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“The Music Gives Back”: Joyce Castle’s 50-year career as a performer and professor

Joyce in The King and I (KU)

Joyce Castle in The King and I, courtesy University Archives

By Christine Metz Howard

John Stephens was hoping for a long shot.

It was 2001 and Stephens, professor of voice and then-director of the voice division, was searching for a mezzo-soprano to fill a vacant faculty position at KU. The candidate at the top of his list was the internationally renowned Joyce (Malicky) Castle, a KU alumna who had spent the previous decades in leading roles at the Metropolitan Opera and New York City Opera.

As part of the hiring process, Castle listed the famed red-head soprano Beverly Sills as one of her references. Following HR protocol, Stephens phoned Sills. He managed to get past Sills’ assistant by insisting his call regarded a job opportunity for Castle. With that Sills quickly came to the phone. A bit star struck, Stephens fumbled around with a few words of admiration before launching into the standard reference questions. Sills cut him short.

“Let’s skip all this, honey,” Stephens recalled Sills saying, “Just hire her.”

It turned out to be great advice, and Castle joined the faculty that fall.

“I consider it one of the great accomplishments of the School of Music to have her on the faculty,” Stephens said.

2020 marks 50 years of a long and storied performing career for Castle. In 1970, Castle made her professional debut at the San Francisco Opera in the role of “Siebel” in Gounod’s Faust. This summer, she was scheduled to tackle her 140th role as the “Countess” in Des Moines Metro Opera’s production of Queen of Spades, which was canceled due to COVID-19.

In the fall Castle, University Distinguished Professor of Voice, will begin a three-year phased retirement. She’ll be leaving a teaching career where — along with her status as a world class performer — she is celebrated as a gracious collaborator, generous colleague and transformative professor.

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Right Foot, Then Left Foot, and Keep Singing

Born in Beaumont, Texas, Castle began singing at age three, encouraged by her mother who played piano. Castle jokingly said her “big break” came in second grade in Golden, Colorado during the production of Little Red Riding Hood. The little girl with blond curls who was originally set to play “Little Red Riding Hood” got sick and Castle took center stage!

“Music and singing have been the center of my life,” Castle said. “I’m 81 years old, and I’m still singing. Why? Because that is what I do and I love it.”

Growing up, her parents, Ethel and George Malicky, and older sister and brother, Georgann and Neal, encouraged her singing. In the 1950s, the Malickys moved to Baldwin City, a small town just south of Lawrence. In high school, Castle entered voice, piano and acting contests around the state and caught the interest of faculty at KU. She enrolled in 1957, studying under Miriam Green.  She performed regularly inside the newly built Murphy Hall, in roles such as “Meg” in Brigadoon, “Cleo” in The Most Happy Fella, “Mercedes” in Carmen, and “Anna” in The King and I.  A highlight was traveling on a USO tour to East Asia to perform Brigadoon. It was the first time she flew in an airplane.

“KU brought me so many opportunities,” she said.

Castle graduated from KU in 1961, with a BFA in theater and voice (a major that was created just for her). Shortly after graduation, she married Wendell Castle, the famous furniture designer and distinguished KU alumnus who passed away in 2018. Then she went on to receive a Master of Music degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where she is a distinguished alumna. After Castle’s debut performance in 1970 at the San Francisco Opera, the job opportunities began.

“I like to tell students you go forward in your career by putting the right foot down, then after the right foot, you put the left foot….but you keep singing (and practicing). That’s how you develop,” Castle said. “You are going to get turned down, you are going to have disappointments, and then you pick yourself up and try again.”

Castle spent much of the 1970s in Paris, where she performed with the French National Radio, and opera houses in France, Italy and Germany. She found a valuable mentor in Nadia Boulanger, the French composer, conductor and teacher who invited Castle to perform a recital at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau.  Castle also sang in concert with Mme. Boulanger playing piano.

“This was quite an honor,” Castle said.

Old Lady Candide (New York City Opera dressing room)

Upon Castle’s return from Paris in 1981, Sills, who by then was the general manager of the New York City Opera, quickly hired her and became another great mentor.

“She basically just hired me on the spot,” Castle said.

Castle sang for 25 years at the New York City Opera and 14 years with the Metropolitan Opera, as well as opera houses throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Japan and Israel. During those years, she worked with Hal Prince, Stephen Sondheim, Leonard Bernstein, James Levine and many other notable figures in the world of performing arts.

Rarely cast as the ingénue, the roles Castle received as mezzo-soprano provided fodder for wonderfully rich characters. Among her most iconic roles are “the Old Lady” in Candide at the New York City Opera and featured on the Grammy-winning album; “Mrs. Lovett” in the premiere of the operatic stage production of Sweeney Todd at the Houston Grand Opera; and “Augusta Tabor” in The Ballad of Baby Doe, which she has performed at the New York City Opera and in six other productions, perhaps more than any other mezzo-soprano. Other character-driven roles include the “Witch” in Hansel and Gretel at the Metropolitan Opera, the movie star “Alla Nazimova” in The Dream of Valentino at the Washington National Opera, “Prince Orlofsky” in Die Fledermaus at The Met and Santa Fe Opera; and “Elizabeth I” in Gloriana at Central City Opera.


In the Most Wonderful of All Worlds

Long before his call to Sills, Stephens knew of Castle’s work and her ties to KU. The two first met in 1984 when he played Sweeney Todd to her Mrs. Lovett, shortly after she had made a splash in the role at the Houston Grand Opera. Hanging in Castle’s studio is a photo of the two in costume. Stephens is triumphantly lifting a razor.

“I had performed with her and I had seen what an absolute bundle of energy she is on stage. She is what we call in the business ‘someone who chews the scenery.’ She just eats up the stage, she is so good” Stephens said. “And yet, in her performing there was always this underpinning of centeredness and alignment. It’s what voice people pay attention to.”

Stephens saw that Castle’s discipline gave her the ability to be explosive and passionate on stage. He also realized those same qualities made for an excellent teacher.

“I just knew she would be a great voice teacher because she could perform like nobody’s business, but she had this incredible vocal discipline, and we still see it when she sings,” he said.

Throughout her career, Castle frequently visited KU, giving master classes to a rapt audience of students and catching up with Stephens over coffee. When the vacant position came up in 2001, Stephens saw Castle as a perfect fit, but a big fish to catch. So, he reached out to Toni-Marie Montgomery, then-dean of the School of Fine Arts, to assist in making an attractive offer for Castle.

“I knew it was a long shot, but I thought in the most wonderful of all worlds, we could possibly get Joyce to join the faculty.’” Stephens said. “I told Toni, ‘this is who we want,’ and she went to work to get her.”

Castle said yes and started teaching at KU that fall. Despite three decades as a renowned opera singer, Castle still had first-day jitters in her new role as professor. She recalls being extremely nervous just before her first student came into the studio for her first lesson.

“We started and I remember thinking to myself, ‘give yourself a little credit Joyce, you do know a little bit about singing,’” Castle said.

Over the past 20 years, it’s become clear that Castle knows quite a lot about singing and has forged a legacy of training young artists for careers in performing and teaching.

“Her students are centered, and from that they are incredibly committed performers,” Stephens said. “She is a master at teaching her students discipline and, therefore, spontaneity.”

During her time at KU, Castle continued to perform, treating KU audiences to memorable performances, many of which had Mark Ferrell, associate professor, at the piano.

Among those performances were two song cycles written for Castle by noted American composers. In 2005 in Swarthout Recital Hall, Castle performed Statuesque with the composer Jake Heggie at the piano. The work was commissioned by KU. Five years later, Castle sang the premiere of William Bolcom’s The Hawthorn Tree in New York City and later at the Lied Center — with Bolcom in the audience.

After singing the role of the “Old Lady” in the world premiere of Strawberry Fields for Glimmerglass Opera, which included a television broadcast of Great Performances, Castle performed the role in a 2016 KU Opera production at Crafton Preyer Theatre, with the composer Micheal Torke present.

“For years, she has done solo recitals, and it didn’t matter where she was, she would pack the house,” Stephens said. “She has given the School of Music tremendous presence.”


A Mentor and Touchstone

After several lean years in Boston auditioning for roles as a mezzo-soprano, Tara Curtis was left with a shaken confidence. At the suggestion of her voice coach, she arrived at KU in 2011 as a doctoral student to study under Castle. With Castle’s help, Curtis, DMA ’14, made adjustments to her vocal technique and began to trust herself again.   

As part of the rebuilding process, Castle provided Curtis with a crucial connection to the Janiec Opera Company at the Brevard Music Center in North Carolina. The opera company was searching for a young mezzo-soprano to perform the role of “Mother Marie” in Dialogues of  the Carmelites and reached out to see if Castle knew anyone. At Curtis’s next lesson, Castle had her sing through the role to determine if she had the vocal health to perform it. She did, and the two spent future lessons focused on the role, which Castle had performed years earlier.

“There are singers who can talk about their technique, but they can’t disseminate how they think about the character. It’s not something you can easily teach other people. But Joyce is so generous about doing that. It’s really special,” Curtis said.

Joyce as Elizabeth I of England (Central City Opera) First American staged productionFrom that role, Curtis went on to perform around the country and Canada with the Opera Company of Middlebury, Opera in the Heights, Opera on the Avalon, Tulsa Opera, St. Petersburg Opera, Palm Beach Opera and others.

“Joyce gave me the tools to grow as a singer and got me into that summer program. The work came from there,” Curtis said. “She effectively changed the trajectory of my professional life.”

Castle is more than a nuts-and-bolts voice teacher, said Kristee Haney, MM ’09 and DMA ’14.  While Castle’s ear demands high artistic standards, she also guides young singers on how to navigate from one scene to the next, make an unlikeable character likeable, and move past performing a caricature.

At Castle’s suggestion, Haney took a flamenco dance class, which pays dividends every time Haney is cast in Carmen. During the audition process, Castle also provided encouragement. With each ‘no’ Haney received, Castle asked who she planned to sing for next.

“It’s this amazing perspective that rejection is going to happen,” Haney said. “It wasn’t life or death; it is part of the industry and part of my job is to go out there and get rejected. If you stop with every rejection, you never get the next prospective ‘yes.’”

Since her time at KU, Haney has performed in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Janáček’s Jenůfa and Massenet’s Werther, with the New York City Opera for the North American and European tours of Carmen and as “Mrs. Beers” in the American premiere of Brokeback Mountain. She is also an associate professor of voice and musical theatre at the University of Central Missouri, where she teaches young artists how to reach the same notes that Castle taught her.

“She’ll always be a touchstone and mentor, not just professionally, but personally,” Haney said.

Gretchen Pille, MM ’18, learned from Castle the value of cultivating relationships. During her time at KU, Pille said she heard Castle repeatedly share her secret of success through an 11-word mantra, holding up a finger for each word she rattled off: “People like to work with people they like to work with.”

“She really values relationships. She keeps in contact with people she worked with decades ago, and I think a lot of singers and pianists at KU have benefited from that,” Pille said. “She brings in all these people who can help you get a foot in the door.”

A particularly memorable moment for Haney came in 2012 as she prepared for a master class with Joyce DiDonato, the other great Kansas mezzo-soprano named Joyce who happened to be performing with the Kansas City Symphony. Haney hadn’t anticipated the publicity the master class would bring, including a PBS camera crew and an audience at the Kauffman Center’s Helzberg Hall. But Castle did and inquired as to what Haney planned to wear. As a graduate student on a limited income, Haney couldn’t afford a new outfit. So Castle pulled out her checkbook and wrote a check for Haney to get something nice. As a result, Haney arrived to the master class in a beautiful black pants suit, one that she continued to wear for years to come.

“She’s insanely generous. She’s generous with her time and attention and an endless supply of understanding, which means so very much to someone who idolizes her as a force of nature in her career,” Haney said.

Pille recalls the sympathy Castle showed after her grandfather died shortly after Pille’s arrival at KU. Along with giving Pille the space to grieve, Castle assisted with a recording for the funeral, playing the piano while Pille sang I’ll Be Seeing You.

“She is an advocate and she always shows up for her students,” Pille said.

Castle’s connection with students doesn’t end with graduation. She continues to be a mentor and regularly sends emails to check-in on former students.

“You build a network of people that you trust, who will be honest with you and not judge you. Joyce will always be one of those people for me,” Curtis said.

While Castle’s teaching career will gradually wind down over the next few years, she doesn’t have any plans to stop singing. In recent months, Castle has adapted to the social distancing challenges of COVID-19, performing with other opera singers over the video conferencing software Zoom and recording a delightful performance for the Des Moines Metro Opera from the comfort of her living room. Even during a pandemic, Castle has found ways to move her career forward by steadily putting the “the left foot down and then the right foot.”

“Music gives back. It gives back to the world and it gives back to the performer,” Castle said. “I am so thankful for KU and our School of Music community here in Kansas and afar, for Dean Robert Walzel and my friends and colleagues in our faculty and staff – especially the Voice and Opera division with John Stephens, Julia Broxholm, Genaro Méndez, Roberta Gumbel and Mark Ferrell. It’s really all about sharing – in life and in music” ■

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