At Juilliard, up-and-coming opera singers learn the art of method acting: channeling their personal experience into the emotions they express on stage. But for mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson, the acting never stopped. “As a gay person, that’s sort of what you feel like you are doing a lot of the time in real life. You are translating the culture around you into something that speaks to you. After a while, it becomes just sort of wearying,” she says.
Unfortunately, traditional opera doubles this onus on its performers. “We were taught [at Juilliard] you change the gender of pronouns in songs. If I’m a woman, I have to always be singing to a man, and vice versa,” she says. “There are extremely few actual gay characters in opera or song. Really. Like, count them on one finger or so.” But Victory Hall Opera is changing the numbers with Ghost House, a reimagining of Robert Schumann’s famous song cycles.
“I’ve never played a lesbian on stage. I’ve never openly sung to a woman. I’ve been out my whole life, but to come out as a singer—to just fully be yourself without any sort of protective shield of any kind—it’s a very good thing. It is also a little bit scary.” Brenda Patterson
As tenor William Ferguson, accompanied by pianist Renate Rohlfing, performs Schumann’s Dichterliebe (“Poet Love”), actors will recreate seminal moments from the singer’s childhood and adolescence—when he was a boy coming to terms with his gayness in a conservative Southern household.
In the second song cycle of Ghost House, Patterson will accompany herself on piano and perform Schumann’s classic Frauenliebe und -leben (“A Woman’s Love and Life”) set with new texts by contemporary lesbian poet Emily Moore. Ferguson and Patterson graduated from Juilliard, and both won the prestigious Alice Tully Debut Recital competition. Now, 15 years later, their paths have crossed at VHO.
“Will Ferguson is like the Ellen of opera,” Patterson says, “because he was the first singer I knew to sort of come out on stage. At his Alice Tully debut recital, he sang these contemporary love songs, and they were to a man. I had never heard any other singer do that up till that point.”
Though the single performance of Ghost House is currently sold out, you can see Victory Hall Opera’s newest show, Oracle, on April 12 at Old Metropolitan Hall.
For her part, Patterson says “I’ve never played a lesbian on stage. I’ve never openly sung to a woman. I’ve been out my whole life, but to come out as a singer—to just fully be yourself without any sort of protective shield of any kind—it’s a very good thing. It is also a little bit scary.”
Adding to the intimacy of the performance, Ghost House will debut in a private home. “It’s like the house is the singer and the ghosts are the singer’s memories, or the singer’s subconscious,” Patterson says. “So when an audience member comes into this home, it’s almost like you’re entering the singer’s subconscious.”
This invitation to a visceral audience experience is highly intentional.“[At Victory Hall Opera], we are always looking for ways to not just present the audience with something but to really invite people into the process and the singer’s perspective,” Patterson says. “So that they feel like they are experiencing the spark of creation in that moment.” In fact, she says, Ghost House is less about upending the gay and lesbian experience and more about “finding your inner truth as an artist, and channeling that and openly sharing that with an audience.”
Such reading, she says, shows contemporary audiences that “this music can be fully embodied into a modern person, and into the modern world. It’s not some period piece.”
Though both of her song cycles were written in 1840, Patterson believes the music transcends its time. The only roadblock to contemporary appreciation is the “maudlin poetry” of the original. Schumann’s original German version, she says, is “something even straight women don’t enjoy singing now, because there are lines in it like, ‘Oh I bow down to you, my husband, and serve you in humility.’ You know what I mean?” she adds. “It’s kind of horrible.”
Rather than bow down to that particular tradition, Patterson decided to give the composer’s transcendent music new text. “I thought, ‘Okay, what is my story as a contemporary lesbian woman? What story would I want to tell about my life and love?’” She turned to her friend and accomplished lyrical poet Moore, who writes rhythmic poetry about the lesbian experience, for inspiration.
“[Moore] gave me poems she had already written, and I fit them to the music,” says Patterson. “They fit remarkably well. I’m now convinced that this is actually the original version, the real version of the song cycle. It feels much truer to me.”