Amahl and the Night Visitors sets the course for local opera careers

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Kate Tamarkin conducts Ash Lawn Opera’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, a holiday opera that inspired her as a child. Kate Tamarkin conducts Ash Lawn Opera’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, a holiday opera that inspired her as a child.

At 11 years old, Kate Tamarkin sat in a dark Laguna Beach, California theater, her mouth gaping, flabbergasted at the boisterous sounds produced by the singers in a performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors.

“I had not ever heard opera before,” said Tamarkin, who 40 years later is now the director of the Charlottesville & University Symphony Orchestra (CUSO). “It was the first time I remember hearing a real live trained voice. So when the woman who plays Amahl’s mother opened her mouth and came out with her big sound I remember saying, ‘Whoa!’ No one I knew could sing like that,” she recalled.

Cut to the present where Tamarkin is walking Georgia Castleman, the 15-year-old star of Ash Lawn Opera’s upcoming performance of Amahl, through the intricate components of the role as the Covenant School student falls in love with the music, the lyrics, and the acting—just like she did as a kid.

And Castleman is pumped. Not just about missing school so she can rehearse every day for up to 10 hours before the show opens. She’s thrilled to be working alongside professionals, which Tamarkin, who is conducting this year’s performance certainly is.

“Having a whole week of just theater is kind of any theater kid’s dream,” said Castleman. “It makes it feel like it’s your job and you’re one of the professionals too, so I’m really thrilled about that.”

Castleman has come to love working with Tamarkin, but it was not a shoe-in from the start, at least not from the teen’s point of view. She could sense the clout that Tamarkin carried.

“The first time working with Kate was really intimidating because she’s just so professional,” recalled Castleman. “I walked in and was pretty scared. She’s scary at first. But then she’s so sweet and good at what she does that it’s just amazing to get to work with her and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity to get to do that.”

Gray haired, with a long elegant nose, Tamarkin is a musician in residence at the UVA Medical Center, playing the Celtic harp at the bedsides of sick and dying patients in hospitals, hospice care, and nursing homes. In short, Tamarkin looks, sounds, and acts like the aunt everyone wishes they had. As though she has an apple pie, ice cream, and a mug of hot chocolate just waiting for you.

Tamarkin is also quite a force. She took charge of the CUSO in 2006 after conducting orchestras and symphonies in more than two dozen cities throughout the world, including the nation’s capital, where she led Catholic University’s symphony and opera for three years. Since 1982, she has been the music director for symphonies and orchestras in Wisconsin, Texas, Vermont, and California. She’s even served as a cultural ambassador to Moldova for the State Department, performing with its local National Philharmonic.

But you won’t necessarily get all of that by chatting with Tamarkin. Instead, she’s more apt to tell you how excited she is to be auditioning for Fiddler on the Roof next month.

“Absolutely!” said Tamarkin with a deep chuckle. “Even if I end up being a fourth stettle grandmother, I’m going to audition for Fiddler on the Roof.”

Or she may tell you about the music program for the Hospice of the Piedmont that she runs and the deep sense of fulfillment she gets from playing her harp for people at the end of their lives.

“It just hit me over the head one day,” said Tamarkin. “I looked at the small harp and decided that maybe I could learn to play it. I just got this idea in my head, not knowing anything about it, which is the best way to proceed in life. Get a crazy idea and run with it.”

Tamarkin is extremely professional and has the credentials to back it, but she’s also light, intrigued by the more spiritual side of existence, and, if nothing else, humble. All of those qualities led her to the harp.

The former director of the Chamber Orchestra of Charlottesville, Tamarkin has her fingerprints all over the local classical music scene. She has judged numerous adult and youth music competitions in town, put on two opera galas while at CUSO, given talks on opera and fellow conductor Leonard Bernstein, and served on the search committee for Ash Lawn Opera’s new director.

It was in this latter role that Tamarkin met Michelle Krisel. Selected as a candidate by one of the finest musical headhunters in the country, Krisel quickly became friends with Tamarkin, who along with her husband hosted Krisel on several trips down to Charlottesville from Washington, D.C., where the now-director of Ash Lawn Opera had been working with the Washington National Opera.

The pair soon discovered one of those life connections that occur so often in Charlottesville. While Tamarkin was sitting as a child in a Laguna Beach theater being awed by her first exposure to opera, a 12-year-old Krisel too sat transfixed by the lead character in the very same Amahl and the Night Visitors performance.

The opera has held a special place in both of their hearts for nearly their entire lives. And they’re hoping this year—by bringing together members of the CUSO, the Wilson School of Dance, and the Virginia Consort—to share that sense of magic and community with every generation in town.

Saturday 12/14 The Paramount Theater, 215 E. Main St. 434-979-1333

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