Trail blazers and trail keepers: Givonna Joseph

THROUGHOUT FEBRUARY, THE NATION PAYS HOMAGE to the great legends of Black history and reflects on the hardships these pioneers endured in order to blaze a trail through the thorny and violent jungle of American racism. There are lessons on Black pioneers in politics, science, medicine, entertainment, and sports. For the trails that they individually blazed, America has become a different society and many Blacks hold to a responsibility to extend the trail forward. In opera, there was Marian Anderson. In dance, there was Alvin Ailey and Katherine Dunham. And in comedy, there was Redd Foxx and Jackie “Moms” Mabley. Five exceptionally gifted Louisianans are keeping the trails blazed by these pioneers. In New Orleans, there’s OperaCréole founder Givonna Joseph and in Monroe, comedian Robert Powell III. In Baton Rouge, there’s businessman Cleve Dunn Jr.,  stand-up comedienne Tiffany Dickerson, and choreographer Winter McCray. They are our modern day keepers of the trail. Here are their stories.

OPERA: Trailblazer Marian Anderson

Trail keeper Givonna Joseph

Within OperaCréole, Givonna Joseph has organized area professional artists, educators, and international soloists with roots in New Orleans, “America’s First City of Opera”. Members of the ensemble have recently been featured in solo roles in New Orleans Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfl y,” “Samson et Dalila,” “Il Trovatore,” “Salome,” and “Porgy and Bess”. They were recently artists in residence at Illinois State University. Many are also members of the New Orleans Opera Chorus. Joseph and daughter Aria Mason, a mezzo-soprano, and OperaCréole partner are featured in the documentary “Le Grand Tour” airing in France.  She has meticulously gathered “wonderful and talented people,” including pianist Wilfred Delphin who she said is “simply amazing as an international artist and person. And our singers have worked hard to learn music that no one has ever heard”

OperaCréole’s production of the lost opera “Thelma” by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor earned a Classical Arts Awards nomination for best community opera production. But, Joseph said her greatest joy is seeing the pride on the faces of the audience as they hear the music of “19th century New Orleans free composers of color, and learn of the role they played in the culture of the First City Of Opera.” Preservation of the Créole language was a part of this that came about as we were programming repertoire, but the biggest piece is making sure that people were aware that these composers wrote their vocal music in French, and studied with great French musicians and composers here in New Orleans as well as in France, Joseph said. “The annals of history should record these people by their love for the arts, education, and business savvy during a time when they lived in a caste system that limited their freedom,” she said.

Joseph’s wisdom of opera and Black culture is noticeable as she describes soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield. “Before Marian Anderson, (Greenfi eld who was) born a slave, shocked the world when she stood in front of Queen Victoria to sing the popular arias and oratorio of the day. She was the first concert diva to change the world just by standing in excellence.” Marian Anderson was the first to sing at the Metropolitan Opera. Because of the concert on the Lincoln Memorial, Anderson was one of the 20th century’s greatest opera singers. She was the “personification of excellence that changes the world by changing perceptions,” she said. Joseph’s first voice teacher, Charles Paddock insisted that she go to the Loyola music library to listen to recordings of Anderson. “But when I saw her, the grace and beauty and artistry that she exuded communicated that she had a complete understanding of her purpose. That is what I hope my legacy will be: that I understood my purpose!”

“It is important that all of the stories in Black history be told. Not only for African Americans to reference, but so that everyone will know the full scope of our contributions to the art form, especially in 19th century New Orleans.” For that, Givonna Joseph is the modern day Marian Anderson and keeper of the trail.