Boston icon and opera impresario Sarah Caldwell has died.
''Her whole life," her friend and Opera Company of Boston prima donna Beverly Sills once said, ''was one big improvisation, most of it inspired."
Ms. Caldwell died Thursday night in Maine Medical Center in Portland. She was 82.
Her longtime assistant and former manager of the Opera Company, James Morgan, said yesterday that she died of heart failure. For many years, Ms. Caldwell had respiratory problems.
In 1958, Ms. Caldwell founded her company with $5,000. She directed its first production, Offenbach's ''Voyage to the Moon," on Boston Common, a staging so successful Ms. Caldwell took it to the White House lawn; she followed up with Puccini's ''La Boheme" in a converted movie theater. Over the years, she presented a large, diverse, and challenging repertoire of more than 75 operas of every period and style, including many US premieres, and with a significant commitment to challenging 20th-century work.
I was a student in Boston during the early '80s when Caldwell's reign was beginning its long, sometimes aching wind-down and would make my way to the Opera, stepping over drunks to get my rush tickets. The Opera lived on the end on the Combat Zone and as a poor student, I found the juxtaposition of swanks in couture rushing into the House, averting their eyes somewhat from the gritty surrounds.
Inside, however, there was a different world, Caldwell's world. She displayed great avenues of brilliance amid more than a few wrong turns. But it was her personality, her insistence on fidelity to her craft that seized the public attention.
There was no single ''Caldwell style" of operatic production: She was interested in everything from Baroque theater practice to avant-garde methods using the latest advances from the labs at MIT, always applying her diverse interests in surprising and provocative ways. She embraced the whole spectrum of possibility -- original languages and English translation; major stars and emerging American singers; standard and variant performing editions; anything that was lively and pertinent. Ms. Caldwell's work was unified by a profound and comprehensive vision of how opera could be relevant and vital in our time, and defined by a splendid theatricality. Her adventurousness was often ahead of its time, and it took decades for other US companies to catch up to her daring, especially in repertoire. She also opened the door for subsequent generations of important female operatic directors.
I have my own personal story of Caldwell, that I will keep, mostly because it wasn't very memorable to anybody but me and only slightly embarrassing.
Caldwell was not only a voracious, passionate character, but a singular talent who at a time rivaled Boston's more widely known musical personalities for the heart of the city.
Sarah Caldwell was 82.