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A Life at the Opera 

Teaching and directing opera to students and the community has just come natural to David Morelock, winner of the Tribute to the Classical Arts' Lifetime Achievement.

The anonymity of coffee shops is a curious thing.

On a recent Sunday morning, a man sits at a window facing Prytania Street, engrossed in The New York Times crossword puzzle. His quiet demeanor hardly distinguishes him from the others shuffling about the coffee shop where he spends every weekend morning. However, his accomplishments do. With a career in directing and teaching opera now in its sixth decade -- which has taken him around the world but always back to New Orleans -- David Morelock's mastery in the art he cherishes is now recognized with this year's Lifetime Achievement Award at Tuesday's Tribute to Classical Arts.

In typical gracious fashion, Morelock denies that his success was either planned or predicted. "I just do what I do," says Morelock, who primarily works with the New Orleans Opera Association and the Loyola Opera Workshop. "It was not at all planned. I never dreamed I would end up doing this work all my life. It was a snail's pace; I never took a step big enough to make me stumble. I just sort of went with the flow."

Morelock's "flow" originally brought the 70-year-old Memphis native to New Orleans in 1956. Having previously studied in France on a Fulbright Scholarship, Morelock enrolled in graduate school for French at Tulane, where he also sang in the opera chorus. Upon graduating, he returned home to Memphis to teach high school French and began directing operas at Memphis State. "Memphis in those days imported some pretty well-known singers," Morelock says. "Then they started asking for me when they would stage those performances in other cities, so I began to develop a pretty nice repertory. It gave me some national work. Then I decided to come to New Orleans to get my foot in the door."

Morelock landed a job teaching French at Jesuit High School, but left after four years to explore a career in directing opera. Having produced operas in all the major regional opera companies in the United States and Canada, as well as stints in Mexico, Israel and the Netherlands, Morelock obviously made it. Yet, he has never lost his zest for educating, a role he has fulfilled for the past seven years at Loyola University. When he's not directing the Opera Workshop and mentoring one hand-picked opera student, he also teaches a French diction class for singers.

"It's wonderful to be able to pass on aspects of opera culture to the kids," Morelock says. "You tell them about how some of the greats have done it. You correct their foreign pronunciations. When you're working on a specific opera, you tell them about the history of the piece and the mannerisms of the time -- the way the people moved, dressed and thought. I feel fortunate to be able to do all of that."

And the Loyola College of Music feels equally fortunate to have Morelock. "David Morelock is a real New Orleans gem," says Dr. Edward Kvet, head of the school's music department. "We're lucky to have him in this city; we're lucky to have him at Loyola. The students jokingly call him the pied piper, because they hang on his every word, but he really is such a mentor with his wealth of knowledge and experience."

Kvet also credits Morelock with improving the level of productions staged at Loyola, both with his leadership and ability to lure top prospective students wanting to learn under him, and also with capital improvements to sets and costumes. Two of Morelock's Loyola works, Mozart's Don Giovanni and Donizetti's The Elixir of Love, were both nominated for Tribute to the Classical Arts awards in opera production.

"He's brought the professional caliber of the student performances quite a bit higher," Kvet says. "The students now play to packed houses because David has a following around town, and people walk away stunned with the opera's professional quality."

Regardless of Morelock's success and his looming retirement, directing remains his passion. "I enjoy directing more than anything," he says. "You have to know everybody's part. A conductor is responsible for everything you hear, and a stage director is responsible for everything you see -- the sets, the costumes, the movement, everything. I like that."

Morelock admits to having countless highlights here since staging his first opera for the New Orleans Opera in 1972. An opera spin on Macbeth stands out because he created -- not inherited -- the work. Morelock received a Tribute to the Classical Arts award for Best Opera Production in 1997 for Delibe's Lakme. However, he admits only one quality exists throughout all his productions, and it's that "I'm never totally pleased."

Yet, recognition with the Lifetime Achievement Award is a feat to which he sees no higher ground.

"I was just so thrilled, touched, honored and ... humbled," says Morelock, before returning to his Sunday morning ritual of coffee and crosswords. "It's just so wonderful it makes you wonder, 'Why me?' To have this come at the end and know people have recognized my work and deemed it worthwhile, it makes me very happy."

click to enlarge 'It's wonderful to be able to pass on aspects of opera culture to the kids,' says David Morelock, seen here with cast members from The Marriage of Figaro.
  • 'It's wonderful to be able to pass on aspects of opera culture to the kids,' says David Morelock, seen here with cast members from The Marriage of Figaro.
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