Five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Opera thrives
“The arts tend to follow the fortunes of any city,” says Robert Lyall, New Orleans Opera’s general and artistic director, of his company’s storied history. “So at the height of its 19th century and even the first part of the 20th century, opera in New Orleans was a dominant force.” Through the shifts in popular culture and the economy, to say nothing of devastating changes brought on five years ago by Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Opera is on a consistent upswing. Surviving – and even thriving – in uncertain times for the arts and what remain uncertain times for the Crescent City, NOO’s grit-and-guts endurance is commensurate with the character of its home town.
Though certainly not in the forefront of local politicans’ and city planners’ thoughts in the days following August 29, 2005, the first city of opera’s importance was not lost in the shuffle of the aftermath. The city saw opera before New York, Chicago or Houston. At one point in history, it was an American version of Venice with a number of theatres in the French Quarter; at times one opera was played in four sold-out houses by competing companies. The company launched a thousand careers, offering first glimpses of some of opera’s biggest names from Birgit Nilsson and Katia Ricciarelli to Richard Tucker and local bass-baritone Norman Treigle. Many operas were seen for the first time in America, and – in cases such as Carlisle Floyd’s Markheim and Thea Musgrave’s Pontalba – the first time in the world at NOO. The company counts in its repertoire works like Verdi’s Attila, an opera that just this year is receiving its premiere with the Metropolitan Opera.
“I contend that the reason opera always played such an important part in New Orleans’ culture is because the style of opera is the same as the style of Mardi Gras,” Lyall recently explained. “It was such a cross-cultural collision.” The intrepid director maintained, along with several other local arts organisation leaders, a spot at the table as reconstruction was discussed. “For three years, nothing happened. Except that people sat back and watched development firms come into the city and try to get the attention of City Hall.” The city’s reliance on conventions and tourism as its main sources of income proved to be an object lesson in diversification as local industry became tenuous and money scarce.
Fortunately the company was not completely destroyed in the wake of the storm. Its home base in the Mahalia Jackson Theatre was rendered unusable (the theatre was in the middle of an electrical overhaul when Katrina hit and initial estimates for repair were in the ballpark of $3 million). By default, the fall season was cancelled, though to Lyall, this setback was probably for the best: the company’s offerings were set to be Verdi’s Otello (which opens with a tempest) and Janácek’s Jenufa (which features a drowned infant as a main plot-point). “You don’t do an opera about drowning a baby right after a hurricane…Is there a drowned baby in The Barber of Seville? No? Great.”
Also fortuitous were Lyall’s connections and the tenacity of his staff. Jumping into action while FEMA and embattled mayor Ray Nagin remained stagnant, Lyall called in a series of favours to get the company afloat in the fractured city. Artists such as Elizabeth Futral, Frederica von Stade and Plácido Domingo were immediately on board with tentative plans for a concert. With the Jackson out of commission, Lyall turned to a colleague at SMG, the management group that worked with both local performing arts centres and larger venues such as the Superdome and New Orleans Arena.