When Victory Hall Opera, Charlottesville’s newest opera company, raises the curtain on its first show, it will also unveil a world premiere inside the industry itself.
“We are developing a process that doesn’t exist yet—anywhere,” says Miriam Gordon- Stewart, artistic director, soprano and one of the company’s three co-founders. “We’re interested to hear what the audience thinks of the results, and we’re using our three preliminary events [including their inaugural show, Now Try This] to invite Charlottesville audiences to be part of the process.”
Gordon-Stewart refers to Victory Hall Opera’s unconventional approach to creating and performing opera, an industry she says hasn’t changed much in its long history.
“There’s a tendency to see works that can only be seen or performed one way,” she says. “We want to challenge that in the same way it’s been challenged with modern art, architecture, fashion and every other aspect of life. We want to see what opera looks like now.”
Typically, Gordon-Stewart says, singers are the last piece of the performance puzzle. The house decides the piece, hires a conductor and a director, who puts together the concept, and then the performers are to execute the piece. Victory Hall Opera plans to flip the traditional model on its head.
“In this company, we start with an ensemble of singers and choose pieces based on them as performers. Part of this process is asking, ‘What is the role you’ve always wanted to do?’ and thinking about, ‘What can we do with these amazing singers?’ rather than coming up with an idea and fitting singers in.”
It’s a move that the Aussie native expects will benefit viewers as much as performers. “In America especially, opera is still so traditional. We want to provide [an alternative], in a fairly radical way, opening people’s minds to the idea that there is a range of experiences available. It’s crazy that in the 20th century there is an art form where there is so much room left for exploration.”
Exploration includes experimentation in shows like Now Try This, in which four company members will sing classical favorites, then engage in an improvisational back-and-forth.
“Someone might perform an aria, and then someone else might say, ‘How about you sing this as a 90-year-old woman?’ That’s just an example,” she says.
By giving singers more artistic freedom, Victory Hall Opera makes ample room for performers to come alive onstage.
“When the directors form a production to fit who we are, it allows a lot of other things to happen, like diversity,” Gordon-Stewart says. “In America at the moment, there is a huge lack of representation of the African- American community on stage. Even when they are presented on stage, they can’t bring their whole self and life experience to it. They’re thrown into a European-style production that asks everyone to suspend disbelief that you could have a black person in a white household. That’s a disheartening experience.”
Instead, she says, they can choose work like Shakespeare, that’s based on archetypal characters and can be reimagined in contemporary ways. “I’m looking forward to freeing the singers to bring more to the process and to really show a deeper level of who they are.”
Gordon-Stewart speaks from personal experience. She dropped out of high school at age 17 to join the opera chorus, and she’s been in the profession ever since. “I’m definitely an outsider in that way,” she says with a laugh. After realizing her childhood dream of singing the lead at the Sydney Opera House (as well as opera centers around the world, including the Hamburg State Opera, Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris and at the Bayreuth Festival), she began to feel the pull for artistic agency.
That same pull stirred in co-founders Maggie Bell, a Charlottesville native and dramaturg at the Volksbühne (“the epicenter for contemporary opera”) and mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson, who has performed for the Hamburg State Opera, La Scala in Milan and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
The trio chose Charlottesville for their new project because Bell and Patterson produced several operas here in 2003, just after graduating from college. They gathered friends to create The Sideshow Opera Company, which produced collaborative shows involving local bakers, bluegrass players and UVA film students.
“Even though we were all working at this high level, the two of them were harkening back to when they could produce something involved with the community and artistic freedom,” Gordon-Stewart says. “So now we’re doing it again, but this time we know what we’re doing.”
Extensive experience has prepared the trio for every element of running a company, and Victory Hall Opera can call on close relationships to bring in high-level singers who want to explore its new model.
“When singers have room to play it feels like the show is being created in that moment,” says Gordon-Stewart.
She says the creation of modern opera is about spontaneous performance. “When you’re forced to respond in front of an audience—someone gives you an unusual wink or smile or steps on your skirt—it snaps you into this feeling that you are the character, you are that person in that situation. I really believe that if we experience that onstage, the barrier breaks down for the audience, too. They’re no longer thinking, ‘I am in watching this moment,’ but ‘I am in this experience.’”