For the Love of Opera: The Story behind OperaCreole

August, 2016
Left to right: Prentiss Mouton (resident tenor), Aria Mason (mezzo- soprano and Co-Founder), Givonna Joseph (Founder and mezzo-soprano), Ebony Davies (Principal Soprano), Brandon Richardson (resident baritone), Dr. Wilfred Delphin (founding and principal pianist)

Since the advent of the colonization of Louisiana by France, people of color were always involved with the city of New Orleans' musical scene. In the 19th century, Creoles of New Orleans (descendants’ of African, Spanish and French ancestry) made extraordinary contributions to the culture and music of the city. Founder and Director of OperaCreole, Givonna Joseph, believes that because Creole’s participated in Opera and other musical offerings coming from Africa, Haiti and Spain at that time, it gave rise to the birth of Jazz. This non-profit organization wants to spread the gospel of Opera in the city of New Orleans and around the world.

OperaCreole is a non-profit organization that performs lost or rarely performed musicals by mostly composers of color. They research and find these amazing musical compositions that are complex and simply amazing.  The concept for OperaCreole came about when Mrs. Joseph’s daughter (and right hand) Aria Mason, urged and inspired her to move forward with her concept.  She goes to say,” I wanted people to see that African American opera are not a rarity, but a vibrant force in the opera/classical music world. I also wanted to present our history in a fun way, and bring people together in more intimate settings. If they did not come out to New Orleans Opera Association productions, they may not see us. So I wanted to go where the people are.”

With this vision in mind, Mrs. Joseph gathered professional singers, educators, artist and international soloist with ties to New Orleans to help her spread the gospel of Opera.  On May 22nd 2011, OperaCreole performed their inaugural concert.

We sat down with Mrs. Joseph and asked a few questions about Opera, herself and the organization.

Q. Why do you think that Opera (in New Orleans) takes a backseat to Jazz in its importance?

I don't think it takes a back seat in the hearts of a great New Orleans fan base, but it sometimes just does not get the press coverage that in should.

New Orleans is the First City of Opera in North America, and the opera community is very strong and vibrant. An article like this helps us to get our history out of the shadows though.

Our history of free men of color being in the orchestras in all of the 5 opera houses we had in the the 1800's, and composing and publishing their own classical and operatic music, got lost after the Civil War when Jim Crow laws closed the French opera house to us.  The music of composers such as Dédé, Lambert, Snaer, and Bares, had mostly been sitting on shelves until about 20 years ago. So people just did not know about it.

Jazz rightly has captured the world's attention. There is nothing like it! OperaCréole often includes Jazz history in our concerts because it was born out of the classical music experience combined with the music and Africa and​​ the Caribbean.  Jelly Roll Morton was trained as a classical pianist, and Louis Armstrong loved it. We try to bring the two worlds back together.

Q. Who or What inspired you to become an Opera Singer?

I always loved music, and I heard it at home, along with all kinds of music. I tried to sing all of it, but it was my first voice teacher, Charles Paddock, who made me totally fall in love with opera.​

Before and during my time at Loyola, he practically went into my soul and pulled my voice out!! (Laughing) I will never forget him.​

Q. What venue anywhere in the world would you most like to perform at?

Opera Garnier in Paris. That would be a full circle experience, taking us back to the time of Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de Saint Georges (1745-1799), the Afro-French opera composer​ who was Mozart's contemporary, Marie Antoinette's Music Director, and King Louis' best Fencer. He is our first documented composer. That would be the greatest!!

Q. What is the “one thing” that you would like for people to take away from an OperaCreole’ performance?

Pride in our collective history, pride in knowing that opera IS for ALL of us.  

OperaCreole's dedication has paid off and with the success of their Kickstarter, the group will be performing the opera “La Flamenca” by the French composer Lucien Lambert (whose family roots trace back to New Orleans via his father composer Charles Lucien Lambert). This December, a historic performance will take place at the Marigny Opera House in New Orleans, LA.


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