By Rob Taylor
The first hint of trouble came in the intermission of “The Barber of Seville.” The house lights in the Castleton Festival Theatre had dimmed, so we assumed the second act was about to begin.
In the shadows, a blond lady in a black dress walked to the center of the theater in front of the first row. Strangely, she held her cellphone to shed light on her face. The orchestra was not warming up for more Rossini. The blond was general manager Nancy Gustafson. “We have a little problem,” she announced. “The power is out.”
What followed was a demonstration of the theatrical saying, “the show must go on.” For the next hour, Gustafson pulled one musician after another out of the seats and from backstage. As the storm rattled the dark, tent-like theater, musicians played and sang and the audience shouted encouragement and erupted with applause.
“The violinist and the singers were amazing,” said Cornelia Saltzman, a visitor from Pennsylvania. “The place is oozing with talent,” said Toni Egger of Castleton. “We got an even better show than we paid for.”
From the front row, Gustafson explained to an audience of some 400 that the power would surely be on shortly. She had no plan for the interim. But violinist Eric Silberger happened to be sitting in the first row, with his instrument. “I’d be happy to play,” he said softly. “Absolutely,” she exclaimed. The young man had auditioned the previous day for Maestro Lorin Maazel, artistic director and co-founder of the festival, she told the audience. Maazel said that he was not just good, he was spectacular.
Silberger stood, faced the audience, raised his violin and began to play. He was faintly visible in the light from a flashlight and one or two cellular phones. He sawed ardently, producing music that sounded amazingly difficult, with no electronic amplification, not even electric light. A flashlit silhouette of him played on the tent-like skin of the theater building. We sat rapt, as did hundreds of other music patrons. We had paid for the “Barber of Seville,” and were getting an impromptu violin of Castleton. When he finished, the applause was enthusiastic. Nobody got up to leave. We all sat there to see what else would happen.
Gustafson came back, said something about bad weather outside, suggested the power would come back soon, and invited Silberger to play another. He ripped into a second impossible-sounding piece – he performed music from Bach, Paganini and Gershwin this night – while she rushed backstage. Applause – strong again. People asked his name. Gustafson returned with one of her former voice students at Northwestern University, Carl Biehn. The young blond man opened his pale vest and launched into “Bring Him Home” from the musical, “Les Miserables.” He sang without accompaniment, and, like the violinist, was able to fill the cavernous building with his voice.
By now the cause of the power outage was becoming obvious. The theater is a permanent structure that looks like a tent, both inside and out. We could hear thunder through the skin of the building, and something else like drumming or jackhammering. Was that wind or rain? Minor ruffles run through the inside skin of the building. For safety reasons, managers had decided to keep the stage curtain closed. If this thing comes down, I thought, I probably need to duck down below the seat I’m on. I was glad the big lights were not over my head.
The grab-bag talent show continued. Bass-baritone Davone Tines, a Juilliard Music School master student from nearby Orlean, sang a spiritual. A girl in a pale dress took center stage: Sarah Simmons, company manager, had trained as a vocalist and sung parts in previous Castleton Festivals. She launched into, “Everything’s Coming up Roses.” She forgot a line – no rehearsals, of course – and with a brief pause, started over. Again, no accompaniment, no amplification, but Sarah warbled and flourished as she filled the tent with “. . . roses for me and for youuuuu.”
Brava! Brava! Shouted the audience.
Terry Robey strode to center theater, a two-way radio slung across his stocky form. Introducing himself as the local fire chief as well as logistics manager, he said the weather outside was really bad, and that we might as well stay for a while because with wind and rain the “trees are down and you really can’t go nowhere.”
Above, the jackhammering got louder. Gustafson was losing her faith that the lights would shine for Act 2. She brought back the original violinist, then trotted out cast members from the “Barber of Seville.” A piano appeared at the right end of the first row. Five leading cast members started running though numbers from Act 2. Maazel himself conducted some numbers from the first row. Their accompanist read music by light of an EXIT sign and cellphones.
Weather and power weren’t the only challenges. Jonathan Beyer, who sang Figaro in the opera, blurted that he had been vomiting at 6 a.m. In fact, he had been upchucking all day. Managers had an understudy ready to sing for him, but after spurning all food, he not only sang the first act, but came out to join the talent show. Cecilia Hall, singing leading-lady Rosina, had endured her festival trial-by-fire last year – she tore the ACL ligament in one knee in rehearsal, so she sang her part from the orchestra pit while another performer lip-synced and acted the part onstage.
I marveled at how much volume these professionals can produce while ranging high and low and enunciating. I had assumed that in this modern era of wireless microphones and amplifiers the opera had slipped away from filling a hall with the sound of an unaided human voice. They proved me wrong.
The jackhammering abated, and a few members of the audience shuffled out. But only a dozen or so. It was an ain’t-over-til-the-fat-lady-sings crowd; almost no one wanted to leave. Finally, amid enthusiastic applause for the “Barber” cast, Lorin Maazel invited us back to watch the opera’s Act 2 on closed-circuit TV at the next performance, in the restaurant area behind the theater. Robey and Gustafson said it looked safe to leave. Reluctantly, the crowd rose and flowed toward the exits. Members of the festival staff thanked them cheerfully as they headed out into the rain – to fight their way home past fallen trees and power lines.
But that was not the end of the festival’s ordeal. Early the next morning, with no power in sight, managers ordered a giant diesel generator from Trenton, N.J. They were going to mount a production entirely on generator power! The generator, encased in an 18-wheel tractor-trailer rig, left Trenton shortly before noon. Would it get to Castleton in time for the 7 p.m. Saturday production of “Carmen?”
No. Even though the Castleton Volunteer Fire Department and road crews cleared most local roads by early Saturday, the generator was delayed by – what else – traffic on Interstate 66. Instead of performing “Carmen,” the festival mounted a slightly less impromptu talent show with “Carmen” excerpts for 75 or 100 people in the theater’s lobby. On Sunday, with the monster generator hooked up overnight, it produced the “Barber of Seville” in the theater without any off-site power.
By Monday, the staff was more concerned about performers, many of whom were boarding in local homes with no power, no water, no phones . . . Gustafson found some pulling their suitcases down Castleton View Road, in search of a shower. She set up air mattresses for them in the Maazels’ Theatre House. The cast ate at the fire hall, which the Maazels had equipped with a new kitchen. Local residents loaned the festival portable generators.
“My mind is still blown by how many people came together to make this happen,” said Howard Bender, director of institutional advancement for the festival.
The show goes on.
Instead of a panic or a disappointment, Friday night produced a series of delightful surprises, and made a sparkling showcase for performers’ talent and enthusiasm. “They could have gone on for hours more” on Friday, said Gustafson. “They were just having a great time making music.”
Writer Rob Taylor, his wife and four houseguests hiked the last half-mile to his powerless home Friday night over at least four fallen trees. He can’t remember a more entertaining evening.