Opera in New Orleans has a long history, dating back to 1796. During the city’s earliest years, major opera patrons were the largely French-speaking, upper class gentry, including free people of color. Loosely categorized as Creoles, they soon began making their own contributions to the music and culture of New Orleans.
It is this legacy that Givonna Joseph had in mind when she founded Opera Creole in 2011. Joseph and nine other members of the troupe, which specialize in songs from the French language repertoire, will be performing in the Kids Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Sunday, May 4, at 3 p.m.
For their Jazz Fest performance, Joseph said, “We are creating a story based on a little girl’s favorite opera characters coming to life.” Some of those characters, she explained, will come from the operas “Hansel and Gretel,” “The Magic Flute,” “A Masked Ball” and others, as well as from “Carmen” and “Faust,” two of the most popular operas in the French repertoire.
“Then we’ll throw in a couple of things by Creole composers,” Joseph added. “But it’s going to be mostly a fun kind of children’s story. We try to do more things in English so the kids will understand.”
For Opera Creole this will be their third consecutive Jazz Fest appearance. In their first year, they backed up John Boutte on his rendering of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” The song, which Boutte had recorded with them earlier that year, was a big hit with the audience, Joseph recalled. “They were really moved and we were floored by their response,” she said.
In addition to Joseph, the other singers for the Jazz Fest performance will include her daughter, Aria Mason; Ariana Douglas, Vickie Thomas, Ebonee Davis, Crystal Morris and Valerie Jones Francis. The male singers will be Ivan Griffin and Prentiss Mouton.
Wilfred Delphin will accompany them on piano for the 45-minute set.
“I wanted people to know there were some great 19th century composers who were free people of color, and I wanted to have that music be more present in the cultural understanding of New Orleans,” Joseph said. “Many times we’d run into people and they’d say ‘I didn’t know we had African American opera singers in New Orleans.’ So, unless people come out to see the opera productions, they would have no idea how many of us actually exist.”
“I wanted to put a group of us together and perform in places where you would not be typically looking for opera singers. We would be more accessible and people would see that we’re there and maybe find some love for our music themselves.”
Among the 19th-century Creole composers the troupe performs is Edmond Dédé (1827-1903). Born and classically trained in New Orleans, Dédé emigrated to France where he became renowned as a composer, conductor and accomplished violinist.
Most of the singers in Opera Creole are professionals who sing in church choirs and choruses throughout the New Orleans area. Joseph and her daughter, Mason, sing in the New Orleans Opera Chorus, as do Opera Creole members Brandon Richardson and Vickie Thomas. Joseph also had supporting roles in two New Orleans Opera productions this season, “Noah’s Flood” and “La Boheme.” Several other troupe members hold down faculty positions in local universities’ music departments.
Joseph and Mason were also featured recently on a French TV show, “Le Grand Tour,” during which they were interviewed and filmed singing “Ave Maria” in Creole French.
Both performances will focus on the music of the Harlem Renaissance, as well as several Dédé compositions.