Cathedral music team leaving diocesan service for theater
By PAUL A. BARRA
CHARLESTON — All through the ’90s they have been fixtures on upper Broad Street, as familiar in diocesan circles as Roman collars and representing the very essence of the Church of Charleston’s sacred music.
After nine years directing the music ministry at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist and coordinating music for the Diocese of Charleston, Bill — tall, fair, outgoing — and Maida — wheelchair-bound, dark, serene — are off to make their mark anew in the world of theater.
The couple will not leave the Holy City, however. They have started a business in Charleston, The Company Company, named after their great 1998 triumph in the musical “Company,” where Libkin was musical director and Schlitt played the lead role. The play was a huge critical success, sold out for every performance and was picked up for a reprise in the next year’s Piccolo Spoleto. The business venture is a chance to be independent and creative, the couple said, as well as a continuing opportunity to serve people in a variety of ways.
“We’ll do customized packages of entertainment for various venues, such as conventions, galas, old time variety shows. We’ll provide motivational music. We’ll be entertainment consultants and will seek grant money for shows in nursing homes, hospitals and the like,” said Libkin. “We won’t be doing sacred music any longer, but will be creating in the same spirit.”
The Company Company is already booking gigs and should be a commercial success, according to business manager and publicist William “Bill” Perry. Perry has known Schlitt and Libkin since they came to the cathedral in 1991 and thinks he knows what the couple brings to the effort.
“What attracted me, in addition to their artistic quality and talent, was their values – what we’d be able to do and what we’d be able to give back to the community,” Perry said. Schlitt is the producer and Libkin the director of The Company Company productions.
They have already contributed to the Catholic community in South Carolina, organizing liturgies and ceremonies for the Synod of Charleston, the diocese’s 175th anniversary year, a Mozart Requiem for the 1999 Spoleto Festival, the original Mass of Creation for the midnight service of Christmas 1991 (sung by Bishop David Thompson) and a jubilant musical tour of Rome in 1997. They are proud of their part in helping to bring a world-class organ to the diocesan church. Libkin also composed dozens of hymns during her time with the Diocese of Charleston, including “Beati in domo Domini,” sung by the Cathedral Choir for Pope John Paul II.
Libkin was a musical therapist for criminally insane inmates at Napa State Hospital in California; she conducted musicians in Jordan and in Russia and was the musical director of the Arizona Theater Company in Tucson. She eventually migrated to New York. She is a Jewess who had never played in a Catholic parish before coming to South Carolina from Broadway. She was nervous about the prospect, fearful of being rejected as a non-Christian outsider, Libkin said, but a near-tragedy eased her fears. A polio victim and pregnant for the first time, the musician fell in Charleston and broke her leg before she had gotten to play one note in the cathedral that was to become her second home. The parish staff acted as though a family member had been injured.
“Sister Mary Laura (Lesniak) and Father Greg (West) came to the hospital and helped carry me home. The administration and the bishop completely embraced me and my gifts and the parishioners and musicians here nurtured and encouraged me,” she said.
She took to a wheelchair and found it easier to raise the couple’s child, Johanna, from there. She suffers now from Post Polio Syndrome, but that hasn’t slowed her musical accomplishments. The Arizona State University music graduate plays, writes and directs, and teaches as an artist in residence at the College of Charleston.
Schlitt, on the other hand, was playing music and singing in Catholic churches since he was a preteen in Missouri. While pursuing his doctorate in music at Oklahoma University in 1985, following a four-year teaching stint at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, he became musical director at the Cathedral of St. Mary in Oklahoma City. Four years later, Maida Libkin came to OU to direct and conduct the opera “Faust.” Schlitt played Faust. The two worked closely together on the technical aspects of the production and began to feel what Schlitt described as a spiritual connection. Before long, he was hooked.
“I jumped in my ’76 Rabbit with my guitar and headed for New York City. I found my true purpose in life when I met Maida,” Schlitt said.
Once they were married and wanting to start a family, they began to look for a position more suitable and settled than singing in plays and dance halls. They called on Father Bob Duggan, an occasional workshop partner with Schlitt who became a consultant to the Synod of Charleston. Father Duggan heard about an opening in Charleston.
“It seemed too good to be true,” Libkin said.
Their nine-year tenure in Charleston turned out to be good for everyone. Schlitt said that his primary charge was to turn consumers of music to producers of music, to help churchgoers to find their voice. Perry said that was one of the couple’s big successes at the cathedral; another was taking what he called a great choir and making it better.
“They elevated the quality of our music even further than Virginia Sturken had, culminating when we sang for the Holy Father in Rome,” the businessman and journalist said. “Now that we realize they are really going to leave, we have been through a traumatic experience.”
Bill Schlitt cantored and Maida Libkin directed the Cathedral Choir for the final time on July 30.