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?