On October 27th and 28th, the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park held a Creole Festival. The previous weekend, the Louisiana Creole Research Association also held their annual conference, titled Creole Women Then And Now. The ensemble OperaCreole participated in both events by celebrating the contributions of the Creole population to the musical culture of New Orleans.
It was the pleasure of this author to highlight some women that took the world by storm to make a significant contribution to the world of opera. Opera divas Lenora Lafayette, Debria Brown, Annabelle Bernard, and LaVergne Monette, and Shirley Verrett were celebrated.
The accomplishments of extraordinary Louisiana women will be highlighted in a series of articles.
Let us begin with Lenora Lafayette, soprano. Born in Baton Rouge on July 6, 1926, to Howard and Lena Lafayette, Ms. Lafayette’s musical career began at McKinley High School. After she was refused admission to Louisiana State University, the soprano would receive special training at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1947, Ms. Lafayette went on to win the Marian Anderson Award (for using the arts for the betterment of society), and a year later won a Julius Rosenwald Fellowship that allowed her to study at Juilliard School of Music in New York. In 1950, Lafayette won the John Hay Whitney Fellowship to study in Europe. A year later, in 1951, she starred in Aida at the Basel Opera House in Switzerland, and so impressed everyone that she was signed for a full season.
In 1958, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden called on her at the last minute to fill on for the ailing Dutch singer Gre Brouwenstijn, At 1:00 in the afternoon, she had to make her way from her apartment in Basel, Switzerland, to England to sing the title role of Aida without rehearsal. She was a resounding success, becoming the first African American to sing in an opera production at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden (Sisseretta Jones was the first to sing there in command performance for the Prince of Wales in the 1890s).
Her nephew, Dr. Kirby Green, tenor (also a physician), would follow her legacy and sing with New Orleans Opera decades later as a member of the Opera Chorus and in small roles that include Peter, the Honey Man in the 2002 production of Porgy and Bess. When Kirby recently shared the information with me, he stated, “Hers was the first concert I ever attended. I was 8 years old and I remember it very well.”
It is sad that she never received the fame at home due to her, and was lost to us on October 23, 1975, after a battle with cancer.
Next article will highlight the life and career of: LaVergne Monette, soprano