The New Orleans Opera has had the privilege of performing with some of the most talented and accomplished opera singers in the world, including a number of black opera singers. In conjunction with Black History Month, following are a few of the illustrious singers of color who have performed with the NOOA.
Native New Orleanian Shirley Verrett (pictured here in a 1983 NOOA performance of Tosca) filled in as Carmen for the NOOA in 1980, making her the first black singer to perform the role with NOOA. She had previously been the first black singer to perform the role at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
Bass-baritone Alfred Walker has become an international superstar since he graduated from Loyola’s master’s program in 1996. Walker won the Regional Metropolitan Opera Council Audition and made his Metropolitan Opera debut as Grégorio in Roméo et Juliette in 1998. He has performed with NOOA in Macbeth and Elektra (1994); Madama Butterfly (1995); Andrea Chénier (1996); Rigoletto (1997); and La Bohème (2014). He is pictured above in Loyola’s 1996 performance of Die Fledermaus.
Another Loyola alum, Giovanna Joseph, has performed supporting roles in Salome and Porgy and Bess with NOOA. In 2011, Joseph founded Opera Creole, a nonprofit company dedicated to discovering and performing music written by nineteenth century New Orleans Creole men and women of color. She is pictured above (left) with her daughter Aria Mason (right) and singer Hope Briggs (middle) in NOOA’s 2010 Porgy and Bess; this performance marks the first time a mother and daughter both had singing roles in the same NOOA production (image courtesy of Givonna Joseph).
Mezzo-soprano Débria Brown was another trailblazing New Orleans native who battled prejudice to become an international opera star. Brown graduated from Xavier University and began her professional career with the New York City Opera opposite Loyola alum and fellow New Orleanian Norman Treigle. She later achieved success singing in Germany and Vienna before becoming a professor of voice at the University of Houston Moores School of Music. Brown performed with NOOA in Un Ballo in Maschera (pictured above in 1981) and Eugene Onegin (1995).
Opera soprano Marquita Lister performed two of her signature roles in Porgy and Bess and Salome with NOOA in 2002. Lister has also served as the national spokesperson for the Negro “Spiritual” Scholarship Foundation.
A large portion of the New Orleans Opera Association Archives are Artists’ Files. These include head shots, press kits, and correspondence, in many cases sent by artist management companies, for artists who performed with NOOA as well as many who didn’t. These files contain beautiful graphic materials for some of the most famous opera singers of the 20th century, including many of the world’s leading black singers.
Donnie Ray Albert
Many if not all of these singers faced intense racial prejudice in establishing the rights of black singers to perform with regional, national, and international opera companies. Alison Kinney’s “As the Met Abandons Blackface, a Look at the Legacy of African Americans in Opera” details struggles faced by black American opera singers as well as the use of white singers to portray black characters, as does Naomi Adele André’s Blackness in Opera (available for checkout from the Monroe Library).
The materials pictured above, and many more like them, are available for research in the New Orleans Opera Association Archives at Special Collections & Archives‘ Booth-Bricker Reading Room Monday – Friday from 9am-4:30pm.