FREDERICK -- A small city, Frederick has its share of big-city amenities -- a professional baseball team, cosmopolitan restaurants and a performing arts center.
But another attraction this city of about 40,000 people calls its own may be the most unusual: The Maryland Lyric Opera, a professional opera company.
Unlike the amateur groups usual in a community the size of Frederick, its opera company is a professional organization that pays its performers.
"It is very unusual to find a professional, paying company in a city this size," said Scott Miller, a Walkersville resident and former Maryland Lyric Opera performer. He has worked with a number of regional opera companies in California and the Southwestern United States.
The idea for a professional company here came five years ago when Heather Ross, a music teacher at Hood College, taught an opera workshop. "I was surprised by the number of professional singers from the Frederick area who came to the workshop," she said.
This discovery and the success of the workshop spurred Mrs. Ross on, and the idea for a Frederick opera company became reality. She obtained private donations and the support of Hood College, which allowed the use of its campus as a base of operations.
The company's first production in 1989 was a pair of one-act comic operas by U.S. composers -- "Captain Lovelock" by John Duke and "The Four Note Opera" by Tom Johnson.
"It drew about 200 people, which we considered a tremendous success for our first time out," Mrs. Ross said.
The next production -- Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" -- drew more than three times the company's first attendance, and the Maryland Lyric Opera was on its way. For three years it has run "in the black," Mrs. Ross said.
She is general director of the company, which also has an artistic director and a board of directors.
Singers and other musicians are hired for each performance.
Mrs. Ross said they work toward three main goals:
* "To employ musical artists from the greater Frederick area whenever possible."
* "To present the best quality opera we possibly can."
* "And to educate children and adults about opera through the schools and the community enriching their lives through the arts and opera."
One way the company accomplishes those goals is through opera productions for Frederick County schools. Last year, the company's production of "The Little Sweep" was attended by 3,000 third-graders at the Weinberg Center for the Arts here.
Jan Aaland is one of the professional singers -- 70 percent of them are local -- who has been with the company since its inception. A Frederick resident, she especially appreciates the idea of such an opera company in her town.
"I free-lance a lot and do a lot of driving to other states, like Virginia, Pennsylvania and Delaware, and I feel very lucky to be able to walk from my house to rehearsal," she said. "It has been a real blessing for me to have an opera company in my own hometown."
Ms. Aaland called the existence of professional opera in such a community "very unusual," adding that "we are lucky because there are some quality musicians and singers around here."
She is a soprano who will be singing the role of Miceala in the company's upcoming production of "The Tragedy of Carmen," a work arranged by Peter Brook, Marius Constant and Jean-Claude Carriere. Performances are scheduled the nights of Nov. 15 and 17 at Frederick Community College's Kussmaul Theatre.
The city's proximity to both Baltimore and Washington makes it an attractive place for people who want the benefits of "big city" culture while living in a "small town," and its artistic efforts make it particularly attractive to artists, said Carole Werking, executive director of the Frederick County Arts Council.
"We believe there is a lot of talent in Frederick County because of the growth here, and that talent pool keeps growing and growing," she said.
"That talent certainly has an audience for it in Frederick," she added.