A City of Great Voices

New Orleans has been home to many stellar opera singers

Barbara Faulkner Bernard (1958), Lavergne Monette (’60), Shirley Verrett (’61), Natalia Rom (’79), Jeanne-Michelle Charbonnet (’90) and Elizabeth Futral (’91) – all of these opera singers have New Orleans ties, and all of them enhanced their singing career through the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, a program dating from ’54.

However, back in 1952, a New Orleans tenor named Caruso tied for first place in what was then called the Metropolitan Opera Auditions of the Air, which began in ’35.

Loyola graduate Charles Anthony Caruso took some advice from the Met’s general manager Rudolf Bing, and changed his name to Charles Anthony. In his 57-year-long career at the Met, Charles Anthony would sing 111 roles in 69 operas. He died in February 2012, as the Met singer with the longest career on stage.

Why does New Orleans produce so many opera singers?

“We have a 200-year tradition of opera in New Orleans and we have a tradition of great teachers,” suggests John Baron, Music Professor at Tulane University. The first opera known to be performed here was André Ernest Grétry’s Sylvain, in 1796. Gregorio Curto and Julia Calvé Boudousquie, both early singers at the French Opera, became music teachers, beginning a tradition of serious vocal instructors, Baron says.

“New Orleans has always been a city where vocal music was perhaps more important than instrumental music,” says opera aficionado Jack Belsom. And, beginning in the 1930s, Loyola University had begun to emphasize voice in their music department, Belsom points out, while Xavier University had an important opera workshop into the ’60s. Opera fan Keith Derbes added that Tulane also has training for singers, and Louisiana State University and the University of New Orleans have music departments, too.

Phillip Frohnmayer, Mary Freeman Wisdom Distinguished Professor of Music and Coordinator of Vocal Performance at Loyola, credits the lifestyle of New Orleanians with the production of opera singers. “New Orleans is an opera town. It’s not an odd thing to be an opera singer here. “

“It has a little to do with dressing up and Carnival, and masks, and it’s a little bit more laid-back way of life. It allows singers to give their bodies the kind of relaxation that good singing requires,” Frohnmayer adds.

“This is a city of performers,” Belsom explains.

Frohnmayer notes that “There is a tradition of people who have done it, so a generation can look back at the ones who came before.”

Loyola has regularly staged student opera productions since the 1980s. Even the New Orleans Recreation Department used to put on operas: future opera singer Jo Ann Yockey sang the title role in Madame Butterfly in ’67. Isidore Newman School had an annual Gilbert and Sullivan performance; the cast in Patience in 1960 included future opera singers Michael Devlin and Ruth Falcon. And, the New Orleans Opera Association has an annual season of performances.

Opera fans, such as Keith Derbes, enjoy watching young singers as well as polished performances. While she once chaired the regional auditions (including the one won by recent immigrant Natalia Rom, who arrived here from Russia with her extended family), Derbes admits that the performance of the singers on stage is only a part of the spectacle. “The judges come from music schools and opera companies across the country. Someone always gives a master class– singers have one-on-one exposure to a judge, for a little coaching and a little individual attention,” she says. And, she admits, even the local volunteers get involved. “We always enjoyed being able to help the singers go on to New York, if they needed clothes, or anything.”

As for the singers New Orleans can claim, everyone has a favorite. Jack Belsom says, “If I had to choose the two most important ones, I would say Norman Treigle and Shirley Verrett – although she grew up on the West Coast.” Treigle was a bass-baritone who spent most of his career at the New York City Opera, but also sang at the Metropolitan Opera. A New Orleans native, he was trained at Loyola and, even during his active career, spent much time in New Orleans, where he was often seen at the Fair Grounds. His daughter Phyllis Treigle was also an opera singer.

Shirley Verrett was a mezzo-soprano; she sang at the New York City Opera and also at the Metropolitan Opera, and had close family in New Orleans.

Belsom’s third important New Orleans singer would be “Sydney Raynor, a tenor in the 1930s and ’40s.”

Marguerite Piazza “sang at the Met, but she made her career with nightclub appearances,” Belsom says. Xavier-trained singers Debria Brown, Annabelle Bernard and Gail Gilmore all had success on stage. Loyola’s Harry Theyard sang at the Metropolitan Opera, as did soprano Angela Mannino, also trained at Loyola.

Sarah Jane McMahon, a one-time student of Frohnmayer, has an active career touring and has sung with the New York City Opera. She, Elizabeth Futral and Jeanne-Michelle Charbonnet all have appeared in New Orleans recently. Greer Grimsley, a bass baritone, has an international career and sings at the Met.

Wherever New Orleans singers go, they usually come home, as when many singers gathered at Loyola to honor Frohnmayer and his fellow teacher and wife, Ellen, in 2011. Perhaps the applause from your home audience is always the sweetest?

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Reader Comments:
Jun 6, 2012 01:07 pm
 Posted by  Brian Morgan

As his biographer ("Strange Child of Chaos: Norman Treigle," 2006), I can assure your readers that Treigle never sang at the Metropolitan Opera. In fact, not singing there was, in a sense, the crux of his career. I cannot imagine from where this error originated.

Jun 20, 2012 01:26 pm
 Posted by  Julie C.

Lovely article, Carolyn!

The NORD connection continues....the NORDC/Crescent City Lights Youth Theater performers are featured as the children's chorus with the New Orleans Opera Association since 1999. Mostly recently there were 15 children in the April production of I Pagliacci/ Carmina Burana, three of whom will be attending NOCCA to study voice in the fall.

The children from that first group in 1999 who sang in La Boheme are grown and college graduates. From that group, Donald Jones, Jr. has become a professional dancer now principal dancer with Donald Byrd's Spectrum Dance Theater in Seattle (See article from 6/18/12 http://bit.ly/M1PXoY) and Jody Hinkley, tenor, a recent graduate in vocal performance at Loyola University, is now headed to the Manhattan School of Music for his graduate degree in vocal performance. Both Angela Mannino and Sarah Jane McMahon appeared with NORD Theatre as teenagers.

Where does New Orleans talent get their start? Look no further than the NORD Theatre now operated by the Crescent City Lights Youth Theater in partnership with NORD Comission and see the young vocal talent of tomorrow today!

Jul 12, 2012 01:10 pm
 Posted by  Tulane1960

Nice article.

I attended Tulane in the 1950s, and remember hearing Shirley Verrett sing at the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in Dixon Hall. Although the other singers were all good, it was obvious that Ms. Verrett was the most talented....she won.

Let's not forget that although she wasn't born in New Orleans, the great opera diva Marjorie Lawrence taught voice at Newcomb in the 1950s, and New Orleans was her home for this period of her life. In 1955, she was made an "honorary citizen of New Orleans".

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