This August marks ten years since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. Thursday, a chamber opera about Katrina called Wading Home will premiere in a workshop production at the City Performance Hall. KERA’s Jerome Weeks attended rehearsals and says the new opera was created and will be performed by Dallasites — including a Katrina evacuee.
“If you know New Orleans,” Michelle Gibson says, “we have always been hit with hurricanes, so hurricanes is like a part of our culture, y’know? It’s like maybe a day off.”
Today, Gibson is a dancer, choreographer and teacher in Dallas. But ten years ago, like many New Orleanians, she’d already seen her share of hurricanes. So she didn’t pay much attention to Katrina as it approached and it went from category 2, then 3, then back to 2 and then it might swing north to Mississippi, might slip past New Orleans. But when then-Mayor Ray Nagin went on TV, she listened: “You need to be scared. And you need to get your butts moving out of New Orleans right now.”
So Gibson fled – with her one-week-old son, her five-year-old daughter, her boyfriend and a few days’ worth of food. It took nine hours to make the 30-minute drive to Slidell, Louisana, just across Lake Pontchatrain. Gibson says she saw older people along the way, stuck in their cars for hours, without their medication, without care — dying.
Gibson and her little family made it to Mississippi — to a motel without power, because Mississippi got hit hard, too — and then on to Dallas because her boyfriend had recently worked here. In New Orlenas, the phone service was down, and Gibson had been without electricity for days, so it was in Dallas they finally caught up with the news coverage: Katrina had certainly damaged the city, but the real disaster hit only when the levees — the under-maintained, unfinished levees — broke and broke again. Eighty percent of New Orleans was flooded in a few hours.
“When we were able to see the news,” she says, “to be in Dallas and to see what was happening at home, it broke my heart. It looked like a third-world country.”
Looking at all the wreckage on television, at the crowds of poor people stranded outside the convention center and the Superdome, Gibson had no idea where her mother was. And there was no way to find out.
Gibson’s situation is similar to the opening of the new opera Wading Home – which Gibson is choreographing. In Wading Home, a retired chef named Simon decides to sit out the hurricane in his Treme neighborhood. His son Julian, a jazz trumpeter, is touring Japan when he sees the flooded city on TV and rushes home – only to find his father is missing.
“When his father is missing, he has to come home,” says Rosalyn Story. “And this is basically a journey of his discovering what’s really important to him: tradition, family, culture, all those things.”
Story wrote the 2010 novel, Wading Home, on which the opera is based. Besides being a writer, Story is a long-time violinist with the Fort Worth Symphony. Years ago, she played in the Tulsa Symphony — which is how she became friends with Mary Alice Rich, a violin teacher. She’s also a composer who’s written church anthems, won songwriting contests and works performed by the Voices of Change. Two years ago — with her teaching career sidelined by her uterine cancer — Rich decided to concentrate on her most ambitious work: She’d adapt her friend’s novel into her very first opera.
“Well, I just love the book,” explains Rich. “And her writing is so lyrical I just thought it would lend itself to opera.”
There happens to be an entire history of grand storm scenes in opera — from The Barber of Seville to Verdi’s Otello and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. And the New Orleans setting certainly would provide any opera a rich, musical background: rhythm-and-blues, second-line funk, but especially jazz.
Rich cautions, though: “I don’t pretend to have written a jazz opera, but I definitely put in elements of jazz and the instrumentation, the brass band. I want to honor it and I want to honor the people who’ve come through this thing.”
Although Story herself plays violin with the Dallas Opera, she confesses it had never occurred to her Wading Home might be an opera. But when Rich proposed it, she says it sounded perfect — and promptly signed on as librettist: “It combines my two great loves: opera and black literature.” Wading Home will be one of the rare contemporary operas primarily for African-American performers.
It was Story who managed to wrangle the funding that allowed the pair to stage the work with a 17-piece orchestra, with SMU professors Hank Hammett and Barbara Hill Moore as stage director and music director, respectively, and Donnie Ray Albert, the opera baritone who’s performed at La Scala, New York City Opera and Houston Grand Opera. Many of the other performers are students or former students of Moore’s.
Story has worked for years with the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based foundation dedicated to bringing young people of color into classical music and transforming their lives. Created by MacArthur ‘genius’ grant winner and violinist Aaron Dworkin, Sphinx awarded Story a $40,000 grant for the workshop premiere — which will have some props and projections but not full sets. The opera, Story explains, is still a work-in-progress — with future stagings already being discussed in New Orleans and elsewhere.
In New Orleans, Michelle Gibson’s mother was one of those who came through. She survived, but her house was destroyed. So, like her daughter and more than 140,000 other New Orleanians the past decade, she left the city. One-third of all Katrina evacuees who moved, moved to Texas — to Houston, Dallas and Austin. As much as we may have helped them, Story points out, they have enriched us: We have been given a giant diaspora of New Orleans culture, food, music – and dance.
“Let me tell you something,” says Gibson. “Dallas was never a place I ever dreamed of or desired to move to. Especially as an artist. You want to go New York, LA, right? But Dallas opened their arms and their hearts in such a tremendous way.”
In particular, she credits Vicki Meek, director of the South Dallas Cultural Center with getting her back on her feet — as a dancer.
For Gibson, then, the dance sequence she’s choreographed in the opera Wading Home is one way for her to give back to this city — by bringing some of her New Orleans to Dallas. She tells the story of her own experience of ‘wading home.’ The December after Katrina hit, she finally returned to her wrecked, two-story apartment in the Gentilly neighborhood, near the Ninth Ward, the worst-hit section of New Orleans. She opened the door, she says, and saw everything — refrigerator, cupboards, lamps — had been tossed around, mildew was everywhere and a dark stain on the wall showed the flood’s high-water mark.
“But the first thing I saw,” she says, “was a portrait of myself on the wall.” The photo was the only object in the entire apartment that remained still in place, still undamaged.
She’s kept that portrait, brought it back with her to Dallas. Its title is “Still I Rise.”