Considering her morbid fascination with the supermarket tabloids, it surprises very few people to learn that Joyce Castle feels perfectly at home inhabiting the bodies of an old woman with one buttock, a bisexual Russian prince, and a bearded lady. Who else but the 5'10" mezzo-soprano with shocking red hair, piercing green eyes, and "an enquiring mind" could hit operatic pay dirt while baking innocent children into gingerbread cookies and popping dead pussies into pies? Who else could earn the respect of her peers for allowing herself to be soaked and tossed about in a Venetian gondola while begging the world's greatest lover to transform her body into that of a male infant?
Only the woman known to her colleagues as Amazing Joyce. Whether appearing as the comic witch, Fata Morgana, in Prokofiev's The Love For Three Oranges. or the sex-starved Meg Brockie in Lerner & Loewe's Brigadoon, Joyce Castle brings a dramatic intensity to her performances that could encourage opera fans to pay scalper's prices for the privilege of watching this lady sing the telephone book. The Wall Street Journal's Manuela Hoelterhoff notes that, "In Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana, in the minor role of the old lady with one dumb son, Ms. Castle was so compelling holding her dish rag that her reviews were better than the singer who starred as Santuzza!" During the Washington Opera's production of Massenet's Cendrillon, Castle all but stole the show as Cinderella's ridiculous stepmother, Madame de la Haltiere. And, in the Long Beach Opera's production of Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe, her riveting portrayal of Augusta Tabor became one of 1987's towering achievements in opera/musical theater.
"I specialize in special cases: nuts, mamas, lesbians, nymphomaniacs, witches, and men," she boasts. And few performers can match her in her fach.
What is the secret of Castle's success? She is the proud owner of that rare and sorely under-appreciated gift: a genuinely operatic voice supported by profound dramatic skills and a superb sense of musicianship. "I love the quest of going into another person's body or thought processes. It's something that I know about, although I don't exactly know why," muses Castle. "I'm very tedious with costumes, make-up, and being sure that my wig is right, which is tough on the costume people around me. But we work very closely together because I need to get all of that stuff right. When I can look in the mirror and see someone else there, it all sort of takes off in another direction and I can 'drop in.' "
"Watching rehearsals and attending performances is also very important. I try to see a lot of performances on Broadway, off-Broadway and, certainly, in the opera house, because I learn so much that way. Sometimes I don't even know what I'm learning, but it's a very important part of the artistic process. Back when I was doing all those performances of Sweeney Todd, I'd always keep telling myself to look further, to try to see if there wasn't something interesting about Mrs. Lovett that I hadn't yet caught onto. It's the same in my personal life. There's that constant searching to find the growth, to learn more about my place in the world, to understand my journey and my characters' journeys."
"That's risky business," she warns, "because you can miss or overstep your bounds. But taking risks is where it's all at. I'm not interested in being safe onstage. Nor am I interested in being in casts where I'm 'the best singer.' The key to my performing is that I don't want to print or freeze any of my roles. I prefer to be in a tremendously talented ensemble where people start spurring each other on and challenging each other because, if I'm hot -- if I'm really cooking --then I feel a great warmth with the audience."
That special kind of communication and reciprocity is what spurs Castle on to peak performance levels. "When you get to a certain space where you believe in yourself, the craft feels solid, the voice is working and you're trusting yourself more (which comes with maturity), that's when you can really start to love the product. And I don't mean 'loving it' in the worst, egotistical sense because. when a singer comes to the point where he or she loves the voice and loves the sound of the voice, it's a major career triumph. That means that you're in touch with yourself."
Is there a danger of getting too closely in touch with some of the kooky characters she portrays? Not according to Castle. "I love it when people tell me that they didn't recognize me onstage. That means I've 'dropped in' and found that slot or dramatic peg. It means that my voice is working well and has taken on the right timbre for the character. Recently, I seem to be succeeding more often. Who knows? Maybe I'm finally getting it all together."
It took many, many years for Castle to achieve that intoxicating state of musicodramatic equilibrium. Although people always told Joyce that her talent was exotic enough for her to do the high-drama mezzo roles, the voice wasn't there yet. In some ways, it may have taken her longer to mature than most other singers. As a child, the first pieces Castle ever sang were from Broadway musicals. Even as a pianist, she loved going through her family's collection of songbooks by Jerome Kern, Rodgers & Hart, Noel Coward, Cole Porter and Rodgers & Hammerstein.
"Mom tells me that I sang in public at the age of three and always acted around the house. I know that I had a vivid imagination and wanted to go into different characters as a form of make believe, but I don't ever remember thinking there was any difference between the world of acting and the world of singing. Whenever I sang, it made sense for what I was singing to show what the song meant. I guess I just came into the world with some of that information because an actress draws a lot on what's in her world and what's inside of her head."
"The young Joyce knew it all. She took lessons and sang art songs but certainly didn't do a lot of opera back in Baldwin City, Kansas," Castle reminisces. "Nevertheless, she believed in herself, loved her voice and, at least through college, could do absolutely anything. After she got her master's degree from the Eastman School of Music, she received some Rockefeller and Sullivan grants, sang with Western Opera Theater, sang with the Washington Opera, and did some concerts in New York. She always knew that singing was the only thing she could do. That was her dream."
The dream, alas, proved to be elusive and, like many women, Castle's artistic ambitions soon took a back seat to her marriage. Joyce's first husband, Wendell Castle, was a furniture designer from Kansas who built a $50,000 Steinway piano. Her second husband was another singer: tenor Bruce Brewer. In 1976, the Brewers moved to France and made their home in Paris. "I didn't sing in public for an entire year. Then I did a Salle Gaveau concert which was sudden death," recalls Joyce.
Later, I sang with Radio France, but it was tough going. 1 wasn't terribly happy and was doing a real number on myself by putting my dreams on the back burner. I understand that relationships require a certain amount of give and take, but when we don't speak from the truth within ourselves, then things just don't work. A lot of women can probably relate to those thoughts of 'Maybe I should defer to my husband in this instance: I now know that, whenever I used to say those things to myself, I was not really speaking honestly or coming from my center."
Although married and singing, Castle's ambitions remained far from being fulfilled. "I always knew that I needed to sing but there aren't too many American singers today who are making a living in France. Of course, my second marriage wasn't all bad," she argues," because, even if I was not doing the biggest roles or singing 70 performances a year (which I've been doing since I returned to the United States), at least Bruce and I sang a lot of bel canto concerts together. Bel canto certainly wasn't my repertoire, but singing a lot of music by Bellini, Rossini, and Donizetti didn't do bad things for my voice, now did it?"
It certainly did not. And, while performing with regional opera companies in Lyon, Monte Carlo, Rouen, Lille, Metz and Tours, Joyce acquired a wealth of stage experience. In addition to her appearances at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, she made her German debut in 1981 with the Frankfurt-based avant-garde music theater company called Grupo Accion. "Luckily, I sang throughout the entire time that I was living abroad. And what was also happening was that I was slowly getting older. That worked very well for me because, when I came back to the States, I was finally able to sing the roles I looked like I should have been singing when I went to Europe."
By the time of her second divorce (the domestic crisis which Castle credits as the catalyst which launched her career into high gear) the mezzo's talents had reached a critical temperature. "I had been singing for nine years in Paris but not really pushing myself," she explains. "I was working on my voice, my head, my nerves and trying to fit it all together. I knew that, at that point, I could trust myself, go for the things I'd always wanted and pursue the dream I'd had for so many years. And I was so ready to hit America!"
In 1982, Castle sang an audition for Beverly Sills, who offered her a contract at City Opera that was less than great. "I could have turned it down, but decided to go to New York, get my foot in the door and be seen (even in a small role) because I felt that if I could just get onto the scene, I could grow and be offered something else," she states. "Then the strike came and I was reduced to making my City Opera debut as Olga (a speaking role in The Merry Widow) and doing the little part of Suzy in La Rondine. As I say, I could have waited for 'the big offer' but you never know when a so-called 'small offer' might lead to great things. As it turned out, I was right to have taken that c ontract because, ever since my debut, Beverly has given me fantastic roles at city Opera!"
Castle's biggest break came when she auditioned for the Houston Grand Opera's production of Sweeney Todd. "I had been recommended to sing for Hal Prince, who didn't know me from nothing! I couldn't get hold of the score for Sweeney Todd in Paris, didn't know the songs and didn't know Mrs. Lovett at all. So I had to learn 'The Worst Pieces in London' and 'By the Sea' right off of the recording. Luckily, I seemed to understand the character. When I walked onstage to audition for Hal in London, he said 'You didn't have to fly here to do this -- I could have heard you sing in Vienna in June.' I said 'Yeah, I know. But if I hadn't come here, you'd have had this show cast by June!' "
A year later, when Houston Grand Opera became the first opera company to perform Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Joyce became the first opera singer to tackle the role of Mrs. Lovett (an extremely daunting proposition). "It's logical to be in awe of such a huge role because it's so enormously challenging," she explains. "Mrs. Lovett is a tremendous, high-adrenaline role which requires a lot of work. You give and give and give and, with a part like that, it becomes like a great gift: all that energy comes back to you. However, with Angela Lansbury's mark all over the role, it was a very intimidating experience. Angela's one of my favorite actresses and a huge star. Just think: We know her from her work in the movies, on television, and on Broadway. We know her legs, her voice, we know everything about her. She's just fantastic!"
Hal Prince's assistant, Arthur Masella, did most of the staging until the last week of rehearsals. "Artie knew that I was scared to death," recalls the mezzo-soprano, "and I quickly realized that to copy Angela Lansbury would be a hideous mistake. I was going to have to dig deeper and try to discover what I could see about the character and what my voice could do with the songs. That's because, first of all, I have a very different voice and personality. Second, there was no way that I could be Angela -- she's just much better at it!"
If it was difficult for Castle to exorcise Lansbury's ghost from the role of Mrs. Lovett, it was even harder for some of the people working with her. "The conductor, John DeMain, apologized and said 'I'm sorry, I've just got Angela lodged in my brain: However, a wonderful role can be done by many people and that's where a performer can search for the gold in her own self."
How did Joyce solve the problem? "I started off by loving Sondheim's work. That's obvious, but I want to say it, anyway. I love his music, his plays on words and the role of Mrs. Lovett. And, yes, I was intimidated when he came to our first dress rehearsal," she sighs. "Most of us were, because it was like having Beethoven out there! Luckily, Steve is immediately approachable and, when it comes to working one-on-one, he's such a creative mind that he immediately gives you the impression that he's hearing new things which are very interesting to him. Steve worked very carefully with me on line readings, voice colors and only tried to work with what I was bringing to the role. I never got anything negative from Sondheim -- if he tried to change something, he would do it in such a gentle way that it felt like a collaborative effort."
Joyce has since performed Mrs. Lovett for the New York City Opera and Arkansas Opera Theatre. How does she feel about having an ongoing relationship with the composer of such a groundbreaking work as Sweeney Todd? "Steve's now seen me perform the role many times and always comes backstage to give me notes. If I get notes, that means I've challenged him. But if Stephen Sondheim ever comes backstage after having seen me perform Mrs. Lovett without giving me notes, then I can rest assured that I'm not doing anything very interesting anymore!"
Having appeared at City Opera as Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd, Meg Brockie in Brigadoon and Lalume in Kismet, does Castle see any dividing line between her work in opera and musical comedy? Not really.
"It's all a package to me. Whether you're doing a straight play, musical comedy, or opera, it's still performing. Where it does make a difference, however, is in the voice. Now that I'm doing an awful lot of opera I find that, when learning a musical comedy role, I have to be careful about how I work out the vocal part. That's because I'm not Ethel Merman. Instead, I'm what you might call a fake belter, which means that whenever I 'drop into' a character, my voice has to be molded to that character's sound (which has an awful lot to do with color and timbre). I have to know exactly what I'm doing in order to achieve a certain mix in the middle range so that I can color my voice without hurling it and yet make it all sound right. I can't keep faking chest voice up to high C because I know when I'm going out of chest and, if I take chest voice too high for too long, I can kiss my next role good-bye."
That's the last thing Joyce Castle would ever want to do. Three years ago, the girl from Kansas (who had waited so long to get it together) found herself working all three theaters in Lincoln Center: the Met, the New York City Opera and (with the New York Philharmonic) Avery Fisher Hall. "I was proud to be working those three houses," boasts Castle. "Very, very proud. And now that the Washington Opera and Santa Fe Opera have started to use me on a regular basis, there's been a show of confidence which makes me feel very good."
Since her bloodthirsty triumph as Mrs. Lovett in 1984, Joyce has been applying her dramatic skills to a string of mezzo roles. Last year she sang Waltraute in the Met's new production of Die Walkure while covering for Evelyn Lear as the lesbian Countess Geschwitz in Berg's Lulu. "I'd kill to do that role;' she snarls.
In December Joyce returns to the Houston Grand Opera as the witch in a new production of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel. Following her appearances in Texas as Rosina Daintymouth, she tackles her first Herodias in Winnipeg. One role on which Castle has left an indelible personal stamp is the character of Madame d'Urfe in Argento's Casanova. Following the opera's New York premiere, New York Magazine's critic, Peter G. Davis, commented that, "as the obsessed Madame d'Urfe, Joyce Castle somehow manages to be hilariously loony and strangely touching at the same time -- a remarkable performance."
How does the lady herself feel about Argento's crazed alchemist? "When I was researching d'Urfe, I didn't have much to go on except what I saw on the page and what we were developing in rehearsals," Joyce recalls. "But right away, I saw this very serious woman who was trying to turn metal into gold and wanted to be changed into a male infant. d'Urfe is a fascinating character, an amazing woman who actually existed! And the key to portraying her is that this lady earnestly believes in what she's doing."
"During rehearsals for Act II (which contains my big storm scene in the gondola) Artie Masella kept saying 'This lagoon scene is so funny! This is the battiest woman!' I suppose that, in a highly-stylized comic opera like Cendrillon or The Daughter of the Regiment you could turn a role like d'Urfe into a caricature. But I didn't see her as being the slightest bit funny Maybe it's a question of semantics, but we're talking about a very serious woman."
The earnestness with which Joyce approached the role paid off in spades for, during Casanova's Act II storm scene, City Opera audiences kept howling with laughter. Joyce's shattering interpretation of another major mezzo role (frequently dubbed "the American Amneris") will be on view in Lincoln Center this fall when the New York City Opera revives Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe.
"Sometimes, if you haven't done a role before, you really don't know how it's going to play,"states Castle, "and I was as shocked by the opening night reaction to my Augusta in Long Beach as I was by the response in New York to Madame d'Urfe. Back when I was working on the role with Peter Mark Schifter, I remember preparing a very dramatic confrontation with Horace Tabor which places Augusta in great tension. Although I wanted to show it all, Peter suggested that Augusta might have been such a Northeastern woman (who had been raised in such a rigid family) that she would not really show all of that emotion. Instead, perhaps she would let it all boil up inside her. When I read the same line again, I realized that to show Augusta's fire by being cooler would make her much more volatile. Why? Because all of that fire remains so tightly controlled and pent up inside her."
"You see, Augusta loved her husband in the best sense of the word. She supported Horace for all those years, did the very best she could and now some little snip has walked in and shattered her life. She can see in Baby Doe so much of what she herself lacks: youth, beauty, and a certain kind of softness. I'm convinced that, somewhere deep inside, she wishes she might have had some of those girlish qualities. But Augusta's a very proud woman who understands that she is what she is. What's more, she knows that she's been done wrong."
In the Long Beach Opera's production of The Ballad of Baby Doe, Castle played Augusta's final scene in a wheelchair, thus effecting a theatrical tour de force which shocked many people in the audience. "Placing her in a wheelchair showed even more of the emotional control Peter had been talking because, by that point in the opera, circumstances have started to close in on Augusta. She's older than Baby Doe, she can feel the world closing in on her and yet she still wants to do things which might help Horace. But she can't get out of that chair. Although Augusta still has very strong feelings for her husband, being stuck in that wheelchair made me say 'I cannot go to him because I can't get out of my situation."
Last summer, while performing in Die Fledermaus and The Black Mask at the Santa Fe Opera, Joyce found herself in quite a different situation: giving master classes to apprentice singers. "What I really like to see in the kids is that romantic spirit about their work because, if you love what you're doing, then you're going to stick it out. I like to talk to young singers about that process and I always scream at them about the need to let the voice develop on its own. Every singer has to learn how to just sit still, wait and be patient. You don't need the moon to open things up;' she cautions. "If your craft is strong, your voice is going, and you're working on what you do, a door will open up somewhere. Somehow."
"Look, if I'd started singing Klytemnestra (which I haven't done yet) 10 or 15 years ago, there wouldn't be a shred of voice left today! So patience is the real biggie for a singer. Unfortunately, I also see a lot of that big, unspoken word --fear -- in the eyes of the apprentices. Many people are scared of the business and scared of performing. They're scared of getting out there, cracking on a high note, and then finishing the aria. I can sympathize with all that because I've gone up on lines, had terrible fears, and been in performances where my voice wasn't ready. I've been frightened of the voice and frightened of not being able to make a living. Anyone who's been in the business for twenty years (like I have) can sympathize with those fears if they're really being honest with themselves:'
What advice does Castle like to give to the apprentices? "How you react to a review reflects how much you believe in yourself. I've been very lucky to have had wonderful notices. But I've also gotten some bad reviews from time to time and, yes, they do hurt. For a young singer it hurts even more because, at some periods in your life, you're so sensitive that you might read a review and go into a great depression. Later, when a friend calls up to say 'That was a nice notice you got; you realize that, by being hypersensitive, you'd read something into the review that wasn't there and made it sound even worse! But Schwarzkopf got bad reviews. So did Sutherland. And once in a while we have to remember that. I'm now able to let bad reviews go by the wayside and maybe even disagree with them. But the hardest thing to deal with is when I get an unfavorable notice and agree with it because I think I was off during that particular performance."
Is there any kind of singing which Castle doesn't like to do? You'd better believe it. In 1986, while she was rehearsing the role of Prince Orlofsky for the Santa Fe Opera's new production of Die Fledermaus, stage director Charles Ludlam (who founded the Ridiculous Theatrical Company) told Joyce "You really do drag well:' Less than a year later, the mezzo-soprano was singing at Ludlam's funeral.
"In the past few years, some brilliant minds have been closed because of AIDS and this disease has hit our business very hard. Music helps, and what we are doing in this profession is very important for humanity. Sometimes you have to share your talent and, although, at such moments, there's a real sense of sharing, it's never easy to sing at a friend's funeral," sighs the singer. "Marilyn Horne has sung at many funerals lately and been very generous with her time. If, personally, I prefer not to sing at another funeral, it's simply because I don't want another one of my friends to die."
"The sharing of music and my relationships with people are very important to me. I've traveled so much that I don't have a serious home. But what I do have are lots of friends, lots of links with people and a feeling that we need to be there to help each other in this world. I love the fact that I love my work, that it can be very uplifting to people, and that it can take people out of their own problems and suffering. I've seen that happen over and over again and that energy gives me a good feeling."
For a moment, Joyce falls silent as she struggles to regain control of her emotions. When she looks up at me, her speaking voice has resumed its deep and lazy drawl. "Occasionally, singers become very insular and allow the voice to become the only thing that matters. My life has been a series of moments. Wonderful moments. And, while I don't like to shut the door on any of those moments (not even on some of the painful memories), to say that certain things in my past did not exist would really be deluding myself. Wouldn't it be too bad if I was just in this business for my own thing, or if I were just trying to make a big buck? Wouldn't it be too bad if it were just me, my voice, and my journey? My ego? My path in life? Me? Me? Me?"
"If your friends and loved ones don't mean an awful lot to you, then it's very hard to see that other side of the drama onstage. I haven't come to the time in life, knock wood, where I've lost my parents or people in my immediate family who are very, very close to me. But I've had two broken marriages and friends of mine are now very ill. Some of them are dying and I feel lucky to have known these people; if only for a little while. Humanity is a really big word to toss around, but I mean it very sincerely when I say that, in this world, the minutes do count."
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This article originally appeared in the November 1988 issue of Opera Monthly magazine.