The Australian soprano made a startling discovery preparing her new production of Der Rosenkavalier for Charlottesville.

When Australian soprano Miriam Gordon-Stewart and her two co-founders chose Der Rosenkavalier as the first opera for their brand new company, Victory Hall Opera in Charlottesville, Virginia, they had no idea they were in such close proximity to a missing link in the opera’s history.

The connection came to light in the early stages of planning, when Gordon-Stewart and her co-founders Maggie Bell and Brenda Patterson were scoping out the arts scene in Charlottesville. “When we arrived in town a little over a year ago,” Gordon-Stewart explains, “our first step was to meet everybody in town. Two of us were relative new-comers to Charlottesville and we wanted to meet everyone who worked in the arts industry – all the artists we could find. We had a series of coffees, lunches, dinners and drinks, attended things and saw what was happening in the town.”

Victory Hall Opera co-founders Maggie Bell, Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Brenda Patterson

Then, at a gallery exhibition they met an elderly German lady who was thrilled to hear they were putting on a production of Rosenkavalier. “Her eyes lit up and she said, ‘Oh, did you know there’s a connection between Hofmannsthal and Yule Farm? You look and you will find it.’ So we started looking into it.”

A bit of digging turned up something remarkable. A woman who had been known locally as Mary Miller and lived on a farm on the outskirts of Charlottesville, was none other than the daughter of German Countess Ottonie von Degenfeld – an intimate friend of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Der Rosenkavalier’s librettist. The Countess’s daughter had grown up and married an American diplomat and moved with him to Yule Farm.

Letters between the Countess and Hofmannsthal had been published previously, but according to Gordon-Stewart, the relationship went deeper. “When Ottonie finally died, her daughter Mary Miller – whose real name is Marie Therese – discovered some secret letters that her mother had kept hidden her whole life,” she explains. The letters indicated that the pair had had an affair of sorts. “We don’t know whether it was just a deeply romantic relationship or whether it was sexual – who knows. But it was a very, very intense relationship of almost daily letter-writing back and forth. And this intense, two-year period of their relationship was exactly when Hofmannsthal was writing Rosenkavalier.”

Mary Miller published the full collection of letters, with the romantic ones included, translated into English. “If you read those letters now, you see all of these connections to Rosenkavalier. You see mentions of meetings on trains and lots of references to her name, Degenfeld – Hofmannsthal uses this word ‘Degen’ over and over again in the first act as a sort of hint about their relationship.”

“Hofmannsthal invited Ottonie to the premiere – begged her to come, really – because this opera was his love-letter to her. She did go, on her own, and was completely blown away by it. She said they’d never spent a closer day together then when she was sitting there alone in the theatre watching this show.”

The other connection is Mary Miller’s original name, Marie Therese – the same name as the The Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. In her memoirs, Miller apparently asked Hofmannsthal if his character was named after her and he replied, “but, of course!”

“Whether or not that’s true, it’s a lovely story.,” says Gordon-Stewart. “This woman, this secret countess who knew Hofmannsthal very well and who may have been the namesake of the Marschallin, and whose mother was the inspiration for that character, was living here in Charlottesville.”

“The Marschallin is this iconic character in opera like Madame Butterfly or Tosca, and to think that she was based on a real person is quite extraordinary. And that that real-life person has connections to Charlottesville is even spookier for us.”

For Gordon-Stewart, who will be singing The Marschallin in this production, this back-story adds an extra element to the character – one that goes beyond what can be found in the novel Les Amours du Chevalier de Faublas by Couvrai, said to be the opera’sn inspiration. “It’s certainly common knowledge that Der Rosenkavalier is based on Les Amours,” says Gordon-Stewart, “but I’ve read that book and there are certain characters that have the same name and the lead character dresses up as a woman – for completely different reasons, in a completely different context – but it’s very far from the actual plot of that novella.”

“But when you read the letters, there are lines lifted, there are certain experiences they had together that are referred to in the libretto that have nothing to do with anything that was written in Les Amours. Hofmannsthal and Ottonie invented a character – a sort of country bumpkin character – who speaks in a funny dialect. They would write to each other in this dialect sometimes, and it’s the Mariandel character that Octavian dresses up as in Act I – it’s a character they had, it’s code.”

Gordon-Stewart hopes that this connection to Charlottesville will give people a stronger connection to opera. “People are much more likely to be interested in a local historical story,” she explains, “A lot of people I’ve spoken to knew Mary Miller and didn’t know any of this, so they’ll be surprised when they hear about this countess and just how deep her ties went. A number of descendants are actually presenting the final performance, and that will be special for us.”

The local connection will be made even stronger in this production with sets designed by architects from the University of Virginia. “It’s a very contemporary set,” says Gordon-Stewart, “two professors are at UVA are designing it and it’s pretty radical. You don’t have to do a lot of work to set Rosenkavalier now – it’s such a modern story.”

For Gordon-Stewart and Victory Hall Opera, creating art for the local community is a priority. “We want to create something that is of this place, it’s really a remarkable town,” she explains, “It’s an epicentre of all sorts of high-level art and craft, it’s a university town – the former home of Thomas Jefferson – and it’s a culture that really believes in innovation and tradition. So it’s a perfect place for us – we love it here – and there are so many elements of this culture that we would like to fold into our opera aesthetic.”

To this end, Der Rosenkavalier is a fitting place to start. “It was Mary Miller’s favourite opera and she used to have to travel to Paris and see it with Hofmannsthal, so the idea that it would be being produced in her home town is kind of unimaginable,” says Gordon-Stewart, “That feels like a special gift to give to her memory and I hope it gives people something to hold on to, just knowing how close they came to this world without even realising it.”

“It’s kind of a metaphor for what we’re trying to do with this company,” she says, “for people to be able to see their own lives and experiences in this artform and to feel very personally and locally connected to it.”

Victory Hall Opera’s production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier will be at the V. Earl Dickinson Theater, Charlottesville, Virginia, August 14-20.