Classical music critic/The Classical Beat

Janinah Burnett (Sophie), left, pianist John Mayhood, Matt Boehler (Baron Ochs) and Miriam Gordon-Stewart (the Marschallin) confer about Victory Hall Opera’s take on “Der Rosenkavilier.” (Deborah Jaffe for the Washington Post /For The Washington Post)

In some musical circles, a “young” audience, and sometimes a “young” composer, is anyone under 50. Yet in opera, there are plenty of signs that 35 marks the onset of middle age.

The most famous onstage example is Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” in which the Marschallin, a glamorous aristocrat, muses over her own mortality as she, a woman in her mid-30s, has an affair with a teenager.

But offstage, singers who have hit the age of 35 without achieving world renown often find themselves in a bind: too old for young-artist programs, too experienced for small roles.

William Ferguson, a 39-year-old tenor, says, “I find that 33 tends to be the age, for a lot of singers, when they go into real estate.”

Ferguson is a member of a new opera ensemble that’s seeking to change established opera-world models. The Victory Hall Opera, in Charlottesville, which will open this month with three performances of a new chamber production of a stripped-down “Rosenkavalier,” was conceived and set up — and is run — by a group of mid-career singers who found themselves, after some years of high-level professional experience, wondering whether opera might offer them more artistic freedom than they were finding on the standard professional circuit.

“Opera’s so frustrating,” says Brenda Patterson, a mezzo-soprano, Victory Hall co-founder and the company’s music director. “You end up feeling like a cog in the machine.” At Victory Hall, the ensemble members are “original thinkers: more than just interpreters or technicians, but creative artists.”

They’re also older and more experienced than the norm in many of the small chamber opera companies that are popping up around the country.

“We know singers actually get better as they mature,” Patterson says. “You come into your own, your voice grows, you know who you are and what you have to say. That isn’t always valued as it should be.”

“When I read other companies’ websites,” she continues, “there’s so much, ‘We’re training the singers; they’re going to get such good training.’ We’re flipping that on its head. These [Victory Hall] singers are masters. They don’t need any more training at this point.”

Patterson has always been a little outside the box. “Reading the program for the Juilliard School’s Alice Tully Vocal Arts Debut Recital on Tuesday night, one felt the crackle of a strong artistic intelligence even before Brenda Patterson came out on stage,” I wrote in 2004 of a program that focused largely on music by living composers. I added, “The overall impression Ms. Patterson made . . . was that this was a voice you wanted to hear and, even more, an artist you wanted to follow.” But I wondered, even then, what kind of match a contract in a German repertory house — Patterson was engaged for some years at the Hamburg State Opera — would be for someone who clearly had a lot of her own creative ideas.


Octavian played by Brenda Patterson and Sophie played by Janinah Burnett. (Deborah Jaffe/For The Washington Post)

For opera singers, working in an opera house often means carrying out someone else’s vision. “Oftentimes, if you’re doing a ‘Magic Flute’ or a ‘Cosi [fan tutte]’ somewhere, you’ve had a lot of experience, and you come in and you’re working with a conductor or director who has a lot less experience,” Ferguson says. “It can be really frustrating. Obviously, we’re all really good at taking direction, but it is that director’s vision or that conductor’s musical ideas that we have to adopt. The people who are part of [Victory Hall Opera] are all singers who are complete artists, who have sung this repertoire, studied it, have a lot of experience. We have definite points of view on what these pieces, and this music, is about. Being able to express the whole singer is really what’s driving this.”

Ferguson has also seen challenges mount in an operatic career. Working largely in the United States, he was a regular at the New York City Opera before it closed; other companies, meanwhile, have reduced their schedules. “Where a company used to do five performances [of a production], now they’ll do three or four,” he says. “Regional companies that used to do three performances, now they only do two — so that’s a third of your fee.” Singers are paid per performance, but not for the weeks of rehearsal time beforehand, so fewer performances mean you’re being paid less for what amounts to nearly the same amount of work.

The Victory Hall Opera is not likely to provide a huge source of income for its members, at least not for some time; its operating budget, says Miriam Gordon-Stewart, a soprano who is the company’s artistic director and also a founder, is “under $100,000. Quite a long way under” — assembled through energetic fundraising and, the directors say, goodwill. But the company can provide a sense of artistic satisfaction, or a home base, in the larger context of a singer’s career. None of the singers involved, even the founders, plan to walk away from other parts of their careers — which are, in some cases, quite successful.

“As a Wagner singer myself,” says Gordon-Stewart, “that’s where I have the chance to sing some of my best repertoire, in the traditional industry. I very much want to continue doing that.”

Indeed, one reason that this maiden staging is in August is that it’s when the six singers in this reduced cast could fit it into their schedules.

This “Rosenkavalier” will be performed in a chamber version called “Someone Younger,” cut by about one-third and arranged for a small instrumental ensemble. The staging will be worked out with the assistance of a director, Lee Biolos, but the process is meant to be collaborative and, Patterson says, “deal with our actual realities rather than deciding who the character is and then imposing that on the performer.” Rather than playing the role of Sophie as a teenage ingenue, for instance, Janinah Burnett will show her as a slightly more mature woman who happens to be African American. And the affair between the Marschallin and Octavian, played by Gordon-Stewart and Patterson, will gain credibility since the two women are married in real life.

And it turns out that the opera itself has a little-known Charlottesville connection. One of the real-life models for Strauss’s Marschallin was a widowed aristocrat named Ottonie von Degenfeld, who had a long and intimate correspondence with Hugo von Hofmannsthal, the opera’s librettist. When Degenfeld finally saw the opera, she wrote to Hofmannsthal, “I do not believe we have ever spent such intense hours together as we did today.” She saved his letters and left them, bound with a ribbon, to be found after her death by her daughter — who happened to be named Marie Thérèse. (Marie Thérèse once asked Hofmann­­sthal whether he had named the Marschallin after her, and he replied, “But of course.”) Marie Thérèse, meanwhile, married an American diplomat and settled down on a horse farm — in Charlottesville. As Mary Miller, she was a well-known figure in the community. The family farmhouse still contains portraits and heirlooms, including the Marschallin’s, or rather, Degenfeld’s, necklace.

It’s a nice augury for a new company seeking to occupy new, exurban ground. At a time when new chamber opera companies are proliferating, the Victory Hall company appears to be offering something distinctive: one part collaboration, one part artist’s retreat, one part solution to a question facing many experienced singers of how to put their talents to best use.

“You can’t work to change the industry,” Gordon-Stewart says, “but you can be an example of a different model.”

The goal, Patterson says, is “actually creating a troupe, in the sense of a dance troupe or Steppenwolf,” the Chicago-based ensemble theater whose collaborative process has yielded some major theater works over the past three decades. “That is what I would like.”

“Someone Younger” will play in Charlottesville on Aug. 14, 17 and 20. For tickets, contact VictoryHallOpera.org.