13 Jul 2016

A New Opera Company with a True Story of Forbidden Love

Victory Hall Opera is a new company making its debut in Charlottesville Virginia on August 14, 2016. Its first presentation will be Richard Strauss’s and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier.

Only after that deciding on it's opening opera, did company executives learn of a bittersweet relationship between the mother of Charlottesville citizen Mary (aka Marie-Therese von Degenfeld) Miller and the librettist. Mary grew up in Europe, but married an American diplomat and eventually moved to Yule Farm, just outside of Charlottesville.

Mary’s mother, German Countess Ottonie von Degenfeld, met the librettist at Neubeuern Castle in Southeast Bavaria in 1906. She must have impressed him deeply, because two years later he wrote, “Although I only met her one day in my life, my thoughts kept returning to her.” Ottonie was a widow, but Hofmannsthal was married so the countess kept the correspondence they exchanged a secret up until 1912. It was only after Ottonie’s death in 1970 that Mary found the letters, carefully bound in blue ribbon, among her mother’s papers. By that time von Hofmannsthal’s artistically important letters had already been published.

What the new discovery tells us is that Ottonie was the librettist’s muse during the time he was working on Der Rosenkavalier. Much of what he wrote about the Marschallin and Octavian may have been inspired by his dreams of the lovely countess. He definitely tried to relieve the pain she felt because of the loss of her husband. She was depressed and he tried hard to bring her out of it by his expressions of devotion to her and his recommendations of reading material. They did meet at other times, sometimes on trains, but those assignations had to be short and discreet.

Hofmannsthal tried hard to convince Ottonie to attend the world premiere of Der Rosenkavalier on January 26, 1911, in Dresden, but she did not appear. He left tickets for her at the box office many times after that and she finally did attend a performance, unescorted. He also saw that when she returned to her hotel room it was full of roses. Although the librettist’s shy muse would remain unknown for many years after Dresden, Der Rosenkavalier was soon on its way to becoming a valuable part of the operatic repertoire.

Victory Hall Opera offers a pioneering new model for an opera company. It places the creative reins in the hands of the one who knows opera best: the singer. By featuring a core ensemble of exceptional masters of their craft, this company endeavors to develop a new opera aesthetic resulting in performances that are personal, vital, and relevant to every member of the audience.

"Victory Halls" were community theaters built all over the world after WWI to encourage touring musicians to perform concerts in regional towns. Victory Hall Opera harkens back to this time and seeks, once again, to bring the best the opera world has to offer back home to Charlottesville, VA.

Co-founders of Victory Hall Opera are: Maggie Bell, Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Brenda Patterson. Charlottesville native Maggie Bell worked extensively in opera productions throughout the United States before becoming the dramaturg at Berlin’s Volksbühne. Internationally acclaimed Australian soprano Miriam Gordon-Stewart, who specializes in the music of Wagner and Strauss, gained recognition across four continents for her powerful voice and dramatic ability. Virginia-raised mezzo-soprano Brenda Patterson is noted for her roles in contemporary American opera. She spent several years at Hamburg State Opera before continuing at La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera.

About the premiere performances:

Victory Hall Opera presents a chamber version of Someone Younger (Der Rosenkavalier) on August 14, 17, and 20 at The V. Earl Dickinson Theater, Piedmont Virginia Community College, 501 College Drive, Charlottesville, VA. For more information, please visit www.victoryhallopera.org.

Maria Nockin


[1] The Poet and the Countess: Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Correspondence with the Countess Ottonie von Degenfeld. Edited by Marie-Therese Miller-Degenfeld. Camden House, 2000. Hugo von Hofmannsthal letters to Ottonie Gräfin von Degenfeld-Schonberg and Julie Freifrau von Wendelstadt, 1908-1918.

[2] Memoirs of Marie Therese Miller-Degenfeld, An International Life in the 20th Century. Marie-Therese Miller-Degenfeld. Trafford, 2006.