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CYSK: Miriam Gordon-Stewart

A glimpse into the daily lives, inspirations, and stories of the entrepreneurs, creatives, social innovators, and community champions who call Charlottesville home!

Miriam Gordon-Stewart

Co-Founder and Artistic Director at Victory Hall Opera

Hometown: Adelaide, Australia

Years lived in Charlottesville: 6

Favorite small business: Market Street Wine

Favorite place: Blue Ridge Parkway

Favorite community event: PVCC Let There Be Light

Favorite local restaurant(s): Alley Light, Tavola, MarieBette

What is your educational and professional background?

I dropped out of high school, so I never got a formal degree. I started working professionally in opera from a very early age. I was one of the youngest people to join the state company where I lived at age 17. That was an unusual path for an opera singer; it is completely normal for many people to complete multiple degrees and training programs first, but I started learning on the job straightaway. I sang all over Australia and then moved to Germany to sing leading roles at a house in Hamburg, and that led to more roles in many of the great opera houses of the world.

At a certain point, I grew a bit dissatisfied with that lifestyle and with the kind of work I was able to do in the traditional industry. I longed to have a little more control over the projects that I did and I wanted to be able to form projects myself, bring together casts and concepts, take opera into a new space it hadn’t been taken before, and reach new audiences with a new, more contemporary style of opera. The way to do that for me was to co-found Victory Hall Opera here in Charlottesville in 2015. This is now our sixth season in 2021.

Who is involved with Victory Hall Opera?

The two co-founders, myself and Brenda Patterson, run the company and are also singers. We have a troupe of twelve singers, most of whom are the same people that we started the company with six years ago. When we started the company, we really wanted to try the troupe model; at the time, we were the only one in America. It’s something you find a lot of in the theater world and the dance world, but it’s not at all common in opera. Our group is made up of some of the most special, most interesting, groundbreaking performers that we had all heard about. We sent them all invitations, asking them to join us in this undertaking, and they all accepted.

The people in the troupe are not Charlottesville residents; they’re some of the most successful singers in the country, living all over the United States. They come into Charlottesville over and over again in different roles, doing different jobs. One of our singers is also a composer, so we’re commissioning him to write an opera this year. The idea is that when you work with the same people over and over again, you develop a real rapport with them, intimacy, and a sense of trust. The kind of work that you can then produce is really different; we can push the boundaries much further because we know each other and we know how to work together. Our troupe has also become a part of the community. They know the town, they have businesses that they support here, and some of them have local sponsors now for their performances. These relationships build over time and they become a part of the community, even if they don’t live here.

What does VHO do?

We do a wide range of programming; we’re a year-round company. We perform in alternative venues, so you generally won’t find us in a traditional theater. We convert spaces around town for performances most of the time, and we perform in unusual places for opera to take place. Usually, we do three smaller-scale events during the year, involving 1-2 people, and then we generally do one fully staged opera every calendar year as well.

Last year, we had to cancel our full opera, like the rest of the country and the rest of the world had to do, but we really wanted to keep those contracts in place and keep paying our artists. The rug was pulled out from under every artist in the country and it was a really hard time. We really wanted to find a way to keep the project in place but to reimagine it. So it turned into a documentary film all about the effect of Covid on artists and on our cast. The artists filmed themselves at home, documenting their lives, and then we brought them to Charlottesville for a week to record the soundtrack in a professional studio environment. They were not singing through their iPhones; we produced a really high-quality recording that is available separately from the film. We just released it this past Saturday night (3/27) and the response from the opera community has been pretty overwhelming so far. It’s really struck a chord with people, for obvious reasons.

Why did you choose Charlottesville?

I moved here to start Victory Hall six years ago because we originally had a co-founder who was from Charlottesville. She convinced us that this would be a good place to start the company that we had planned together. Charlottesville is a little bit outside of the eye of the opera industry. It’s not a big city but it’s a city with a really engaged theatre community. People go and see things all the time and have a hunger for new ideas.

Over the course of the past year especially, we have been so overwhelmed by the support we have received. What it has meant is that we were able to keep going, we were able to produce the film last year without any ticket revenue, and make it through until we released it this year. Our support base in Charlottesville, and beyond, responded to the fact that we were in this perilous situation. They also really responded to the fact that we were still offering opportunities to artists and supporting them. If there’s one thing people have come to understand during Covid, it’s how fragile the arts are.

Why are you passionate about your work?

Being a singer is an identity. It’s something that you discover about yourself usually very early on. Little kids who are destined to be opera singers are quite often walking around the house impersonating sounds and other singers, and they’re very good at it. I grew up listening to a very wide range of music, but I knew early on that some of the things I could do with my voice were special. I knew I wanted to be some kind of performer, and as soon as I went to see an opera for the first time at age 14, I knew that that’s what I wanted to do. I was absolutely driven from that point on, once I knew that that was a career that existed. That’s when I started training vocally and nothing else mattered from that point on, which is part of the reason why the other academic stuff didn’t seem important to me.

Why have I stuck with it? I don’t know. I feel like if you can make a living doing the thing that thrills you, you’re a very lucky person. I had a blessed career, I had successes and breaks that went my way. I certainly worked really hard as well, but I think everyone is dependent on a lot of luck in this industry. I had that up until a point. If I hadn’t started VHO six years ago, I may have left the industry because structurally, it’s a very hard place to work. It’s competitive. It doesn’t leave a lot of time for personal relationships, or a home life, or any of that nice stuff. The fact that now I get to create, direct, write, and still perform, but perform in projects that really do it for me, has kept me in the industry.

What is something you're looking forward to?

On March 12, we're hosting a Facebook Live discussion about our film UNSUNG. Two cast members, Victor Ryan Robertson and Carlton Ford, will join me and the three of us will be interviewed by Tracy Cox, who is an Instagram sensation and also a world-class soprano. We’ll talk about the film, but also the state of opera in general. We’ll talk about the experiences that we all have as opera singers and how our lives before Covid were already financially insecure. It’s always been hard as an artist going gig to gig. As a singer, if you get sick, you don’t get paid. It’s all pretty tenuous. We’ll also talk about being in a film: that experience is definitely a new one for the whole cast. I’ve never directed a film before, so I’m sure Tracy will ask about my process for gathering the footage from people remotely, weaving it together, and trying to tell these stories in a really honest way.

Ready for more?

We'll be highlighting a new C-villian in every edition of our Com Com Newsletter!


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