Musician and Vocalist Artist Interviews

An Interview with Joyce Castle, Mezzo-Soprano



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.