In the opera "Strawberry Fields," an elderly woman meanders into Central Park, sits on a bench and begins to imagine all the hustle and bustle around her is part of an elaborate opera.
For Kansas University voice professor and mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle, who sang the leading role in the opera's 1999 premiere at New York's Glimmerglass Opera, the scenario -- though steeped in dementia -- makes sense.
"The idea that I'm doing a role that says my life is my music is very important to me because I've been in the business over 35 years, and I'm still singing a lot," says Castle, a 15-year veteran of both the New York City Opera and Metropolitan Opera companies.
"To go into one's music or have music really a part of your life, really inside your life ... is great for me. It's also great for the students, the idea that music lifts one to a different level."
Castle will reprise the role she fell in love with (and the one that had East Coast critics head-over-heels for her) during a KU Opera double bill that pairs "Strawberry Fields" with "Face on the Barroom Floor."
The operas, each about 30 minutes in length, will run back-to-back the evenings of Feb. 6-7, 9, 11 and 13-14. Castle makes her directorial debut with "Strawberry Fields," and KU associate voice professor Pamela Hinchman directs "Face."
Popular American composer Michael Torke, who wrote the music to accompany playwright A. R. Gurney's libretto for "Strawberry Fields," will attend the Feb. 13 performance while in town for a composer's symposium.
In April, Castle and the original cast will record "Strawberry Fields" with Albany Records. She's unsure of the CD release date, but says it could be a year before the recording is available.
"Strawberry Fields" comprises one-third -- the most critically successful third -- of an operatic trilogy called "Central Park," commissioned by Glimmerglass, the New York City Opera and PBS' "Great Performances" television program. It centers on "The Old Lady," a sweet, delusional woman who believes she's at the opera after wandering into the Central Park garden that honors Beatle John Lennon. She mistakes a concerned student for her long-dead husband, and when her children arrive and try to take her to a nursing home, she insists on staying until the "opera" runs its course.
"I end up just staying right there in Central Park and finding peace there," says Castle, who's been teaching at KU three years. "It's a very sweet piece, a very human piece."
"It's so fulfilling because it is such a beautiful role, such a beautiful idea."
Critics at the premiere received Castle's portrayal with enthusiasm. Alex Ross, of The New Yorker, wrote, "'Strawberry Fields' seduced me, along with the rest of the audience -- not least because of a delicately heartbreaking star turn by Joyce Castle."
Castle, who will share the stage with some 20 student singer, describes the music as diverse and "listenable." And the libretto, she says, rings humorous and bittersweet.
"But there is joy, in a way, at the end of the opera because she finds herself in a very good place," Castle says. "She finds peace."
Tale of passion
"Face on the Barroom Floor," on the other hand, explores people's tendency to repeat past mistakes.
The opera is based on the true story of a Central City, Colo., saloon, where, in the late 19th century, a drifter stopped to order drinks for himself and everyone else in the bar. When it became evident he didn't have the money to cover his tab, he offered to paint the barmaid's face on the floor in trade, Hinchman explains.
Turns out the bartender and the barmaid were lovers. A brawl ensued, and crossfire killed the woman.
Henry Mollicone resurrects the trio in the 20th century and dooms them to repeat the same tragic fate.
Though Hinchman's never seen it, the barmaid's portrait truly exists on the floor of the Teller House in Central City. In fact, the Central City Opera commissioned the opera as a tourist attraction, Hinchman says.
She first directed the opera two years ago at the Utah Festival Opera. The KU production may travel to Guatemala and Australia if Hinchman is able to negotiate performances as part of her own concert bookings.
She says the opera's music is beautiful, "real hummable."
"You go away with tunes in your head," she continues. "It's real dramatic. All of the music really makes sense with everything. The audience does not have to stretch their minds at all for this one. It's just like watching a movie."
Students sing all the roles in "Faces." Main parts are sung by soprano Kristin Johnston, baritone Stanford Felix and tenor Hugo Vera, who's an apprentice with the Kansas City Lyric Opera and also sings in "Strawberry Fields." Baritone Jeff McEvoy and mezzo-soprano Lindsey Poling, who play leads in "Strawberry Fields," also apprentice with the Lyric.
Lyric music director Ward Holmquist will conduct the chamber orchestra for "Strawberry Fields," in part to acknowledge the relationship between KU Opera and the Lyric.
The double bill promises audiences, at the very least, an evening of variety.
"There are some pieces that can't be done just by themselves because you wouldn't have a whole audience come for a half hour," Hinchman says. Performing two entirely different shows exposes viewers to "different flavors of music from totally different composers."