“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.
It was the Arena that hosted the company’s comeback concert in March 2006, just days after the six-month anniversary of the storm. Far from being an intimate concert, the reopening turned into a week-long event, a classical music equivalent to Mardi Gras. In addition to the opera’s star-studded line-up, Itzhak Perlman joined the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra for their own performance. The gala benefit brought in nearly 9000 attendees, making it the single largest operatic event in the history of the Big Easy. If there was any doubt as to the cathartic power held by composers such as Donizetti, it was proven wrong that night.
“The arts have something that speaks to other people,” says Lyall. “People in other metro areas frankly don’t care if the fire station on the corner reopens… [At the gala], people wanted to be there and those artists were singing from their toes.”
While one concert does not a turnaround make, New Orleans Opera was bolstered by the gala’s success and used local support to drive the next two seasons until the Jackson reopened. Fast-rising soprano Lisette Oropesa, a native of New Orleans and Baton Rouge who grew up steeped in the operatic tradition, counts making her debut with the company in 2007 as Gilda in Rigoletto as one of her proudest moments.
“The rehearsal space was in a church that donated its space to us,” she recounted via telephone from Wales. “But what makes any opera company isn’t so much the facilities and how much money you have, or even the location. It’s the people…I remember driving from my little apartment to where we rehearsed and every day I remembered it’s such a beautiful city…It was such an intimate and lovely experience. I can’t wait to sing there again.”
Not unaffected by the recession, the company also worked its current champagne season out of a beer budget. Faced with the prospect of putting on three productions in lieu of the traditional four, the decision was made to include the Verdi Requiem as the fourth offering. The company also recently started the first local chapter of New York sensation Opera on Tap, a casual concert of arias and duets in local watering holes geared towards offering an inexpensive night of culture to younger generations of listeners. These have also increased from quarterly marketing-driven evenings of song to monthly events aimed at developing new audiences. “They have such an overall great vibrant musical culture. I think it fits perfectly there,” says OOT founder Anne Ricci.
Looking forwards, Lyall hopes to enhance the company’s repertoire in future seasons, offering a traditional mix of the Butterflies and Traviatas while further preserving the city’s history through locally significant works such as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (a favourite of past-NOO audiences) and Rameau’s Les Indes galantes (featuring an act set in the city). Fortifying the collection of arts organisations and other nonprofits, Lyall hopes to include the local historical society and other theatres in these ventures. He’s also looking to make a splash in the 2010‑11 season, featuring Porgy and Bess – originally conceived to be a co-production with new sister company Opéra National de Bordeaux (“We had a shotgun wedding during the storm,” Lyall laughs), a Les pêcheurs de perles starring Elizabeth Futral, The Magic Flute incorporating Chagall-like sets designed by a local artist and Il trovatore with an invitation out to Sondra Radvanovsky for the role of Leonora.
“I laud the people who are keeping the flame, as it were,” says legendary mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. “I always enjoyed coming to New Orleans to sing, though I never sang with the opera company. I did have the pleasure of attending some performances. My hat is off to the hardy souls that are doing all the work to keep this wonderful company going.”
This article appeared in an original form in some editions of Gramophone magazine