NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Opera is as much a part of New Orleans’ African-American heritage as jazz, said Givonna Joseph, whose troupe is bringing opera to the Kids Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for the fourth year in a row.
The troupe was among more than 60 acts on 10 stages Sunday, April 26, at the infield of the Fair Grounds Race Track. Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band were closing the first weekend at one end of the infield while crooner Tony Bennett, 88, and Lady Gaga, 29, closed at the other.
The festival, which drew 435,000 fans last year, continues Thursday through Sunday.
Joseph and her daughter, Aria Mason, formed OperaCreole in 2011, after the New Orleans Opera’s 2010 production of “Porgy and Bess” brought together many of the city’s African-American opera singers.
“We’re such an oddity that you have to come to the big house to find out we’re there,” she said. “I wanted to highlight work that isn’t done on the big stage — work that’s lost, or not well-known.”
In the 1800s, she said, “Opera in New Orleans was just like pop music. It was everywhere. You could walk down the street and hear the vendors doing operatic arias.”
This year’s Kids Tent show featured William Grant Still, who was born in Mississippi in 1895, grew up in Little Rock, Arkansas, and lived until 1978. Joseph created a story about him, featuring songs from several of his operas “about being a child or being inspired or about things you shouldn’t do.”
Jazz itself has some operatic roots, Joseph noted.
She said Jelly Roll Morton, one of the fathers of jazz, learned classical piano and notation, and “liked to create jazz using classical music, like Chopin.”
She said Louis Armstrong was “a big opera fan” and loved coloratura singing, known for elaborate runs and trills. She said his scat — vocal improvisation with nonsense syllables — came from his love of coloratura as well as from his trumpet playing.
“When I found he was a fan of coloratura singing, I could hear the similarities,” she said.
On Sunday, fans jockeyed on the infield of the track to find their favorite groups.
“I’ve got to see Tony Bennett. Gaga? She’s with him,” exclaimed Nikki Michel, 37, of New Orleans.
Across the way, Jennifer Chamberlain, 34, of New Orleans, and her husband, Paul, were singing along to Buffet. “My husband’s been listening to him since he was 4,” said Chamberlain. “He was the only one I wanted to come see this year. This is our third time seeing him.”
And Pitbull, the Miami rapper less well-known as Armando Christian Perez, performed at about the same time Sunday, midway on the infield between Buffett and the Gaga-Bennett duo.
On other stages were the Cajun band Beausoleil, celebrating its 40th anniversary; jazz trio BWB; Texas roots-rocker Delbert McClinton; clarinetist Michael White and pianist David Boeddinghaus, performing a tribute to Morton.
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