The ghostlike image of the little girl from New Orleans’ Magazine Street hovers in the background, but she’s not an apparition.
“That’s me,” Ninfa Gianfala says, pointing to the image. “I was the little girl from Magazine Street.”
Inside, she’s still that little girl, the one who loved to perform, the one who was teaching neighborhood kids to sing at age 9, the youngest person ever to become a member of the New Orleans Opera Chorus.
The one who has put together a retrospective CD chronicling her career in opera and concerts, titled — what else?— “The Little Girl from Magazine Street.” The CD comes in a two-disc set and is available on iTunes and at Amazon CDBaby.com.
The cover features a photograph of Gianfala from her performance days in the foreground, the ghostlike photo of her as a child in the background.
Now she sits at the dining room table in the Baton Rouge home she shares with husband, Daniel Caruso, to tell her story.
It was Caruso, along with the couple’s daughter, Lori, who encouraged Gianfala to compile the CD of the music that had taken her from the New Orleans Opera to New York for the Juilliard School for the Performing Arts, then Baton Rouge, where she earned her master’s degree at LSU and eventually opened the Mexican restaurant El Palacio with her husband.
Critic Rex Reed, an LSU alum, used to frequent the restaurant when visiting his ailing father. Gianfala never met him, but he knew about her musical background. And he remembered her upon receiving a copy of the CD, opening his review with, “Nina Gianfala may not be a household name, but that is just an accident of fate. She deserves to be widely known because her talents are varied and many.”
Reed points out that Gianfala is equally at home singing opera and Broadway show tunes. What he doesn’t discuss — and perhaps didn’t know when writing the review — is that she also is a composer, having written a Christmas opera titled “Malachi.”
And though her name may not have worldwide recognition, plenty of Baton Rouge residents will know it.
Gianfala teaches voice lessons, her students ranging from age 5 to 70-something. It’s a job she’s loved since her childhood at 3915 Magazine Street.
“I was 8 or 9, and I taught every kid in the neighborhood to sing and dance,” she says. “They even had certain lesson times during summer vacation. At the end of the summer, my mother and daddy would hang a big tarpaulin and used it as a curtain to make me a makeshift stage. I called it my revue, and my students performed all the songs and dances I taught them throughout the summer.”
Gianfala began singing at age 2, and by the time she was in second grade, she was singing all the pop songs of the day. She went to the movies to see all of the MGM musicals.
“That’s where I was introduced to opera,” Gianfala says.
Then came the piano. Gianfala was 7 years old when she saw it in a grocery store on Magazine Street. It was for sale, and she knew she had to have it.
“I went home and told my mother about it, and we went back, and she bought it,” Gianfala says.
Gianfala doesn’t remember how much the piano cost, but she does remember the day her mom called the New Orleans Opera Guild. Gianfala was 12.
“She said, ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with you,’” Gianfala says. “So she called the opera guild for an appointment.”
Gianfala knew she was too young to audition, but her mother was insistent. The guild scheduled an appointment, where Gianfala not only sang, but accompanied herself on one of opera’s most difficult arias, “Un Bel Di” from “Madam Butterfly.”
“After I finished singing, they got up from the table and came and hugged me, and I didn’t know what the fanfare was about,” Gianfala says. “Immediately, they began plans to sponsor me, giving me more advanced piano and voice lessons. What I didn’t know was that they were preparing me for Juilliard.”
When Gianfala was 13, the guild had her audition for the New Orleans Opera Chorus. She the youngest member in the chorus’ history.
There are so many other stories to tell, how she sang at Al Hirt’s lounge and with the Ronnie Kole Trio. And how she was commissioned by the Governor’s Committee to write, “Louisiana!,” commemorating the 175th year of Louisiana’s statehood. That song is on the CD.
“I met him after the ceremony,” she says. “He shook my hand, and I will never forget that.”
There are so many other unforgettable moments, maybe too many to mention. And to think, it all began on Magazine Street.