Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Rachelle Durkin hope Virginia might enjoy a slice of Rameau with a little hip hop on the side.

I guess it’s an understatement to say that Charlottesville has been in the news of late, and of course for all the wrong reasons. So it’s a pleasant change to find that a pair of high-flying ex-pat Australian opera singers are hoping to bring a little peace and sympathy to the troubled Virginian city by presenting the American premiere of a half-forgotten pastorale héroïque in three acts by Jean-Philippe Rameau.

Victory Hall Opera was founded two years ago by soprano Miriam Gordon-Stewart – among her many Australian roles, a notable Sieglinde in the 2013 Melbourne Ring – along with conductor Brenda Patterson and director Maggie Bell. All three had been working in the opera industry around the world for a good 15-20 years. “We realised that what we really wanted to be doing was creating the kind of opera that interested us,” Gordon-Stewart explains during a break in a busy rehearsal schedule. “We talked about it for a long time and eventually worked out that the only way to really advance our own version of this art form was to start our own company and form an ensemble of singers who we respected and loved working with.”

Victory Hall Opera’s Someone Younger. Photos © Keith Alan Sprouse

For a relatively young company, Victory Hall Opera (named for the Victory Halls built as creative hubs for communities across the US in the wake of the First World War) has made its mark with a wide range of quirky and original projects. A reinvented five-hander Rosenkavalier, christened Someone Younger and performed with a six-piece orchestration, was highly-praised and has been picked up and produced all across Northern America. Drug Song, their play-cum-opera hybrid written around a slice of Tristan und Isolde and based on a Thomas Mann novella showed that they were prepared to cross all kinds of boundaries. Now Sympathy, the snappier subtitle for Rameau’s lesser-known Acante et Céphise, sees them taking up the cudgels on behalf of baroque opera and recruiting New York-based Australian coloratura Rachelle Durkin – whose most recent triumphs include the title role in Haydn’s Armida for Pinchgut Opera last year – to sing the part of Céphise.

It was the company’s Director of Music Brenda Patterson who came across Rameau’s curious and rather obscure work in the University of Virginia music library. “All the standard Rameau repertoire was released in 2011, but then there was kind of an extended set that included lesser-known works like Acante et Céphise,” explains Gordon-Stewart. “Not a lot of libraries and opera companies chose to purchase the entire set because some of these pieces were seen as being of their time, barely performed since and not particularly relevant to current audiences, but fortunately UVA chose to buy it. When Brenda came across the opera she found it had pretty much never been done by a professional company anywhere in modern times.”

First performed in 1751 at the Paris Opéra, the story concerns a pair of lovers, Acante and Céphise, who fall prey to a randy old genie with designs upon the latter. Their guardian spirit decides to protect them by giving them the double-edged gift of empathetic telepathy, meaning that whatever is felt by one will simultaneously be felt by the other. “It’s a really unusual plot,” says Gordon-Stewart who spotted its feel-good modern resonances immediately. “I thought it lent itself to comedy, so we cut out about a third of the opera and are doing it with contemporary surtitles.”

Victory Hall Opera’s Drug Song

Durkin, whose relationship with Gordon-Stewart goes back 17 years to touring opera to schools, was quickly approached. “Usually when somebody offers me a role the first thing I do is go onto YouTube, but there was nothing to go off,” she says. “However, Miriam knows my voice more than a lot of others, so I just said ‘yes’ off the bat. When I was in Australia recently I had a listen with a pianist friend of mine, and it’s stunning and exciting music – it’s really beautiful. There are complicated moments too – like when the spell has been put on Acante and Céphise. Feeling the same thing at the same time has been a challenge. [In our production] we sort of copy each other’s moments, not mirroring but replicating.”

Sympathy will not only be a professional premiere, it also marks Gordon-Stewart’s directing debut as part of the company’s mission to allow singers to explore different areas of the industry. “Singers are often just placed in a box of being singers, but the fact is that a lot of us are interested in expanding into all sorts of areas – not necessarily leaving singing, but exploring what we might bring to conducting or to directing,” she explains. “On this project we have a singer-director and we have a singer-conductor, and I think Rachelle will be able to attest that it’s a very different experience when you are being directed and conducted by somebody who you know understands your instrument – the way it works – and what it’s like to be on the other side. It’s an experience of mutual understanding.”

Victory Hall Opera has another distinctive ethos, that every performance meets the three-fold test of being “disarming, exquisite and sincere”. In the case of Sympathy, Gordon Stewart and co believe part of that realisation will come from taking a contemporary approach to the staging, so the production will involve a troupe of young hip hop dancers doing their thing to Rameau. Acante and Céphise, meanwhile, sport onesies as they mooch around an apartment doing the kind of mundane things that any couple might do who have slipped into the doldrums after five years of being together.

Victory Hall Opera dancers rehearsing for Sympathy

“Walk into any opera house in the world and there’ll be a production of Tosca or Bohème, and by looking at the stage you can’t tell where the piece has been created,” says Gordon Stewart. “Pretty much everything we do here is based in Charlottesville. We believe in making opera that is of a place – that is created out of this town. This particular opera really reminded me of people in our community who are highly politically aware and make choices based on a certain amount of white privilege. [In Sympathy] we see Acante coming back from the farmer’s market with all their natural grains in specially labelled brown paper bags. We see people who are living in a bubble that is about to burst over the course of the show. We also deal with themes of popular psychology: following gurus and the personalities of modern TED-style talk.”

Given the recent troublesome and tragic events in Charlottesville, VHO suspect that a protest scene in Rameau’s original 18th-century work might carry a special resonance for their community. “We aren’t deciding what the protest is about until about a week before we open, because as you say, a new controversy seems to flare up in this town pretty much every week,” says Gordon-Stewart. “I think that this blending of classical art forms and urban art forms will have an effect. It certainly affects me watching our dance troupe – aged from 12 to 20 – of kids from all sorts of racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, a lot of whom who are hearing live classical music for the first time. Watching them apply their own craft to this music is a beautiful experience for me.”

Next year will see VHO commission a new song cycle from American composer Matt Boehler (who typically for the company’s multi-tasking philosophy happens to also be in the ensemble as a singer). They will also produce an American opera next year, though Gordon-Stewart is staying teasingly tight-lipped about that for now. In the meantime, Charlottesville and interstate travellers will have the chance to come together through music and dance as this intrepid opera company and their young dancers look for a new way to realise Rameau’s decidedly individual vision. “It might sound simplistic,” concludes Gordon-Stewart, “but [this kind of collaboration] doesn’t happen very often, and it’s something that I think is crucial for us to become a better integrated society.”

Rameau’s Sympathy is at The Haven, 112 West Market Street, Charlottesville from October 28 – November 3


Rachelle Durkin returns to Australia for WASO’s Beethoven Nine on March 15, 2018 as well as an operatic engament later in the year