Danae Columbus: Opera in New Orleans still vibrant after 223 years

Print More

New Orleans Opera Association Director Robert Lyall, far right, works with the cast of Carmen at the Carrollton Avenue Methodist Church on Tuesday evening.  (Danae Columbus)

When the New Orleans Opera Association kicks off its 77th season Friday, Oct. 4 with Bizet’s Carmen, it will continue a tradition that has been flourishing for more than 200 years. Though many consider New Orleans the birthplace of jazz and Big Freedia’s twerk, New Orleans also stands out as the first city of opera in America.

“We take great pride as the first producers of opera in America,” said Robert Lyall who has been the director of the New Orleans Opera Association for 22 years. Opera began in New Orleans in 1796 as a direct cultural pipeline from Paris.

“Europeans of every stripe” began bringing their latest works to New Orleans, and New Orleanians of all stripes were an extremely receptive audience. Since the late 1700s, the city has been home to a regularly performing resident opera company as well as touring shows.

Many great opera houses were built in New Orleans including the Theatre de la Rue Saint Pierre, the Theatre St. Philippe, the Theatre d’Orleans and the French Opera House, which was located on Bourbon Street. “The French Opera House became the centerpiece of our city for well over half a century. Political life, social activities and Mardi Gras all took place there. It was truly a Creole culture,” said Lyall. The French Opera House burned down in 1919 and was replaced by “The Municipal” (Auditorium) in 1930 and in 1973 by the Theatre for the Performing Arts where the Opera still performs today.

Many internationally celebrated opera singers have performed in New Orleans including Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, Dame Joan Sutherland, Marguerite Piazza, Ezio Pinza, James McCracken and Beverly Sills.

Singers who will play leading roles this season include Jennifer Johnson Cano and Rafael Davila (“Carmen”); Hilary Ginther and Casey Candebat (“Joan of Arc: The Maid of Orleans”); Eric Ferring and Irini Kyriakidou (“The Magic Flute”); Sgt. 1st Class Teresa Alzadon, Sgt. 1st Class Elizabeth Garcia and Sgt. 1st Class Benjamin Hilgert (“The Falling and The Rising”); and Angela Brown and Joshua Stewart (“Charlie Parker’s Yardbird”). This year’s directors include Keturah Stickann, Jose Maria Condemi, Carroll Freeman, Jerre Dye and Fenlon Lamb. Carol Rausch serves as chorus master.

“In the development of New Orleans in the 18th and 19th century, the arts were right at the center of it and opera was at the center of the arts,” said Lyall. Though there have been many technological changes, the New Orleans Opera Association keeps the spirit of opera alive with a mixture of classic and new pieces.

“We try to strike a perfect balance. Opera is a living art form. There are many new works coming out featuring new composters and styles.” Lyall praised New Orleans jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who recently became the first black composer to have an opera presented at the New Orleans Metropolitan Opera as part of the wave future.

Tyrone Chambers performs at Opera on Tap on Wednesday, Sept. 25, at the Rusty Nail. (Danae Columbus)

In an effort to expand its audience base, the New Orleans Opera Association has created a series of “Intimate Opera Experiences” including orientation roundtables, Nuts & Bolts lectures, Opera Nouvelle, Student Night Out Dress Rehearsals, MetroPelican Opera, Opera Summer Camps, interactive programs for school-age children and Opera on Tap, where seasoned professionals perform a wide repertoire.

Last night’s free performance at the Rusty Nail drew a standing-room-only audience of enthusiastic fans of all ages. Opera on Tap is held twice monthly. “Opera offers something for everyone. New Orleans has a personality all its own. It’s been a pleasure to be a part of opera in this great city,” Lyall concluded.


With the property tax appeal hearings wrapping up, the next assault is the millage increase hearings which started yesterday with the Downtown Development District. What public agency that collects millage is going to say they won’t “roll the millage forward”? Which among them doesn’t want to increase their operating budget? In addition to the DDD those agencies include NOLA schools, the Sewerage & Water Board, Orleans Levee District and its Algiers sister agency, City Park, Audubon Commission, Orleans Parish Sheriff’s Office and of course the city of New Orleans.

The City Council will eventually figure out how to extract at least some property tax funds from non-profits. In the meantime, increased property taxes will surely continue to sting most homeowners.


Supporters of Civil District Court Judge Monique Barial will host a fundraiser for her this evening at Desi Vegas beginning at 5:30 p.m. Committee members include Greg DiLeo, John Litchfield, Pat Fanning, Megan Kiefer, Leopold Sher, Dominick Impastato, Phillipa Bowers, Marc Winsberg, Christine Remy and Taetrece Harrison.

Danae Columbus, opinion columnist

Danae Columbus, who has had a 30-year career in politics and public relations, offers her opinions on Thursdays. Her career includes stints at City Hall, the Dock Board and the Orleans Parish School Board and former clients such as District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro, City Councilman Jared Brossett, City Councilwoman-at-large Helena Moreno, Foster Campbell, former Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, former Sheriff Charles Foti and former City Councilwomen Stacy Head and Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *