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Making History Sing

With that rare entity -- a new, commissioned opera -- the New Orleans Opera Association celebrates the Louisiana Purchase with a feisty Pontalba.

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When the New Orleans Opera Association (NOOA) asked Thea Musgrave to compose an opera in honor of the Louisiana Purchase Bicentennial, she had one condition. "I said, 'Let's not write a history lesson,'" Musgrave recalls. "'Let's try and find an appropriate story that could fit into the historical event; that would be exciting.'"

Musgrave sits perched on a chair in the sitting room of an Uptown church, her eyes dancing with excitement. In a second-floor room, 20 opera singers in sneakers and sensible slacks are being put through the dramatic paces of the opening scene of her opera, Pontalba. With fewer than 10 operas getting their world premieres in North America this year, Pontalba's opening will be a suitably grand event to mark an important historical occasion.

Although Musgrave is a Scotswoman with no connections to Louisiana, she was a natural choice for the NOOA commission. Her operas are lauded for their attention not only to the orchestral and vocal arrangements, but also to the dramatic narrative. Best yet, she has written a number of historical operas. Over the past 30 years, Musgrave has garnered international acclaim for such works as Mary, Queen of Scots, Simon Bolivar and The Story of Harriet Tubman.

What do these figures have in common with Micaela de Pontalba? "They're all feisty people," she replies.

Pontalba explores the life of the Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba, who in 1851 constructed the two elegant apartment buildings on Jackson Square that bear her name. Before she got around to civic improvement, however, she led a life of strife and melodrama. At the age of 16, Micaela was married off to Célestin de Pontalba in a union more concerned with merging the two family fortunes than joining two eager young hearts. When Micaela arrived in France to join her husband's family, Célestin's father began his lifelong quest to gain control of Micaela's dowry and considerable property. The quest came to an abrupt end 24 years later, when the enraged and frustrated man shot his daughter-in-law as many as four times in the chest before turning the pistol on himself. She survived; he didn't.

Robert Lyall, general director and lead conductor for the NOOA, agrees with Musgrave about the need to put a human face to the Louisiana Purchase. "Great composers have never been drawn to real estate transactions," he says wryly. "Opera is love and sex and death and murder, all of these fascinating things." Some years earlier he had read New Orleans author Christina Vella's book on the Pontalba family, Intimate Enemies, and he suggested that Musgrave use it as the basis of her opera.

Musgrave made only one major adjustment to the story, making Micaela a marriageable teenager rather than a young child at the time of the Purchase. "I had to cheat a little bit," she said. "History is messy. You have to make a dramatic shape for the story without telling too many lies." That one fib provided the opera with a neat structure, where the Louisiana Purchase and the United States' emergence as a strong nation provide the backdrop to a family drama that spans almost 50 years.

The opera's libretto forges a connection between the world events of the time and Micaela's story. Micaela not only survived adversity, but she also prospered in the midst of it and left an architectural legacy that still defines the French Quarter's style today. "The Louisiana Purchase is the birth of a nation, and Michaela's story is the spirit of the nation," explains Lyall. "And you can't have one without the other."

There's a surprisingly modern message hidden in this theme, says Musgrave. "You've got to save the arts!" she says emphatically. "Without what Michaela did, without the individuals who bring beauty and imagination and creativity, a country is not great. It's like having a country without a soul."

Louisiana is out to prove that we've got a soul, and we've had one for a long time. The operatic arts have flourished in New Orleans since May 22, 1796, when a work called Sylvain received its North American premiere on a New Orleans stage. It's credited with being the first opera performed in North America, which, Lyall says, "gives us our claim to be the city of opera." As both an inside joke and a reminder of how far we've come, as a city, state and nation, Lyall asked Musgrave to use a dance from Sylvain in Pontalba. Listen for it at the beginning of Act I, scene 1, when the harpsichord starts playing.

"In that moment," says Lyall, "you have the oldest and the newest combined."

Soprano Yali-Marie Williams stars as the Baroness - Micaela Almonester de Pontalba in the New Orleans - Opera Association's production of Pontalba.
  • Soprano Yali-Marie Williams stars as the Baroness Micaela Almonester de Pontalba in the New Orleans Opera Association's production of Pontalba.

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