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America’s First City of Opera

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New Orleans’ grandest musical tradition has thrived for two centuries.

You might know about the New Orleans Opera. You might even have attended one of its seasonal performances. But did you know that opera has been performed in New Orleans for over 200 years?

Since the close of the Spanish colonial era, our city has hosted both traveling opera companies and homegrown productions. The New Orleans Opera association was founded in 1943, kicking off with a well-received summer season of open-air performances in City Park. The company later moved to the Municipal Auditorium, a home that served it well until the Theater for the Performing Arts was built in 1973.

Fast-forward to the present. The New Orleans Opera Association presents three full-scale productions each season, ranging from classic works by Verdi, Mozart and other masters to 20th-century pieces, like Benjamin Britten’s “Noah’s Flood.”

Opera Association Board President Meredith Hathorn Penick imagines that she “probably saw a few operas as a child,” but while living in New York City, she became much more interested in the art form. “When I came back to New Orleans, I was just delighted to have a production company that performed grand opera,” she remembers.

Penick is proud of the distinction between the New Orleans Opera Association and other companies. “We are different in that [the New Orleans Opera] is not a touring company,” she explains. Productions often feature celebrated singers from other cities and professional musicians from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra.

On March 11, the Women’s Guild of the New Orleans Opera Association will host its 30th annual Mad Hatter’s Luncheon and Fashion Show, with the theme of “Alice’s 30th Un-Birthday.” The event will feature a hat contest judged by local celebrities, with categories like “Most Whimsical” and “Festive Fascinator,” and a Wonderland Raffle, with items donated by Gayle Marie Benson, the event’s honorary chairperson.

“It’s a really fun event. That’s what we try to emphasize,” Penick says of the occasion. “We have hat-judging, and a lovely luncheon and a wonderful fashion show by Saks Fifth Avenue, and we usually have around 600-700 people participating.”

Proceeds from the Mad Hatter’s Luncheon go to the Opera Association’s Youth Education Program, a linchpin of the opera’s goals. “The mission of the New Orleans Opera is to provide grand opera,” Penick says. “Part of our mission is to educate people: both adults and children.”

To that end, the association and its education committee chairman, Debbie Wood, offer a multitude of programs inviting locals to grow their appreciation of opera. These efforts include a weeklong opera camp for children in grades nine through 12, held in conjunction with Louisiana State University; and MetroPelican Opera, a musical touring program that brings “opera a la carte” and other musical selections to participating schools.

The Opera Association also invites thousands of schoolchildren to its dress rehearsals every season. At each performance, the association provides study guides for teachers explaining opera basics and etiquette, and one hour before curtain, Maestro Robert Lyall or another expert offers a “Nuts and Bolts” overview of the work. English supertitles appear over the stage so that audience members can follow along with performances in any language.

Noting that arts education funding is suffering throughout the U.S., Penick and the New Orleans Opera Association fervently believe in keeping opera alive, despite the great expense and effort involved in grand productions. “We believe the younger people — the children — they’ve got to be exposed to opera,” Penick says. “We have to step up.”