Sarah Caldwell, the beloved founder of the Opera Company of Boston and the first woman to conduct New York's Metropolitan Opera, has died. She was 82.
Caldwell died of heart failure Thursday at the Maine Medical Center, according to Jim Morgan, former manager of the company and a lifelong friend.
During its 33-year history, the Opera Company of Boston ran on a shoestring budget and often had to use gymnasiums, college auditoriums and rented theaters. It closed in 1991 because of lack of funds.
But it staged a staggering list of American premieres, including Arnold Schoenberg's "Moses und Aron," Serge Prokofiev's "War and Peace," Hector Berlioz's "Les Troyens," Luigi Nono's "Intolleranza," Alban Berg's "Lulu" and Roger Sessions' "Montezuma."
Caldwell acted as producer, director, scenery designer, publicist and conductor for most of these and the other 100 operas she produced.
"If you can sell green toothpaste in this country, you can sell opera," she once noted.
Caldwell also gave Kent Nagano, Los Angeles Opera music director, his start in opera and drew on emerging singers, including soprano Beverly Sills and mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, as well as established stars, bringing singers such as Joan Sutherland, Tito Gobbi, George London, Nicolai Gedda and Placido Domingo, among others, to her productions.
"I was affiliated with her for three seasons, which sounds like a short amount of time," Nagano said Friday. "In fact, I really set a record for being involved with her. The levels of salary were very, very low, and we were on call 24 hours a day. It took a particularly healthy constitution to be able to deal with that.
"But she invested in the young and up-and-coming generation," Nagano said. "Many of us went through a thorough on-the-job training in virtually all aspects of building up a production. We were deeply inspired and impressed by the aesthetic ideals and commitment Ms. Caldwell had."
Sills' collaboration with Caldwell began in 1961, when Sills, "very pregnant," she said, with her first son, received a call inviting her to sing the lead in a production of "Die Fledermaus." Forgetting her condition in the excitement, Sills said yes, then immediately had to call Caldwell back to decline.
"She said, 'You weren't pregnant two minutes ago?' " Sills said Friday. "That was how our romance began.... We did so many extraordinary things together."
That included a production of "The Daughter of the Regiment" in a gym, with Sills making an entrance in a carriage drawn by a horse, and a staging of "Lucia di Lammermoor" with Sills singing the famous mad scene on a ramp built out over the audience.
"She called it a 'Hello, Dolly' ramp," Sills said.
Caldwell was born March 6, 1924, in Maryville, Mo. She studied violin as a child and later at the New England Conservatory of Music. After graduating, she declined chances to perform in the Minneapolis and Indianapolis symphonies to work with Boris Goldovsky at the New England Opera Theater, where she conducted her first opera, Mozart's "La Finta Giardiniera."
From 1952 to 1960, she was head of the Boston University opera workshop, where she staged the American premiere of Paul Hindemith's "Mathis der Maler."
She started her Boston Opera Group, later renamed Opera Company of Boston, in 1957 on a budget of $5,000, conducting repertory from the baroque to the avant-garde.
In 1976, she became the first woman to conduct the Metropolitan Opera, in a production of "La Traviata" with Sills. She also conducted the New York Philharmonic, the Pittsburgh Symphony and the Boston Symphony, among others.
But in 1984, she had a bout of double pneumonia that almost killed her. After initial intensive care treatment, she recuperated in Florida for three months, embarking on a new health regimen. Always troubled by a weight problem, Caldwell conducted sitting in a large armchair.
She recovered, but her company did not. After it folded in 1991, she remained active in a variety of posts, including organizing a series of Russian-American cultural exchanges in 1988.
Caldwell received the National Medal of the Arts in 1997.
"She was not easy to work with," Sills said. "Because she was not organized. You had to be prepared to be exhausted because she would suddenly say, 'No, I don't like that. Let's try this all over again." It was exasperating. But it was fun. I loved every minute. She was the Orson Welles of the operatic world. She could just do anything."