Take a Cab Ride with us! NolaVie gets up-close and personal with local notables in this new series of back-seat video interviews sponsored by TaxiCabApp. Ride along and eavesdrop as New Orleanians talk about the city they love and reveal its secrets. For our first set of Cab Rides, we rode shotgun with personalities drawn from the city’s music scene. Today, New Orleans mezzo-soprano Givonna Joseph, founder and director of Opera Creole, heads from Marigny Opera House, where her company often performs, to Xavier University, where they rehearse. The movie’s lovely audio of Belle Nuit from Tales of Hoffman is sung by Givonna and her daughter, Aria Mason.
Excerpts from our interview with Givonna Joseph:
You are not only a singer, but also a historian. What do you research?
Most of what I research for is information on music written by composers of color, 19th century New Orleans free people of color. Those operatic pieces that have been lost or just aren’t being performed on the main stage.
How do you feel when you unearth one of these pieces of history?
It’s exciting to me, because for some reason I’ve been feeling this push to do something to say more about our role in classical music and opera. … When I first started studying voice at Loyola, people would say, we don’t do that, why do you like that? Luckily, I was OK to just be weird. But years later I found out that this is 500 years of (our) history.
New Orleans free people of color are part of our opera tradition, right?
From 1797 to 1919, we had five opera houses. This was a hub, and a place you had to prove yourself, just like in New York. In those five opera houses, men of color were in the orchestras. They were trained violinists, often sent to Paris to train with leading musicians and composers of the time.
Tell us about Creole culture in contemporary New Orleans.
It’s very strong and very thriving. I’m on the board of the Louisiana Creole Research Association, and people are very interested in their Creole heritage. Although we’re spread around the city, the 7th Ward used to be the place (for Creole culture). A lot of people talk about the food – you know, that’s a big thing – but people are amazed to find out about their history in terms of entrepreneurs and all the wonderful things that Creoles were doing in 19th century New Orleans.
Where is the best Creole food in town?
If my mom were still living, I would say at her house. And that’s what everybody says, probably. At their mama’s house.
What is the quintessential Creole dish?
Gumbo is the thing that causes the most controversy. Everybody has an opinion about what should be in it and what color the roux should be. So it’s one of those things that makes or breaks your street cred.
And where do you go for your gumbo?
Dooky Chase, you can’t beat that. There’s a young couple that has a wonderful restaurant called Munch Factory in Gentilly. Their gumbo’s very good.
Can jazz pioneers like Jelly Roll Morton be considered classical musicians?
Jelly Roll Morton was trained as a classical musician. He went to a recital at the French Opera House and was so excited about it that he wanted to learn piano. He studied classical music, was trained in theory and notation and all of that. He eventually moved into the jazz area, but he was comfortable in both and often crossed the boundaries. One of his recordings in the Library of Congress shows the comparison between Chopin’s Funeral March and his Dead Man’s Blues. He bridged the gap between the two worlds with that.
What kind of music does Opera Creole perform?
We try to have fun, but we’re educating people. So of course we do Creole folk songs. We open our concerts with those and try to teach people a little bit of Creole. We do sing standard opera; we’re all trained opera singers. Most of us have sung solo roles (and sing with) the opera chorus for New Orleans Opera. Most of the music we do is classical operatic music. It just happens to have been written by people of color.
Did you grow up speaking French?
Ironically, my father spoke mostly Spanish. My grandfather spoke French, and Creole, mostly when he was angry. I got a little bit of Creole from my paternal grandmother.
How similar is Creole French to France French?
There are those of us who do love traditional French. I’m also on the board of Alliance Francaise. But the culture of the Creole language is as important, I think, because it’s something that we developed out of our multiculturalism, by people who were descended from French and Spanish and also descendants of Africans. That we created this I think is very important.
The classical operatic music is strictly French, but we do do the Creole patois in the folk songs.
Is Creole culture alive and well in New Orleans?
I think it is, and I think it’s about to enjoy a new resurgence. I think that we’ve come more into a fuller understanding of the contribution. There may have been a time when people were lost a little bit in the colorism of it, and I think we’re past that and it’s (now) about the history.
Is opera alive and well in New Orleans?
Our current company (New Orleans Opera) is about to be 75 years old. We are alive and well; we are major players in the country in terms of opera. There are so many people from New Orleans who are having wonderful international opera careers and diehard opera fans in the city. So we’re doing great. We managed to come back after Katrina and that in itself was a feat.
What’s your favorite operatic role?
I always love Carmen. Every mezzo loves Carmen. But I’m working on a new opera that Opera Creole will be presenting in the fall called Minette Fontaine, written by an African-American composer, William Grant Still. It’s set in the 1840s of New Orleans. This opera diva comes to New Orleans to sing and she falls in love with a young man she should not have fallen in love with. But because she’s a diva, she decides to go to Marie Laveau to get a potion to get this guy to fall in love. So I get to be Marie Laveau, which is fun and scary at the same time.
What New Orleans neighborhood would you like to see as it was 100 years ago?
I would say the French Quarter, because about the time of the Civil War people of color owned about $2.5 million worth of property within the French Quarter and the Marigny. And I would just love to go back and see what that was like. To see what people owned and the stores they had.
You’ve performed with Opera on Tap, which takes opera music to local bars. Where’s your favorite place to sing opera among the masses?
I’ve mostly done what is now the Four Point Sheraton. That place was the site of the French Opera House, the biggest opera house in the country.
Why did you start Opera Creole?
So many of us were doing wonderful things onstage with New Orleans Opera, but often people who would see us would say, I didn’t know that black people sing opera. I wanted to be in more intimate settings where people could see us and get to know us and to share this wonderful history.
What music did you listen to growing up?
Everything. Everything, everything. People laugh when I tell them all the things I listened to. In my house, there were classical singers on TV, there was Aretha Franklin on the stereo, and gospel music. Being Catholic, I grew up with the Latin mass and Gregorian changes and I love all of it. Essentially, I just like what is good. I like good country singers; I’ll listen to anything that’s good.
What’s on your playlist?
Pavarotti, Stevie Wonder, a mix of things. But those are the two I’d like to be stranded on the island with me.
How much of New Orleans comes through in your singing?
It comes out when I start to talk, is when it comes out. When I’m singing, I’m just an opera singer, but when I talk…. Someone once said, I wasn’t sure where you were from, and then you said, ‘Baby,’ and that was it. She’s from New Orleans.
Who is the Opera Creole audience in New Orleans?
We have a really wonderful cross-section of people who come. We pull from people who used to go opera when they were kids and just haven’t for awhile to people who are real aficianados and historians. I hope that we’re reaching people who may say that they don’t really like opera, but then leave saying that they’re going to take another look at it.
What makes New Orleans and its music unique?
The wonderful thing about New Orleans is that at a point in our history, if you came in from another country, the traditions of that country remained intact. We didn’t try to make people come in and be a monolith and be one thing — to speak one language, to play one kind of music. So in New Orleans, African rhythms from Africa remained intact. And the music of Haiti remained intact. So people were experiencing all these different kinds of things and going to the opera. At one point, even slaves who could hire themselves out on a Sunday if they had a skill to sell could not only make money to buy their freedom, but also would buy tickets to the opera. So this combo of what was happening in Congo Square and the music from Europe in the opera house, it all comes together, and you hear bits and pieces of it in everything. A lot of what we love at Mardi Gras time has the rhythm of Africa as the base of it, and of course the harmonies of Europe, and it all comes together. That’s what makes us such a wonderful city.
Cab Rides is made possible by the generous sponsorship of TaxiCabApp, a smartphone app that connects riders with nearby taxis. Video production is by Jason Rhein and Blake Bertuccelli, and the guy at the wheel is Ethiopian taxi master Ammanuel Haddis.