Thirteen years before George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway (in 1935), his one-act jazz opera Blue Monday (Opera a la Afro-American) opened and promptly closed. It calls for an all African-American cast (the debut featured white actors in blackface), and it's a remarkable if forgotten work.
9th Ward Opera Company founder and director Kathleen Westfall says it's just right for her young company, and it's part of a double bill opening at the Marigny Opera House Thursday.
"Blue Monday is just so different, and nobody has done it," Westfall says. "It's funny because the composer is so well-known. You think Gershwin, you think An American in Paris, Rhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess. No one knows that he wrote this one-act opera 13 years before Porgy and Bess. It's the very first piece of symphonic jazz ever composed."
Blue Monday is set in a Jazz Age Harlem bar where pianists entertain and patrons gamble in the back room. Vi is in love with Joe, a chronic gambler, and the piano player Tom tries to woo her away from him by planting suspicions about other women.
"One of the very first lines is, 'Like the white man's opera, the theme will be love, hate, jealousy," Westfall says. "It's right in your face."
The work suits the 9th Ward Opera's goals of exposing audiences to short, entertaining operatic works and providing young singers the chance to perform. She chooses works in which many characters have solos.
Westfall teaches at the University of New Orleans (UNO), where she was first exposed to opera as a freshman in a music history class. She created the 9th Ward Opera last summer to present two one-act operas, Cox and Box and Trial By Jury. The show was scheduled to run at Marigny Opera House, but its lack of appropriate permits (since remedied) resulted in the program being moved to the AllWays Lounge and Theatre. The run was well-received, and Westfall committed to doing a 2013 performance of An Embarrassing Position, a one-act opera by Xavier University professor Dan Shore, who also created the new opera Freedom Ride. Westfall received a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation grant specifically to do Shore's work, and it's the second part of the double bill.
Marigny Opera House founder Dave Hurlbert encouraged her to schedule performances throughout the year. He provided the company some financial support for the first show, and together, they presented The Liebeslieder Project in December 2012 and a pair of one-act operas in April.
Marigny Opera House has become a home for opera, dance, New Orleans Fringe Festival shows, puppetry and more. The new opera company New Fangled Opera presented a series of new operatic works at UNO in June. It will present a series of one-acts at Marigny Opera House in June 2014. Part of its mission is to present works by contemporary composers. More than 100 projects were submitted for inclusion in the program, and productions included singers from Philadelphia and Kansas. The scarcity of roles for young opera singers compels many to invest in travelling to get exposure, New Fangled Opera cofounder Chris D. Burton says.
Hurlbert has provided support and art grants via the Marigny Opera House foundation, and he's continued to renovate and improve the space. He recently added heavy pleated curtains to the backstage and wings, which improved the converted church's acoustics.
While Marigny Opera House is a large space, the 9th Ward Opera's shows are designed to avoid the costs of productions like those presented by the New Orleans Opera Association (NOOA) at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. Westfall uses piano accompaniment instead of a full orchestra, and costume and prop expenses are modest. But the smaller companies don't see their productions as an alternative to full-scale productions, but rather a bridge to them.
Givonna Joseph has performed in NOOA productions, including several shows last year, and she will appear in two in the upcoming season. She created Opera Creole in 2011 for two reasons: to expose more New Orleanians to opera and to educate audiences about African-Americans in classical music.
"This music is all of our music, it's not just music that was written by dead Italian men," Joseph says with a laugh. "It's not always for people with white hair. This is our music and we have all participated in it. I have done presentations at schools where I show that we have 500 years of documented history of people of color, of African descent, being involved in classical music and opera. That wasn't a thing I heard as a kid. I just accepted the fact that I was weird. I think it puts a very positive mark on a person's soul to know that this is part of their history."
Opera Creole performs work by everyone from 19th century New Orleans composer Edmond Dede to ragtime composer Scott Joplin. The company hasn't done a full opera production, but Joseph's approach is to seek audiences in unconventional spaces and expose them to opera. The company recently performed at the Musicians Village, at Cafe Istanbul on John Calhoun's late-night talk show takeoff The Goodnight Show, and in April at French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. By finding new stages for opera singers, she's helping restore classical music to the city's diverse array of musical offerings.