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Castleton Farms Brings Unique Music Festival To Rappahannock County, Va.

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It's easy to identify Castleton Farms. There's no big sign, but there is a zebra standing by the road - keeping company with a tawny colored animal that has striped legs. It's called a zonkey - a cross between a zebra and a donkey. They're just the first in a series of sights and sounds that might surprise a visitor.

Down the road, in a large white tent, more than 200 young musicians rehearse La Boheme - Puccini's famed operatic tale of two star crossed couples. It's the story on which the Broadway show Rent was based, and this year's star soprano says it's a timely tale for the 21st century.

Joyce Al Khoury, 29, a New Yorker who's sung at the Met four times, says loves the city, but is happy to escape for the summer.

"Nothing compares to this," she says. "You know, you wake up at 8 o'clock, and you go to your backyard, and you're hearing all these birds... and this does not happen in New York."

She's also thrilled to be working with Lorin Maazel, an internationally acclaimed conductor who made his debut at 7, leading the NBC orchestra in New York. Now 81 years old, Maazel wanted a place where young American singers could make their mark.

So he opened his 600 acre farm, providing food and shelter in exchange for three rehearsals a day. Maazel is demanding, but many of the musicians, like Julia Clancy, are here without pay for the chance to play under the Maestro.

"With such a great conductor, already just one week down, I feel like I've learned a lot," she says.

Corey Crider, 34, is a baritone from Chicago. He is getting paid to sing and was able to bring his family for a holiday in the country, but Crider says he’s had to make sacrifices.

"Well there's new allergies for me," he says. "And if you're addicted to anything like the TV or technology, you have to overcome that addiction."

Dietlinde Maazel, the Maestro's wife and co-artistic director of the festival, says you can't be a diva or someone you likes to complain. She says it's a learning experience beyond just making music and singing well.

Now that the 2011 season has launched, Dietlinde says the challenge is to get an endowment that will keep Castleton afloat in the future. Despite profitable partnerships with opera companies in China, Italy and Canada, Lorin Maazel admits the $1.8 million fest doesn’t pay for itself.

"The number of seats that we can sell is limited because it depends on the county," he says. "Because the whole point of Rappahannock County is that it’s quiet."

Still, he's planning for the 2012 season, in the spirit of the zebra and the zonkey - recognizing that in a beautiful part of the world, surrounded by talent and good music, anything can happen.

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