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Opera Reigned Supreme

The fires tried first, then the flood.

But it’s impossible to take the music out of New Orleans. And we’re not just talking about the well-known jazz scene. We’re talking about the soaring sopranos and tenors, the butter-smooth baritones and bass that have been a part of New Orleans music culture for more than 200 years: We’re talking about opera.

Nicole Cabell in Romeo & Juliette, Fall 2009 (Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Opera Association)

George Washington was president when the first documented opera was staged at Theatre St. Pierre between Royal and Bourbon Streets. In the ensuing years, performances jostled around the Quarter as theaters opened, closed, and burned to the ground.

Talent and performances were going strong when the French Opera House opened at the corner of Bourbon and Toulouse with the ability to hold up to 2,600 people. Crews worked for seven months to build it, using the sun by day and bonfire light by night. The city reigned as “the opera capital of North America.”

A fire took down the House in 1919.

Inside the The French Opera House, or Théâtre de l’Opéra which stood between 1859-1919 (Photo courtesy of the New Orleans Opera Association)

Perhaps exhausted by the constant losses, local operas took a hiatus and touring opera troupes kept the music alive until the New Orleans Opera Association was formed in 1943. The 2017-2018 season is the 75th anniversary of their work (minus the suspended season that came as a result of Hurricane Katrina).

OperaCréole, founded in 2011 by mezzo-sopranos Giovanna Joseph and daughter, Aria Mason, research and perform the works of composers of African descent. The group’s 2017 Marigny Opera House performance of “La Flamenco,” an opera written by the son of a black Louisiana musician who emigrated to France, marked the first time the piece had been performed since it’s 1903 debut in Paris.

Maybe because of the fated history of opera buildings or maybe just because it’s New Orleans, opera performances aren’t simply confined to the city’s theaters. That corner of Bourbon and Toulouse where the French Opera House used to be? It’s now a Four Points by Sheraton where homage is paid to its history the second Wednesday of every month with free performances by Bon Operatit!, a group of classical singers, in the hotel’s Puccini Bar (Puccini is the Italian composer famous for operatic familiars like “La Boheme” and “Madame Butterfly”). Opera on Tap, an outreach of the New Orleans Opera Association, brings short performances to local bars on a weekly basis.

Bon Operatit! (Photo: Rebecca Todd)

Another program of the Association, Opéra Nouvelle, creates innovative opera experiences—like an upcoming performance in the Sculpture Garden at the New Orleans Museum of Art where sculptures will, quite literally, come to life. Or an immersive theater production at the Marigny Opera House where the audience will temporarily lose their sense of sight.

Whether you’re observing a “sculpture,” standing at a cocktail table, or sitting in an official theater seat, opera New Orleans style is its own sort of performance, one you can’t experience in quite the same way anywhere else.

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