The Times-Picayunne

Gershwin’s ‘Blue Monday’ and contemporary ‘An Embarrassing Position’ charm at Marigny Opera House

-30c2019dd89a45b4With a rarely staged early work by George Gershwin and a charming contemporary piece, the 9th Ward Opera Company swings into summer, taking audiences on a bright journey into the Jazz Age.The year-old troupe of young singers, under the artistic direction of Kathleen Westfall, brought a brisk vitality to the Marigny Opera House with the two brief works – “Blue Monday,” Gershwin’s first explorations into an operatic form, and “An Embarrassing Position,” a new work by local composer Dan Shore, based on a story by Kate Chopin.

“Blue Monday” had its unlikely premiere in the 1922 edition of “The George White Scandals,” the long-running series of Broadway revues, primarily known for their vaudeville-style acts, peppy songs and long-legged and scandalously dressed chorus girls. Although many of Gershwin’s early songs debuted in the “Scandals,” it was clear that “Blue Monday” didn’t quite fit the bill. He withdrew it from the revue after opening night.

Paul Whiteman later brought the piece back with a new orchestration, recognizing it as the first true work of symphonic jazz. Incorporating jazz and American popular song into an operatic form, Gershwin also was influenced by the black culture of the emerging Harlem Renaissance. This culmination of influences gives the brief work a brash energy that the members of the 9th Ward Opera embraced with exuberance.

Though running only 25 minutes, “Blue Monday” is an ambitious work. Set in a Harlem speakeasy during Prohibition, the basic plot is a modern retelling of Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” a love triangle between a gambler, a flapper and a nightclub singer. Gershwin even gives Joe, the sharply dressed gambler, a Prologue worthy of Leoncavallo’s Tonio.

Written in just five days, the torrid story by Buddy DeSylva is little more than a potboiler but within Gershwin’s music, hints of such later works as “Rhapsody in Blue” could be heard; the entire piece clearly prefigures “Porgy and Bess.”

In the lead roles, the young singers showed strong command of the music and the roles. Prentiss Mouton sang the part of Joe with a swaggering flair and a ringing tenor voice. Soprano Ebonee Davis created saucy appeal as Vi, his lover, singing with a bold, big voice. She was matched by Kentrell Roberts, singing the part of Tom, the rival lover, with a rich baritone. Dedrian Hogan was especially

effective as Sam, singing the resonant commentary on the action; Vickie Thomas was an imposing May, who runs the speakeasy.

Audiences might expect that Gershwin, no matter how rare, would be difficult to top. But Shore’s “An Embarrassing Position,” did just that. An utterly charming little comedy, Shore’s one-act opera does something that few contemporary classical pieces do – it sends the audience out humming the tunes!

-274c0eef185279ceShore, a Pennsylvania-born composer and playwright, now on the faculty of Xavier University, shows a remarkable felicity for melodic phrasing in a work that is distinctly of the time it depicts, while never falling into mere pastiche. It is a modern work that acknowledges its origins and influences, most notably in its structure, with multiple vocal lines reminiscent of Donizetti, and musical humor of Rossini. Add a splash of Gilbert and Sullivan patter and you’re sure to have audiences smiling.

The story, set in New Orleans of the 1890s, has a noted bachelor and candidate for political office, Mr. Parkham, being visited unexpectedly one evening by the lovely young (and seemingly naïve) daughter of socialite friends. When a gossip columnist arrives for an interview, potential scandal erupts.

Dedrian Hogan was delightful as the befuddled Parkham, singing richly and reacting comically as he has various women throwing themselves at him.

Lesley DeMartin portrayed his potential love interest, Miss Eva, with a winking charm. Her bright, clean voice brought the role to life. What might be titled the “Telegram” aria was especially pleasing, as was their courtship duet over tea, asking “How many lumps?”

As the columnist, June Jenkins, Rebecca Ryan added laughs and stunning top notes. Toni Skidmore and Maria Thomas each were strong in supporting roles.

Madeline Thibodeaux conducted and pianist Ronald Joseph was the accompanist for both operas, each bringing a swinging jazz sensibility, while also appreciating the precision of each opera. Margaret-Anne David directed “Blue Monday,” capturing its kinetic energy; Danielle Edinburgh staged “An Embarrassing Position” with a particularly pleasing sense of comic timing.

Both operas were double-cast. Other singers will appear at some of this weekend’s performances.

The spacious Marigny Opera House is a pleasant repurposing of the long-closed Holy Trinity Church. The historic site is slowly undergoing renovations and has become an important focal point in the downtown arts scene. It is a unique and comfortable space, however, its vast openness, tiled floors and plastered walls combine to make the old church an acoustically difficult venue for the voice, requiring singers to redouble efforts to be precise with diction.

Get downtown this weekend to hear these shining young talents in this pair of appealing shows. One day, you might be able to say, “I saw them when …”



  • What: The 9th Ward Opera Company, under the direction of Kathleen Westfall, presents a pair of one-act operas, George Gershwin’s “Blue Monday,” and Dan Shore’s “An Embarrassing Position.” The operas are directed respectively by Margaret-Anne Davis and Danielle Edinburgh. Madeline Thibodeaux conducts; pianist Ronald Joseph is the accompanist.
  • Where: Marigny Opera House, (site of the former Holy Trinity Church),725 St. Ferdinand St.
  • When: Performances at 8 Friday through Sunday, through July 28.
  • Admission: $20, $10 for students and seniors. For information, call 504.948.9998 or visit the theater Web site.

Opera And Jazz Unite In The Marigny – 88.9 WWNO

Click Here to listen to the WWNO Interview



For the second summer in a row the Marigny Opera House is offering itself as a performance venue to a homegrown small opera company.

The 9th Ward Opera Company is the brainchild of Kathleen Westfall, a self-described “little Cajun girl” who’s equally comfortable singing on stage in New York or going crabbing in Thibodaux. Sharon Litwin talks to her about the two unusual one-act operas she’s presenting this month.

To read more about the 9th Ward Opera Company and its upcoming performances at the Marigny Opera House, visit Sharon Litwin’s article on NolaVie.

The 9th Ward Opera Company shines

Will Coviello on a rarely-performed George Gershwin show coming to the Marigny Opera House by 

click to enlargeThe 9th Ward Opera presents Blue Monday at Marigny Opera House.Photo by Cheryl GerberThe 9th Ward Opera presents Blue Monday at Marigny Opera House.

Jul 25-28

Blue Monday and An Embarrassing Position

8 p.m. Thu.-Sun.

Marigny Opera House, 725 St. Ferdinand St., (504) 948-9998;

Thirteen years before George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway (in 1935), his one-act jazz opera Blue Monday (Opera a la Afro-American)opened and promptly closed. It calls for an all African-American cast (the debut featured white actors in blackface), and it’s a remarkable if forgotten work.

9th Ward Opera Company founder and director Kathleen Westfall says it’s just right for her young company, and it’s part of a double bill opening at the Marigny Opera House Thursday.

Blue Monday is just so different, and nobody has done it,” Westfall says. “It’s funny because the composer is so well-known. You think Gershwin, you think An American in ParisRhapsody in Blue and Porgy and Bess. No one knows that he wrote this one-act opera 13 years before Porgy and Bess. It’s the very first piece of symphonic jazz ever composed.”

Blue Monday is set in a Jazz Age Harlem bar where pianists entertain and patrons gamble in the back room. Vi is in love with Joe, a chronic gambler, and the piano player Tom tries to woo her away from him by planting suspicions about other women.

“One of the very first lines is, ‘Like the white man’s opera, the theme will be love, hate, jealousy,” Westfall says. “It’s right in your face.”

The work suits the 9th Ward Opera’s goals of exposing audiences to short, entertaining operatic works and providing young singers the chance to perform. She chooses works in which many characters have solos.

Westfall teaches at the University of New Orleans (UNO), where she was first exposed to opera as a freshman in a music history class. She created the 9th Ward Opera last summer to present two one-act operas, Cox and Box andTrial By Jury. The show was scheduled to run at Marigny Opera House, but its lack of appropriate permits (since remedied) resulted in the program being moved to the AllWays Lounge and Theatre. The run was well-received, and Westfall committed to doing a 2013 performance of An Embarrassing Position, a one-act opera by Xavier University professor Dan Shore, who also created the new opera Freedom Ride. Westfall received a New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation grant specifically to do Shore’s work, and it’s the second part of the double bill.

Marigny Opera House founder Dave Hurlbert encouraged her to schedule performances throughout the year. He provided the company some financial support for the first show, and together, they presented The Liebeslieder Project in December 2012 and a pair of one-act operas in April.

Marigny Opera House has become a home for opera, dance, New Orleans Fringe Festival shows, puppetry and more. The new opera company New Fangled Opera presented a series of new operatic works at UNO in June. It will present a series of one-acts at Marigny Opera House in June 2014. Part of its mission is to present works by contemporary composers. More than 100 projects were submitted for inclusion in the program, and productions included singers from Philadelphia and Kansas. The scarcity of roles for young opera singers compels many to invest in travelling to get exposure, New Fangled Opera cofounder Chris D. Burton says.

Hurlbert has provided support and art grants via the Marigny Opera House foundation, and he’s continued to renovate and improve the space. He recently added heavy pleated curtains to the backstage and wings, which improved the converted church’s acoustics.

While Marigny Opera House is a large space, the 9th Ward Opera’s shows are designed to avoid the costs of productions like those presented by the New Orleans Opera Association (NOOA) at the Mahalia Jackson Theater for the Performing Arts. Westfall uses piano accompaniment instead of a full orchestra, and costume and prop expenses are modest. But the smaller companies don’t see their productions as an alternative to full-scale productions, but rather a bridge to them.

Givonna Joseph has performed in NOOA productions, including several shows last year, and she will appear in two in the upcoming season. She created Opera Creole in 2011 for two reasons: to expose more New Orleanians to opera and to educate audiences about African-Americans in classical music.

“This music is all of our music, it’s not just music that was written by dead Italian men,” Joseph says with a laugh. “It’s not always for people with white hair. This is our music and we have all participated in it. I have done presentations at schools where I show that we have 500 years of documented history of people of color, of African descent, being involved in classical music and opera. That wasn’t a thing I heard as a kid. I just accepted the fact that I was weird. I think it puts a very positive mark on a person’s soul to know that this is part of their history.”

Opera Creole performs work by everyone from 19th century New Orleans composer Edmond Dede to ragtime composer Scott Joplin. The company hasn’t done a full opera production, but Joseph’s approach is to seek audiences in unconventional spaces and expose them to opera. The company recently performed at the Musicians Village, at Cafe Istanbul on John Calhoun’s late-night talk show takeoff The Goodnight Show, and in April at French Quarter Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. By finding new stages for opera singers, she’s helping restore classical music to the city’s diverse array of musical offerings


17 July 2013 — by Zachary Young

Nearly a year ago, classical vocalist and adjunct UNO professor Kathleen Westfall debuted the 9th Ward Opera Company, holding public performances of Burnand and Sullivan’s Cox and Boxand Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury for three nights in the first week of August. Conceived as an outlet for aspiring theatrical vocalists across the region, the enthusiastic turnout at the company’s initial showing prompted its founder to further pursue its mission. Since, the 9th Ward Opera Company has upheld a seasonal schedule, delivering two performances of a single act opera per night with each run and growing steadily along the way.

Kathleen Westfall, 9th Ward Opera Company, podcast, photo


With few opportunities to take the stage, the fledgling non-profit has gone on to attract budding vocalists from UNO, Loyola, Tulane, Dillard, Southern, South Eastern and LSU. Likewise, audience intrigue has grown beyond the Crescent City. Taking notice, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation awarded the 9th Ward Opera Company with a Community Partnership grant earlier this year, and the company’s forthcoming performance will mark its first with a budget. Tune in below to hear Westfall tell the 9th Ward Opera Company’s tale as well as for what it has in store for its July 25-28 Marigny Opera House showings of Gershwin’s first foray into opera, Blue Monday, and Xavier University professor Dan Shore’s New Orleans-themed composition An Embarrassing Position