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FEATURE: From Northfield to Cultural Ambassador: Victoria Erickson, Soprano and DAAD Scholar

Minnesota singer and Opera Athena Creative Director Victoria Erickson in the 2024 premiere of the opera The Miller’s Daughter, for which she wrote the libretto.

The city of Northfield, Minnesota has long had an outsize influence on the larger world. In its early role as an agricultural hub, it exported flours and cereals across the world in the late 19th century, thanks to its famous (and still operating) Malt-O-Meal mill and its now-departed fellows. Today, it is known across the world as a musical and an educational hub, with an outsized influence on the world belying its population of 20,000. One of those modern-day exports is opera singer Victoria Erickson, now working to change the nature of opera in the United States, Germany, and beyond.

Northfield Roots

Like many raised in Northfield, Victoria grew up cold-tolerant and surrounded by music – so it wasn’t entirely a surprise that college took her to Concordia College in Moorhead, MN, which features 19 music ensembles. “At the time, I was interested in choral music,” Victoria said. “And wanted to pursue a degree in vocal music education. However, opera coach Stephen Sulich and my teacher Holly Janz fostered in me a passion for opera.”

One degree in voice later, the Twin Cities called Victoria’s name, and she was cast in the world premiere of Leanna Kirchoff’s opera The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret. The opera was produced by another recent arrival in the Twin Cities: Really Spicy Opera, which had just made the move from Massachusetts. This early foray in 2015 into contemporary new operas set her on a pathway to her latest roles: opera creator and cultural ambassador.

Soprano Victoria Erickson and pianist Friederike Sieber at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin in February 2024, where the pair gave a concert including music by Minnesota opera composers.

France 2020

Fast forward through the years: summer programs, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a master’s degree in voice at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro, and, of course, performing many shows. Then Victoria got a call from Really Spicy Opera’s artistic director, asking two important questions:

  • How did she feel about Marie Antoinette?
  • Would she fly to Paris for a performance?

…and so January 2020 found Victoria Erickson, operatic soprano, fleeing the Minnesotan winter to sing in Paris. The performance was part of an internationally curated host artistic and academic activities on the 250th anniversary of Marie Antoinette’s marriage, a watermark event on the path to the French Revolution. (As a princess of Austria, France’s traditional rival, Marie Antoinette’s marriage into the French royal family inspired whole new genres of tabloid journalism, editorialization, and simply fake news on a then-unprecedented scale.)

Belgian-French composer André Grétry (1741-1813) composed Émilie (1781), whose 2020 revival by Really Spicy Opera starred Northfield soprano Victoria Erickson in the title role.

As it happened, Marie Antoinette was not just a passionate consumer of opera and classical music, but also an avid amateur performer. She took music lessons with famous composers, organized a concert series, and even formed a troupe of friends to perform plays and operas at her private palace theatre at the Petit Trianon palace retreat. She paid for the composer André Grétry – then one of the most famous names in European music – to write an opera entitled Émilie, apparently for her troupe to perform, only to be confined to bed by a difficult pregnancy. The opera was performed at a patriotic extravaganza at the Paris Opera in 1781, and thereafter vanished into the archives.

Reviving an opera that hasn’t been performed in more than 200 years requires a certain skill set, with no prior recordings to fall back on. Slacking was not an option: Victoria was learning the title role of Émilie – the role believed to have been intended for Marie Antoinette – in a production promoted by the U.S. State Department as part of a Franco-American exchange. (The same production also reunited her onstage with Shelley Marie Mihm, one of her co-stars from The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret and now a dear friend.)

New Music Knocking

Two months after Émilie closed, the COVID-19 pandemic swept the world and brought live performance to a screeching halt. A year and a half and many vaccinations later, however, theatres and programs began to reopen. One of those programs – the Seagle Festival – came calling about a project they’d had in the works. And so Victoria headed off to the Adirondack Mountains, again to sing the title role in a premiere – this time, the world premiere of Harmony, a new opera by Robert Carl & Russell Banks.

Harmony inspired a flurry of media coverage in upstate New York: the opera traces the young composer Charles Ives’ courtship of his future wife, Harmony, during a memorable vacation in the Keane Valley region – the same area where the Seagle Festival took place. (Mark Twain, one of Harmony’s dear friends, also makes an appearance in the opera.) After the production closed, however, Victoria had the gigging musician’s eternal question before her: what next?

L-R: Megan Fleischmann, Robert Feng, Jake Goz, Emily Cottam, Victoria Erickson, and Tim Lupia in the August 2021 world premiere of Harmony at the Seagle Festival in Schroon Lake, NY.

Cultural Ambassador

Victoria wasn’t done with the cultural ambassador role, however. As the critically praised production of Harmony wrapped, Really Spicy Opera came calling again. The Fulbright Program – one of the most prestigious academic and cultural exchanges programs in the world – was sending the ensemble to Madagascar to showcase America – and Minnesota in particular – ‘s contributions to opera. Was she willing to showcase Minnesotan-isms on the opposite side of the world?

Madagascar was one of the last countries in the world to reopen its borders after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and so there was a considerable swing factor in when, exactly, the tour would take place. Come June 2022, however, the cast members were boarding a plane and on their way.

“Victoria has become a cultural ambassador,” said soprano Shelley Marie Mihm, who joined the same tour. “Blending her love for American opera and art song with the unique melodies of the places she visits.”

And visit they did, performing in schools, houses, and concert halls, with Really Spicy Opera’s final concert with the local ensemble iCanto broadcast on Malagasy national television and featuring works by Minnesotan writers.

Singers Shelley Marie Mihm and Victoria Erickson, performing at a house concert in Madagascar in 2022, as part of a State Department-backed tour promoting American culture overseas.

Singer-Librettist-Arts Leader

One night in Antananarivo, Madagascar, the conversation over dinner turned to some age-old questions:  Who makes art and why? Whose story gets left out of the narrative?

“If I were commissioning an opera,” Victoria said, “I would want it to mix old and new, taking something familiar and retelling the story from a perspective they didn’t even know was missing. If someone let me write an opera, I would take Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin and retell it from the perspective of the miller’s daughter.”

Tenor Mario Arévalo (the Goodwill Ambassador for Culture and Fine Arts for The United Nations Association of El Salvador) and soprano Victoria Erickson in the Iowa State University premiere of The Miller’s Daughter in April 2024.

Die schöne Müllerin, an 1823 song cycle by Franz Schubert, is a setting of poems by the German lyric poet Wilhelm Müller. It is broadly considered to be one of the most beautiful and influential works of classical music ever written – and, conspicuously, tells a story of unrequited love entirely from the perspective of the male protagonist. His unseen love, the daughter of the local miller, is never seen – only heard through an indirect quotation. Through the lens of German Romanticism, the romance is sweet and heart-rending; through a modern lens, however, it has shades of incel culture.

That dualistic interpretation would eventually become the seed for the opera The Miller’s Daughter, which premiered at Iowa State University in February 2024. Composer Jodi Goble wrote the score, which meshes Schubert’s thrilling music with neatly intertwined new melodies and pulsing harmony. The libretto, also flitting between Müller’s text and a new narrative retelling the story from the perspective of (you guessed it) the Miller’s Daughter, was written by Victoria Erickson.

It’s one thing to have an artistic idea, and another to bring it to life. And so Goble and Erickson founded Opera Athena, an arts organization dedicated to re-invigorating opera through new works that revisit classical music’s heritage in new ways. From its Eden Prairie, MN-based home, the company organized artistic exchanges in Germany and Austria in 2023 and 2024, fueled by Erickson’s DAAD-Stiftung award. Working in conjunction with Minneapolis-based Really Spicy Opera, the Hochschule für Musik und Theater Hamburg, and the Hochschule für Musik und Theater München, Opera Athena workshopped The Miller’s Daughter and brought together American writers and German composers. Six months later, a whole new series of connections – and collaborations – had sprung up with the countries from whom much of Minnesota’s late 19th- and early 20th-century immigration stemmed.

Peru and Beyond

When the Arts Reader caught up with Victoria Erickson for this article, she was in Cusco, Peru, working on the latest cross-border collaboration.

“As a singer, you need to always be auditioning,” she said. “Creating my own projects allows me to take my creative and artistic ideas into my own hands, rather than following the predetermined desires of conductors and directors. I like many standard operas, but creating new works allows artists to tell the stories of the living. It’s a lot of fun to work with creators who are alive, and to deepen an art form that is often stereotyped as old and stuffy.”

John Anderson