Musician and Vocalist Artist Interviews

An Interview with Joyce Castle, Mezzo-Soprano


Statuesque Mezzo Joyce Castle on Working with Composer Jake Heggie

If you've never heard of mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, by all means read on. To say she is a hoot to interview is a major understatement.

Flesh & Stone: Songs of Jake, the second CD of songs by the composer of the powerful opera Dead Man Walking (2000), was released in the U.S. on October 15. The CD, on the Americus label, features an impressive roster of performing artists that includes Zheng Cao, Joyce Castle, Mary Phillips, Frederica Von Stade, Eugenia Zukerman, Carey Bell, David Henderson, Dawn Harms, Emil Miland, Richard Worn, and Heggie himself. Heggie has written several works with the voices and artistry of Castle and Von Stade in mind.

All artists donated their services for the recording, because all proceeds benefit Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS, a fundraising program of Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS. The recording, set down as Skywalker Studios in Northern California, is available from

interview-3-08-castle-gray-background.jpgI had initially hoped to interview Heggie for a story on the CD's release, but was unable to reach him in Europe. Instead, I turned to the versatile mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, for whom Heggie wrote one of the CDs finest song cycles, Statuesque. Ms. Castle also performed the role of Mrs. Bertram in Heggie's recent opera The End of the Affair at Seattle Opera in fall 2005, and repeated the role at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.

Castle, long a member of New York City Opera, has of late become associated with leading and character roles in contemporary opera, as well as the French repertoire. She is certainly a character and a half over the phone. To quote from her official biography:

"Characterized as "a compelling actress in both comedy and pathos" in Michael Torke and A.R. Gurney's world premiere opera Central Park at Glimmerglass Opera (televised nationwide on WNET - Channel 13 and recorded for release by Ecstatic Records), acclaimed for her  "poignant" portrayal of the Mother in Menotti's The Consul (performed at Berkshire Opera, Arizona Opera, and recorded for Newport Classics), heralded as a "chillingly malevolent" Madame Flora in The Medium (performed at Opera Delaware and recorded and released by Cedille Records), and recognized for her "marvelously sardonic" Claire Zakanassian in the New York premiere of Von Einem's The Visit of the Old Lady (in a New York City Opera production directed by Joanne Akalaitis which was mounted for her), Joyce Castle has employed her formidable vocal and theatrical gifts to sculpt distinctive and memorable characterizations. Praised in the Denver Post for her performance as Elizabeth I in the American stage premiere of Britten's Gloriana, the critic wrote; "...Castle rules the show. Her voice is authoritative with a dark edge to it that makes Elizabeth the commanding presence on stage that she is." She continued her exploration of the operas of Benjamin Britten with Seiji Ozawa at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Italy in performances as Mrs. Sedley in Peter Grimes."

Before proceeding to the interview, I include lines notes on Heggie's cycle Statuesque. The first is by Janice L. Mayer - Associate Director, Classical Action: Performing Arts Against AIDS.

The first cycle to be recorded, Statuesque, was commissioned by the University of Kansas at Lawrence for Joyce Castle and premiered in December 2005. Some of the Bay Area's finest musicians were recruited by Jake to perform this chamber piece which is scored for mezzo-soprano, flute, clarinet, saxophone, violin, cello, bass and piano. Carey Bell (Principal Clarinet designate of the San Francisco Symphony), violinist Dawn Harms and cellist Emil Miland (members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and also Stanford University faculty colleagues), David Henderson (a regular saxophonist with the SFO) and bass player Richard Worn (Principal bass of the San Jose Chamber Orchestra and Director of the Worn Chamber Ensemble) were joined by internationally-renowned flutist Eugenia Zukerman, mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle and Jake Heggie.

Joyce Castle recalled: "I remember phoning Jake Heggie and asking him if he would be interested in writing a chamber work for me. He said ‘Oh sure!' and of course I was thrilled! Jake then suggested librettist Gene Scheer write the poetry. I already knew Gene's innovative music-making and performing, so the team came together beautifully. They conceived the ingenious idea of statues of five women geared in some amazing way for me. That Jake Heggie wrote this cycle for me in 2005, that we have performed it together many times during the past two seasons, that I now have had the opportunity to record it with him at the piano, AND that the proceeds will be used to help those in need is really the icing on the cake!" Two days of concentrated, enthusiastic work on Statuesque followed.



Emil Miland captured the experience, "I've been here for two days recording Jake's cycle with friends and colleagues in this inspiring atmosphere. The music-making has been pure pleasure - I wish that all of my paying jobs could be this gratifying! Thank you for all that you're doing, Classical Action - and if you ever again need a cellist, I'm your man!"

The following is by Heggie:

Statuesque is a cycle of five songs with poetry by Gene Scheer. It was commissioned by the University of Kansas at Lawrence for mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle and features an ensemble of seven instruments (flute, clarinet, alto sax, violin, cello, bass, and piano). The premiere in December 2005 was given by Miss Castle with members of the faculty at the university, and me at the piano. When Janice Mayer approached me about writing something for her, I was excited and baffled.

"What could I possibly compose for her? She's so ... so statuesque!" And that's how the idea of giving life to statues emerged.

I contacted the gifted writer Gene Scheer. It was our first collaboration in what has become one of the most enjoyable creative partnerships in my life. Gene went to museums and did extensive research to find five great statues that inspired both of us. Henry Moore's moody reclining figure wonders at her own mystery, power, and beauty. Picasso's bust of his mistress, Marie-Thérèse, recalls the joy and disappointment of their long affair. Hatshepsut, the powerful woman who reigned as a pharaoh in ancient Egypt, wonders when it will be her turn to join eternity, instead of always staring into it. Alberto Giacometti's standing woman sees her melting flesh and begs us to look deeper, to see the beauty of her intact soul. And the radiant Winged Victory is just plain fed up with being gawked at by anonymous men who have no interest in her feelings because they are so enamored with her stunning, ample physique. There is a "film noir" feel to these songs which seemed appropriate to me, with a generous tip of the hat to Francis Poulenc and Kurt Weill, two of my favorite composers.


The Interview Follows on Page 2



Jason Victor Serinus: I've never seen a photo of you. But there's this outrageous quote from Jake, "What could I possibly compose for her? She's so ... so statuesque!"

Joyce Castle: [laughing] I'm very tall.

JVS: Are you taller than you're wider, or equally so?

JC: I'm not wide. I'm tall. I'm not that tall. I'm 5'10" and wear heels, so I'm up there. Maybe that's why he said that. I have very long legs and long arms.

Anyway, he and Gene Scheer got the idea that statuesque was the theme. Then they thought, statues of women.

JVS: The last song is a scream!

JC: Isn't it! [laughing] When Jake first played it, I was doing his opera, End of the Affair, with Seattle Opera. He said, "I've brought the last song, ‘Winged Victory.' When he took me up to this huge rehearsal room and played it, I thought I was just going to lose it. I don't know where it came from, but it's pretty wild. Audiences certainly like it, I'll say that.

JVS: In the Classical Action material, they say you call yourself a ‘singing actress.'

JC: Do I? Or an acting singer. I don't know which it is. I've been on the stage for a very long time. I've always felt like I was going two roads: theater and singing. I'm a mezzo-soprano that does roles of great character in opera. I sang my 132nd role this past summer, the role of Public Opinion in Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld in Glimmerglass.

JVS: Have long have you been performing?

JC: I think for 35 years. I've been at New York City Opera (NYCO) since 1983.

JVS: I must have seen you in San Francisco.

JC: Well, San Francisco is where it sort of started. I was with San Francisco Opera's (SFO) Western Opera Theater when I had my first gig/role. I did a Spring Opera production of Threepenny Opera in 1971 or 1972. And I was with Western Opera Theater for two years. [Castle performed the role of Siebel in one of SFO's productions of Gounod's Faust in 1970. There are no other records of SFO appearances in the company's performance archives]. I did one little gig in the Fall Opera back then, and then Threepenny Opera in the streets with the late conductor Calvin Simmons. It was fabulous. I loved San Francisco, loved it.

We recorded this CD at Skywalker.

JVS: When I recorded my whistling at Skywalker for the movie Reindeer Games, they took me into an absolutely dead space. It was a very large room with all this padding on the walls that was inimical to whistling. I learned my whistling from opera singers, and need resonance. I always wanted to have high notes like Leontyne Price.

JC: Of course. Good choice. I also did On the Town with Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. I was the Voice Teacher.

I've sung a LOT, but not much in California.

JVS: Do you have many plans to perform the song cycle?

JC: I'll bet my manager does! [laughing] I will certainly be happy to do it, because the songs are a real pleasure. They were commissioned for me by the University of Kansas, my first alma mater, where I've been teaching.

I called Jake and asked if there was any possibility of writing songs for me, and he said ‘yes' on the spot. Silly thing, that man.

JVS: I recently attended Jake's joint performance with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, and I was really impressed. His music keeps getting deeper and deeper.

JC: He really has a lot to say.

JVS: These are truly art songs. There's a lot going on.

JC: That's right. And his choice of Gene to write the lyrics was really brilliant. Gene isn't just a run-of-the-mill poet, if there is a run-of-the-mill poet. They both have a lot of depth.

I thought the songs were just going to be about little sculptures. But Gene said he was writing them for me, with the sculptures in mind.

JVS: And they're so alive and grand. The idea of putting yourself inside an inanimate object and speaking from its perspective and history is so wonderful.

I'm interested in your contact with AIDS over the years and your interaction with AIDS organizations and people with AIDS.

JC: Well, the history has been hideous, because I was at NYCO in the ‘80s when Beverly was in charge and we were losing so many wonderful, wonderful singers. It got very scary. I remember one funeral I went to. Beverly was speaking at a lot of these services. She walked to the pulpit in a church, and the first thing she said was, "We've really got to stop meeting like this." That was a great line.

JVS: I published a seminal paper on healing AIDS, published a book on holistic healing of AIDS, and toured the country leading seminars for several years. I have an address book divided by cities. The first few pages of every city entry are filled with the names of people who subsequently died. I remember the night Louise Hay opened one of her Hay Rides in Los Angeles by inviting everyone to scream together. There was nothing else left to do.

JC: I sang for a couple of services. It wasn't easy. We lost singers, pianists. I made the Candide record with NYCO, and two of those singers died at that time. The directors - Bill Dansby, David Eisler, Scott..-It was a terrible, terrible time.

I lost a dear, dear friend from the University of Kansas. He was living in San Francisco, and I was living in New York, when he called me to say, "Yesterday, the lights went out, and I don't see anything anymore, Joyce." It was a hideous time.

I've done two or three concerts in town with the gay men's chorus.

JVS: How many years have you been teaching?

JC: Just since 2001. The reason I'm at the University of Kansas, in addition to the fact that it's my alma mater, is that they give me so much time to away and sing like I'm singing now at City Opera.

JVS: How is teaching for you?

JC: I was worried about it when I started because I had hardly done any teaching. But I had been performing so long. I think I'm not a bad teacher. I certainly have kids who are going out there and starting to do things. I find it interesting. And I think maybe, if indeed I'm becoming a good teacher, it might be linked to the fact that, while I had a natural voice, I certainly worked through this and that and tackled problems. Maybe that helped. I've done so many kinds of roles in the 132 - music theater and contemporary - such a wide range - that I had to figure out a lot of different things. I think you'd have to talk to my students.

JVS: Give me a few of their names and numbers so I can check up on you.

JC: [laughing] The best thing I can say is that I enjoy it. It's about time I worked with young kids. I've been in the business so long that I should be a good teacher. And I find that it's good for my voice; it informs me more.

My students love these songs. When we premiered them at the University, they were just screaming. I've done them more than once there, but the first time, with Jake onstage, was quite exciting for them.

JVS: How many years have you known Jake?

JC: Not very long. How many years, Joyce? I bet I called him in 2002 or 2003.

JVS: When did you perform in his opera in Seattle?

[Pause. When Joyce remains silent, Jason repeats the question].

JC: Uh-huh. I heard the question. I can't remember. I just did it again with the Lyric of Kansas City. We recorded it. It's not sold to a label yet. Seattle must have been two years ago. [Fall 2005].

JVS: Tell me about Jake's humanity.

JC: His humanity? Boy, is that a good word for him. He's just a divine person in this world as we see it. I had not met him, you know; I had just called him. Then he called up and said, as he had started to write, "You know, Joyce, I think I'll fly out to meet you. I think I need to spend a weekend out there."

I told him he could stay with me. "I just really need to be there," he told me, "in order to continue to write it."

So he flew out to Kansas City, rented a car, and there he was, bounding up the stairs, this tall, energetic, handsome guy with this big smile. That was quite an introduction on the front porch. That weekend, he showed me two of the songs that he had written.

This is a very, very special man in the arts. He is so giving. When he came to KU to do the performance, the kids just fell in love with him. He worked with them in master class individually. The way he worked with the young and with artists - when I did The End of An Affair in Seattle, he worked with all of the singers in the cast, and then another cast in Kansas City. He's here to spread his wide arms and enfold a lot of warmth with them. He has so much to say with his music. It's so profound.

JVS: Tell me about the opera you did with him.

JC: It's a Graham Greene book about London during the blitz during WWII. There's a woman married to a civil servant who is having an affair, and they get caught in the bomb. She's not a believer, but she promises to God that if she lives, she'll never see him again. That's the end of the affair. It's quite an amazing story.

I'm her mother. I'm everyone's mother. I live by the seashore, and I come up to London to see my daughter, borrow some money, go to the dancehall. I wear snappy heels and lots of bright lipstick. It's a very snappy role, and I love it. I even do a little dance - not much, because I'm not really much of a dancer, if truth be told.

JVS: I'm sure some evil music critic like me has told the truth if you danced in a production.

JC: I'm glad you like the recording.

JVS: Flicka (Frederica von Stade) sounds fabulous.

JC: Oh, absolutely. She's just a wonderful human being.

JVS: And somehow, all these pieces seem apt for an AIDS benefit CD. The songs deal with death, and live, and dignity - all these key issues that come to the surface with AIDS.

JC: Humanity. That's what Jake deals with.

JVS: Which Classical Action benefit do you sing in, in New York or San Francisco? [Note: Jason attended the November 12 CD launch / benefit in San Francisco].

JC: I can't do San Francisco, because I sing at City Opera then. But I do perform the entire Statuesque cycle in New York. And Mary Phillips is singing some of her numbers. Flicka won't be in New York, but perhaps in San Francisco.

Flicka and I were both in New York during that starting-up time. We were contemporaries. (I ain't young). I love her voice.

JVS: I'm looking for your photo on the web. There's your red hair!

JC: Beverly Sills said I was hired in spite of my hair.

JVS: Do you have any comments about the five statue songs you'd like to share?

JC: The last song is so wild! And in the Picasso song, I decided to use the voice of Picasso. I thought that was sort of funny.

JVS: Was that YOU who was singing?

JC: Yeah. I sort of shocked Jake when I said, "I think I should sing Picasso's lines down an octave." You didn't think it was me?

JVS: I couldn't figure out why they hadn't given the unidentified male singer any credit [Joyce screams with laughter]

JC: That's funny. I wonder if other people will think that. No, those low moans at the ends of the couple of the songs - that's me. People loved it. They loved it in Chicago, too.

JVS: Where were you born?

JC. Beaumont, TX. From there, a little town in Kansas, then mostly in big cities: Paris for seven years, and a long time in New York, and first job in San Francisco with San Francisco Opera and Kurt Herbert Adler as the Big King. Now you've got David Gockley. I like David. I've sung for him a lot in Houston.

Were you enlightened to learn from the recent talk at Columbia University by what's his name from Iran that there are no homosexuals in Iran?

JVS: There are none in China either. They don't have "that problem."

JC: Do they really say that? That's so pitiful.