Muriel Von Villas went to Boston Conservatory, studied voice and in all likelihood was singing scales in a rehearsal room while the rest of us were slogging through Psychology 101. So she may not realize she's in Erik Erikson's "generativity versus stagnation" phase of development. He called it a psychosocial crisis. She just calls it "being a mother and being the head of an opera company."
"Generativity," according to Erikson, is primarily "the interest in establishing and guiding the next generation." And Von Villas is doing quite well at it, both maternally and musically -- with a 3-year-old daughter named Becca and a 6-year-old opera company called Opera DC.
Von Villas describes herself as a traditionalist, with a "quasi-patriotic feeling about America" and a "thing for legacies." Her New England childhood was so thoroughly traditional that she almost missed out on the modern gadget called a doorknob: She grew up in a 19th-century house with old-fashioned brass latches on the doors.
Now she's concerned about "being able to pass things on from generation to generation" -- things like opera. "When my great-grandchildren look back and ask what music was like, I don't want it to end with 'Well, in the 1900s there was Menotti and Barber and Gershwin.' That was only halfway through. We still have another half a century, from the '50s on, and it's so important to have new operas introduced . . . It is so important to give creative people a chance, and one of the things I can do -- my contribution -- is to try to cultivate new music and to introduce new audiences to it."
This is where Opera DC comes in. Von Villas is a modern-day impresario: the artistic director, the box office manager, the fundraiser . . . the very soul, if not the complete body, of Opera DC. What the company lacks in Kennedy Center cachet and Washington Opera cash, it makes up for in resourceful imagination and critically acknowledged quality.
Nevertheless, Opera DC is perpetually impoverished. Joan of Arc could not have flouted the economic soothsayers and fought for the cause of chamber opera with more grit than Von Villas does. "We are in the hole so much I can't stand it . . . I feel like this sand castle on the beach. Near the water. And when the water comes in, the sand goes out from underneath. It's not like the top's being chipped away. There's nothing that I can fight with." Except sheer will. Fundraisers, treasurers and other exponents of reality tell Von Villas to "grow up. There's no money out there." And Von Villas says, "We have to do this. We have to. We have to."
Von Villas believes that only good can come from what she does: produce chamber opera, sung in English, using Washington artists, at an affordable price. (When they began, "affordable" was $5, now it's $10.) "I know that we are small, and in the realm of the whole artistic world in Washington we don't really amount to a fig, but the point is that it's happening and it's good."
Nothing better demonstrates Von Villas' generativity and willpower than "Emperor Norton" and "The Face on the Barroom Floor." The operas, both by Henry Mollicone, were presented in October 1982 by Opera DC. Tomorrow night, with the same cast (Joan Morton, Lewis Freeman, Paul McIlvaine and Debora Madsen), the productions will be revived.
When Von Villas last directed these two one-act operas she was pregnant with her first child. Her husband Ed Roberts doubles as music director for Opera DC, and opening night he was at her side -- in the delivery room of Fairfax Hospital.
"I missed the whole shooting match," she says of the operas.
"Ed and I hadn't decided on a name for the baby, and the nurses and doctors were laughing at us, because all we were talking about was 'Were the tickets ready at the box office?' It was hysterical. 'Ed, did you get the tickets?' CONTRACTION! Grrrrrr. 'Are the programs ready, did you pick them up from the printer?' Contraction.
"I had Becca. And I missed it. I never saw the final product," says Von Villas. "I can't think now how the operas finally looked, with people in the audience and sight lines and overheads."
Tomorrow through Saturday (and again Feb. 28 and March 1) Opera DC presents an evening of American opera: Samuel Barber's "A Hand of Bridge" and Mollicone's two works. And, guess what? Von Villas is pregnant, again. "It's weird," she says. "It's like doing it all over again, because it was never completed in my mind."
It's too early on in her pregnancy to worry about names or contractions or missing opening night. She's planning to be there, in Carroll Hall (Opera DC's home at 10th and G streets NW), "pacing back and forth."
If the nervous director makes it through to intermission, Von Villas says she will "quietly go around and see what the audience thinks about things. People don't know who I am. Do I look like a director? No. People think 'Oh, she's probably the wife of someone who's singing.' "