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Classical 101

Remembering Sarah Caldwell – Again

We are long past needing a special month to salute women conductors; indeed the appellation is itself out of date. A conductor is a conductor, the term maestra the only concession and that not needed by every conductor born a woman.

However, ‘hooks’ are convenient and so I’ll take advantage of March as Women’s History Month to salute a remarkable woman-in music, who was a large part of my life growing up.

Sarah Caldwell (1924-2006) was the first woman to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera. She was the first woman in many years to conduct the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony and she toured the country conducting major and not so major American orchestras during a brief window, 1974-1990.


During this time she continued as Chief Conductor and Artistic Director of The Opera Company of Boston, the company she founded in 1959. Sarah was a woman of considerable girth. The Opera Company of Boston finally collapsed due to Sarah’s failing health and decades of financial – what’s the word I want – irresponsibilty.

But what a ride it was! The American premieres of Berlioz Les Troyens, the first performances in America of Verdi’s Don Carlos in French, as the composer intended.

Beverly Sills, at the height of her fame, sang her first Norma, Gilda and Bellini’s Giulietta in Boston for $500 a piece, at a time when her fee was t20 times that. Sarah introduced Schoenberg’s twelve-tone Moses und Aron and Roger Sessions Montezuma.

The first was triumph and the latter a struggle, the unfortunate jokes about ‘revenge’ included.

Time magazine made Sarah a star with a cover story in 1975. She made the rounds of the TV news shows. She was hard to ignore, as an artist,a character and a 400 pound woman with questionable personal hygiene.

As a student intern one of my jobs was to keep her supplied with Coke and donuts during the rehearsal periods. To this day I have difficulty facing wither, my own girth notwithstanding.

After 1990, the Time cover was a distant memory. Many of the box office singers who came to Boston: Sills, Vickers, Sutherland, Gramm, Alexander, were retired or deceased. Sarah got a lot of bad publicity when she accepted money from the Marcos regime in the Philipines. The Opera Company of Boston was bankrupted again, via an ill-conceived cultural exchange with the Soviet Union.

Sarah, God love her, wasn’t tone to remain idle, collapsed lungs be damned. She ended her career as Chief Conductor of the Yekaterinburg Symphony in Siberia ! You can look it up.

But it wasn’t her financial cluelessness, nor her appearance that made Sarah important. She was the real deal. An impresario, the person who made “it” all happen. “It” became tremendous evenings of music theater, and orchestral concerts catered to those who loved music and wanted to know everything about everything.

If a box of jelly donuts went missing on the way, so be it. From her I learned respect for the score, a love of music and an endless curiosity about music and words. I remember her with great respect.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.