The market for opera is a small one, and most companies are based in big cities, where they can draw large enough crowds to pay for it, but a new company in Virginia is taking the opposite approach - keeping things small and letting singers run the show.
Miriam Gordon-Stewart has performed in many of Europe’s great cities and at the iconic Sydney Opera House in her home country, but the artistic director for Victory Hall Opera and two other founders decided to plant their flag in a little city - Charlottesville - and to keep their enterprise small.
“Companies have become overblown in terms of size and in terms of budget which places them under enormous pressure to always do things that are a little more on the popular end, so we figured that in keeping our budgets low and our administration modest what we can really focus on is creating the kind of art that we want to create.”
Even the place where it performs at Piedmont Virginia Community College is modest, seating no more than 500 people.
“Because we are not dependent on selling 2,000 tickets to ten shows in order to support an administration, everybody has a good seat; everybody is close enough to really feel the voices traveling through them acoustically and feel the rush of being up close to that kind of music making.”
Now in their second year, they decided to tackle an opera by Richard Strauss called Der Rosenkavalier - the rose bearer, and in keeping with their commitment, they pared it down to just three hours.
“Der Rosenkavalier is hardly ever performed, because it's usually a huge spectacle; five hours long with fifty people in the cast and a huge orchestra and elaborate sets.”
Victory Hall hired a couple of college professors to design their sets and will work with only a small orchestra. It’s a gamble given the precarious state of opera in America, but Gordon-Stewart is confident, thanks in part to a crazy coincidence.
The man who wrote the lyrics for Der Rosenkavalier was married, but he fell in love with a widowed German countess. Between 1908 and 1912, he wrote her passionate letters, and some details of the opera may have come from that romance. For example, the leading lady had the same name as Countess Ottonie’s little girl.
“Now this daughter, who's name was Marie Therese, had moved to Charlottesville, Virginia.”
Until her death in 2005, she lived here with her husband, an American diplomat, and went by the name of Mary Miller.
“A lot of times I get the response, ‘Oh I knew Mary Miller! I mean, she lived out at the old farm. I knew her very well. I had no idea she was a countess.”
The people who founded Victory Hall Opera, think this must be a sign from the gods.
“It’s incredible and delicious and magical and we can’t quite believe it!”
They’ll perform the show, which they renamed "Someone Younger", on August 14th, 17th and 20th in the Dickinson Theater of Piedmont Virginia Community College.