Composer William Grant Still didn't spend much time in New Orleans, but he seems to have understood how much locals care about food. In an early scene in his opera Minette Fontaine, about a French opera diva visiting the city in 1845, a host of characters sing the glories of produce in the French Market.
"Bananas, the best you can buy," comes a confident deep baritone.
"I can't buy yams in my house, I'm the only one who eats them," comes a lilting lament. "It's rice, always rice."
But when Marie Laveau enters the market and buys bananas, everyone decides they will buy bananas as well. Everyone except Minette Fontaine, the singer visiting from France. She buys yams, but not without noting they're not the best she's ever seen.
Yam choices aside, she isn't accepted by Creole society, in spite of her lovely voice. But having learned about the powers of Laveau, Minette thinks she has a local solution to win the affections of a man engaged to a society woman's daughter — and to get back at everyone else.
Still wrote the opera in 1958, but it wasn't performed until 1984 in Baton Rouge. OperaCreole's production at the Marigny Opera House is its New Orleans premiere, and it's the first full production for the African-American company.
"The piece had very few black characters," says OperaCreole founder Givonna Joseph, who plays Laveau. "Still designates people by color — mulattos, negros. We're doing it in a different way. We're looking at it as about free people of color in early New Orleans — people who were musicians in the opera houses and composers and were in the salons, part of polite society."
Still was the first black man to conduct a major American symphony orchestra, and in 1956, he became the first to lead one in the South — with the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra. He was a prolific composer and wrote nine operas. Joseph formed OperaCreole four years ago to present works by artists like Still and less well-known African-American composers.
"For us it's personal, it's our personal ancestry," says Joseph's daughter and company member Aria Mason, who plays Madame de Noyan. "There is a misconception out there that there are not classical composers of color or classical musicians of color. If you see them, it's just in Porgy and Bess. This is our culture too. We've been developing it for 500 years."
In fact, many of OperaCreole's members met during a New Orleans Opera Association production of Porgy and Bess, in which Mason played Annie. With more than 75 performers including the chorus, there were many black singers, and many had studied classical singing at area universities, such as Xavier University's opera workshop.
In its first several years, OperaCreole has performed opera scenes and sung classical music at events around New Orleans. This is its first full production, and Joseph wants the company to present a full opera every year.
Joseph always has loved opera.
"It's fun," she says. "Opera has to have some bad decisions and love interests and things gone wrong. The first time my dad saw me play Carmen, he said, 'I think you enjoyed that too much.'"