The global pandemic made huge impacts on Givonna Joseph’s life in 2020. Restrictions hit hard for OperaCréole, the organization she founded and runs with her daughter, Aria Mason. When the pandemic struck, elaborate plans for a season culminating in the nonprofit’s 10th anniversary were all shut down.
Joseph serves as OperaCréole’s director, and Mason is its production director. The nonprofit is dedicated to performing works by composers of African descent, especially from 19th century New Orleans free people of color.
Luckily, the pandemic brought a personal silver lining. Mason and husband Henri Mason-Folse welcomed baby Amara Mason-Folse three weeks into the spring 2020 shutdown, and with the birth of her granddaughter, Joseph became “Mamère,” her favorite role to date.
Creating Her Lane in the Big Easy
Born at the tail end of the Baby Boomer generation, operatic sounds have filled Joseph’s entire life. “I started singing before I could get sentences out,” she says. Her parents exposed her to all kinds of music in her early years, and her career as a mezzo-soprano was sparked when she followed voice teacher Charles Paddock to Loyola University. “He’s the one who planted the bug, so to speak,” Joseph says. “He made me believe that it was something I could do.”
In developing her career, Joseph has passed down lessons to her daughter, whom she named Aria as a way of calling something into existence. Like her mother, Mason is a successful mezzo-soprano. “I’ve never been a person who has said there’s only one way to do something, and a lot of that comes from my mom,” Mason says. “She’s always made a lane for herself. And growing up with that kind of example has been invaluable for me.”
As a native New Orleanian, Joseph is deeply committed to the city’s culture. OperaCréole shares the history of opera in New Orleans, specifically the contributions of Black opera creators over hundreds of years. “We wanted to just go where people were and let them hear our voices and begin to tell the stories of who we really are,” Joseph says.
Joseph’s and Mason’s strengths have balanced each other out while bringing operas to life, many of which were previously unknown to audiences. “Often, the shows we do have no guidebook,” Mason says. “Half the time, there aren’t even stage notes. If the show’s been performed at all, it was once a hundred years ago, so we’re really having to create something out of nothing.”
Givonna Joseph of OperaCréole Celebrates the Operatic History of Our Great City
By Mari Walker
Uncovering Connections Between Jazz and Opera
New Orleans is known for jazz and nurturing the development of that art. Part of OperaCréole’s work has been to bring to light the connections between opera and the birth of jazz, two worlds often much too separated but intricately linked.
OperaCréole has been part of New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival for nearly 10 years, performing each year in the kids’ tent, projects the mother-daughter duo craft artistically together. The organization plans to be part of Jazz Fest’s return.
Black Excellence in Opera
Opera is arguably considered the most elaborate art form known to humankind. It’s technically very difficult, and Black creators have excelled in all opera’s facets. Opera may be presented as overwhelmingly white, but “this is our music, too,” Joseph says.
OperaCréole has changed many people’s perceptions of opera by presenting “how long we’ve been creating it–not just performing it, but creating it.”
One of the ways OperaCréole shares its message of Black operatic excellence to the community is by inviting groups like students from Son of a Saint to rehearsals. Joseph says she hopes to do more in the future with the organization serving fatherless boys in the city.
The word creole means “native to the place,” like creole tomatoes are native to Louisiana, and that was the inspiration for naming their nonprofit OperaCréole.
“In that spirit, it’s nothing about color. It’s about the history that is native to this place and the African diaspora in general,” Joseph says.
Joseph has worked closely with the New Orleans Opera on its diversity committee, “developing a great diversity statement and looking at things that can change in terms of behind the scenes, not just hiring singers, but who’s on staff, who’s backstage,” Joseph says. “There’s been a lot of good development in that direction, and I’m just really excited about that.”
Blessings During the Pandemic
Joseph has found blessings in technology throughout the restrictions required by COVID-19, allowing her to connect with others using Zoom, making presentations, and teaching and sharing her work with organizations, universities, and festivals around the country from home. Technology also allowed Joseph to keep an eye on granddaughter Amara while she was in the NICU for the first five months of her life.
Dreams for a Bright Future
A future goal is to honor New Orleanian free composer of color Edmond Dédé, born in 1829, who wrote five operas, only one of which still exists but has never been performed. “One of the things I really want to see our city do is honor this person of our history,” Joseph says. “We still have unheard works we need to unearth, and we need support to do that.”
The mother-daughter team have big dreams for the future of OperaCréole, including producing films of their productions as features and shorts, preserving the work for posterity. They also hope to build out their staff and programs, creating a pipeline for training not just for performance but also production and backstage work. Plans for next spring include a concert celebrating contributions of Black women in the suffragette movement and beyond: “From Ida B. Wells to Kamala Harris.”
Joseph has lived her life with an integral mantra as she’s blazed her own trail as a performer, teacher, writer, advocate, and public speaker. “The worst thing you can do in your life is put yourself in a box,” she says. “You don’t have to believe what other people believe.”