New Orleans Opera Association Promotes an Old Art Form with Modern Subjects
By Elizabeth Vidrine
The tiny stage set in the back of the busy French Market on Sunday, September 9 couldn’t be seen from behind the street- but it could be heard as the deep baritones and high altos drew curious listeners away from their beignets and jazz. “We kind of are everything,” says Todd Simmons, Executive Director of New Orleans Opera Association. He begins ticking off a list of qualities on his fingers. “We’re singing, we’re acting, we’re visual arts, we’re drama, we’re the orchestra, we’re the ballet. So where you have all these different art forms that are out there in the classical world, Opera puts everything together in one thing.” Opera was started by Haitians in New Orleans in 1796- making it the longest running art form in the city; however, that does not make Opera an outdated art form or people trying to see how high they can force their voices. “One of the things we do here at the Opera is talk about real world things.” A downfall of many classic art forms is a lack of relevance in subject matter to those who will be viewing it, and the New Orleans Opera Association is aware of this. “We talk about how different the world is today for people with blindness and people with all kinds of disabilities,” says Simmons, in reference to their upcoming show, Blindness, about a group of blind school children left alone in the woods after the unexpected death of their teacher. Simmons knows that most people with disabilities such as blindness are able to live completely normal lives. “I think there’s a lot of people who don’t understand or know that, and here’s an opportunity that Opera brings us to have that discussion with the community.” They also tackle issues of self-identity, such as transgenderism. “The conversation everyone has with themselves is that of ‘Who am I? What am I? Why am I so different than everybody else?’ I mean, everybody has that conversation in their life.” It’s just that some are a different kind of different, and the Opera is willing have necessary conversations with the city of New Orleans about these issues.
Simmons and the New Orleans Opera Association are passionate about showing material that is relevant to their community. “You have to find a way for all art to speak to people today,” says Simmons. “No matter how beautiful that thing is, if it makes no sense, why would anyone have anything to do with it? We’re really working today to connect to the community in some way.”
In the same way Opera offers much to New Orleans, so New Orleans offers a unique platform for the art to remain valid. “New Orleans offers variety and history,” says Simmons. “One of the programs we’re doing right now is about connecting traditional to non-traditional music of African Americans historically.” Though Simmons says that it is difficult to use the term African American in New Orleans, where many of the dark skinned immigrants are not African at all- just like the Haitians that brought Opera to the city. “New Orleans has a history like no other city in the US,” he says. “And that’s why it’s so cool for us in the city- we get to connect all these different things. We have to. Or else the art dies. I think that if the Opera- and not just us, but the Opera all over the world- if it doesn’t connect and find relativity to the people of today, it will die. Just beautiful music, anybody can put it on their phones, put it on TV; they don’t need to go, to do anything to hear great music.” Which is exactly why the New Orleans Opera
Association has programs such as A Taste of the Opera at the French Quarter, which features a trio of singers previewing their season of shows and, more importantly, bringing their art into the public community of New Orleans. Simmons refers back to the necessary conversations which Opera is not afraid of having- if people will not go to them, they will bring the conversation outside of the opera house while still retaining the air of the arts and allowing people to experience it with others. “We have to think about ‘Why do they not care?’ They don’t care because we’re not giving them something to care about.” That is the focus of the New Orleans Opera Association today- giving the community something to care about.