamboyant of the Opera," in Ms. Vol. 3, no. 11. May 1975, pp. 26, 28, 30–31.

Dizikes, John. Opera in America. A Cultural History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.

Dyer, Richard. "Opera's Missing First Lady," in Boston Globe. September 20, 1992, p. B25.

——. "Sarah Caldwell: Her Genius Is Her Gimmick," in The New York Times Biographical Service. January 1976, pp. 17–18.

Eaton, Quaintance. "Renaissance Woman," in Opera News. Vol. 28, no. 23. April 18, 1964, pp. 26–29.

Henahan, Donal. "Prodigious Sarah," in The New York Times Biographical Service. October 1975, pp. 1249–1253.

Jones, Robert. "Walking into the Fire," in Opera News. Vol. 40, no. 14. February 14, 1976, pp. 11–21.

Le Page, Jane Weiner. Women Composers, Conductors, and Musicians of the Twentieth Century. Vol. II. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1983.

Moritz, Charles, ed. Current Biography Yearbook 1973. NY: H.W. Wilson. 1973.

"Music's Wonder Woman" [cover story], in Time. Vol. 106, no. 19. November 10, 1975, pp. 52–60.

Porter, Andrew. "Caldwell in Command," in The New Yorker. Vol. 50, no. 46. January 6, 1975, pp. 61–63.

Sargent, Winthrop. "Infinite Pains," in The New Yorker. December 24, 1973, pp. 43–49.

Warrack, John, and West, Ewan. The Oxford Dictionary of Opera. NY: Oxford University Press, 1992.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia

About this article

Caldwell, Sarah (1924—)

Updated About content Print Article