A New Orleans Company Shines A Light On Opera's Diverse History : Deceptive Cadence Givonna Joseph, founder of OperaCréole, explains why it's so important to perform the works of composers of color, which she says were historically "hidden on purpose."
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A New Orleans Company Shines A Light On Opera's Diverse History

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A New Orleans Company Shines A Light On Opera's Diverse History

A New Orleans Company Shines A Light On Opera's Diverse History

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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

For many people, New Orleans is all about jazz, but there is also a deep history of opera in the city. And OperaCreole, an opera company founded in New Orleans, is resurrecting classical and opera music written by composers of color left out of the overwhelmingly male, white canon. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FLAMENCA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #1: (Singing in foreign language).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (Singing in foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is from their latest production of "La Flamenca" by Creole composer Lucien-Leon Lambert. We're joined now by OperaCreole's founder and mezzo-soprano, Givonna Joeseph, from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Thanks so much for being with us.

GIVONNA JOSEPH: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell us about this composer, Lucien-Leon Lambert.

JOSEPH: He was born in Paris. His father was a 19th-century New Orleans free composer of color. His father, Charles, performed and wrote music here as well as South America and landed in Paris where he married a Parisian. And Lucien was born there. So Lucien had the pleasure of studying with one of the great French composers, Jules Massenet. And in 1903, Massenet opened the French opera season in Paris with a production of "Herodiade." And 10 days later, his student debuted his opera, "La Flamenca." And it has been essentially not performed anywhere since 1903 that I have been able to find in print and certainly not in America. And we were lucky enough to bring it home.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "La Flamenca" is set in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. There's a unique heroine faced with a very dramatic dilemma, a conflict between desire and country. Let's take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FLAMENCA")

KENYA LAWRENCE JACKSON: (Singing in foreign language).

TYRONE CHAMBERS: (Singing in foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what's happening here? Talk us through it.

JOSEPH: This is a scene that they are talking about the conflict between the love for each other and her determination to fight for the independence of Cuba. She says, I am a Creole, and you are a Spanish officer, and we should be enemies. And of course, they find great love with each other, and so she has to try to negotiate the independence of her country, continuing to be politically involved in that and this love relationship.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you hear in this music, for our audience who may have not either heard the opera or seen it performed, evidence of his Creole upbringing, evidence of his own heritage in this work?

JOSEPH: Well, the Creole heritage in 19th-century New Orleans was very much a French heritage. They all spoke French. His father would have spoken French. And so it's natural that he would have written it in French. And New Orleans is the first city of opera. We hear about the birth of jazz, but the first opera performed in America was performed here in 1796. Exactly last weekend would have been the anniversary of that. And from that point on until about 1919, we had about five opera houses. In those opera houses, free men of color were in the orchestras. You hear some of the infusion of the flamenco style of music that is also part of New Orleans heritage.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FLAMENCA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS #2: (Vocalizing).

JOSEPH: We were such a great city where all people can come from their native land and bring their culture with them and their culture would survive. So you hear some of that in the music that he infuses with French grand opera.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You've said that works by composers of color are hidden on purpose. What did you mean by that, and why is it important to bring works like this to audiences now?

JOSEPH: Well, the opera audience is a very diverse audience. When I said it was hidden on purpose, historically is what I mean, not currently. We have evidence of composers all the way back to Mozart's time - le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, that upon his death someone did burn some of his music. Luckily, some things did survive, and we finally found them. And people around the country are enjoying that music. But historically, it's been an issue, keeping that part of who we are suppressed. And unfortunately, for people like me, I had to grow up with people saying, well, black people don't really do that. And luckily, I didn't discourage myself, and I did not know the wealth of information that was just not there for most of us to find. And so we didn't really know what our heritage was in terms of opera in hundreds of years' worth of classical music.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Is that what you're hoping people will come away with, a newfound appreciation not only for opera but also for the contributions of people of color?

JOSEPH: Absolutely, absolutely. Opera is just the thing that I love, and I want everybody to love it. There's such fun and such drama in it. And so that's really great. But I think we need to have a better understanding of who we are as a country and how everyone has contributed to its greatness in so many ways that we don't know about. I especially hope that a 15-year-old doesn't have to hear the same thing of we don't do that, that we're not putting ourselves in boxes where we don't belong because we have done many, many amazing things. I'm hoping to spread the joy (laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Givonna Joseph, founder of OperaCreole in New Orleans, thanks so much for being with us.

JOSEPH: Thank you, appreciate it.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "LA FLAMENCA")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (Singing in foreign language).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our theme music was written by BJ Leiderman. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Thanks for listening. I'm Lulu Garcia-Navarro.

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