by Leslie Cardé
As fall, and the cooler temps that go with it, swing the doors wide open, there are many other sets of doors that will be welcoming patrons of the arts everywhere across New Orleans. The theatrical season is upon us, and the offerings are plentiful.
The Crescent City Chamber Music Festival is beginning the season with seven free concerts, featuring some of classical music’s most intense and passionate works. Running from October 6 to 16, at venues all around town, and featuring everything from Brahms to Mozart and beyond, you can check their website to find out which concerts interest you, and where they’re happening, at crescentcitychambermusicfestival.com/free-public-concerts/.
It’s the 100th year at the French Quarter location of Le Petit Theatre, and according to executive direct Don-Scott Cooper, we can expect a bevy of old and new productions, and some that are particularly meaningful to the community. For instance, in March they will be tackling “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” to coincide with the Tennessee Williams Festival.
“It’s been a wild ride for theatres around town since we were hit with the pandemic back in 2020, and everything shut down,” said Cooper. “But, we do have very loyal subscribers. Recently, an 85-year-old woman called to say she didn’t quite feel safe yet coming back to a crowded theatre, but she wanted to renew her subscription anyway, and save her seat for better days ahead.”
Check lepetittheatre.com for a list of upcoming shows.
Performing predominantly at The Orpheum Theatre with four to five productions a season, The New Orleans Ballet Theatre has been around now for 20 seasons. Greg Schramel, the group’s CEO and artistic director also runs a conservatory where dancers are trained to be top-notch performers. Schramel had left New Orleans decades ago, but came back on a mission.
“I thought it was unacceptable that a city of this size, known for the arts, didn’t have a ballet company,” explained Schramel. “We’ve been performing classical and contemporary pieces ever since, and the city has been very responsive. Since the pandemic was at its height, performances have been packed.
Last year, “The Nutcracker” and “Swan Lake” set new records for us.”
Check out the fall season offerings at: neworleansballettheatre.com
The Marigny Opera House has a very interesting history. Formerly the old Holy Trinity Church, it was closed down by the Archdiocese in 1997. In 2012, Executive Director Dave Hurlbert and his partner Scott King purchased it, and then spent ten years and over a $1 million renovating it… and that renovation is ongoing.
“I should point out we don’t just do operatic performances, we do everything,” said Hurlbert. “We present local jazz folks, contemporary musicians, and songwriters. It’s a busy place, as we do over two performances a week. We are also home to the Marigny Opera Ballet, but apart from the Nutcracker, all of our works are contemporary.”
Since the box office receipts only finance 25% of the theatre’s operating expenses, Hurlbert has become very creative at fundraising and writing grants. They even rent the ornate building out for weddings, celebrations and ceremonies, on non-performance weekends. All proceeds go right back into the foundation to finance upcoming productions.
Check out marignyoperahouse.org for this season’s schedule.
The New Orleans Jazz Museum on Esplanade Avenue at the edge of the French Quarter has had an unusual history. People still think of the building as the old Mint, which actually printed money starting in the 1830’s. By 1909 they stopped minting money, and its metamorphosis began. It became a museum when members of the New Orleans Jazz Club donated their collection to the Louisiana State Museum. The int was given to the state in 1966, and by 1982 the Mint had become a museum, housing some great historical artifacts, and providing a permanent place for performances.
“We expanded in 2016, and I oversaw that,” said executive director Greg Lambousy. “Now, in this 70,000 square foot building we might have two to three performances a day. And, with the grounds taking up another 70,000 square feet, we play host to the French Quarter Festival, Satchmo Fest, and others because we have the space and a very central location. In 2019, prior to the pandemic, we did 319 productions that year… 2021 bounced back by the end of the year, and we’re coming back big time in 2022.”
With donors like Robert and Chi Chi Millman donating generously to the concert arenas, it’s made it a spectacular place to hear live music. The museum is now working toward a permanent exhibit on the 2nd floor.
Nolajazzmuseum.org is where you’ll find their upcoming events, and information about their December 3rd gala.
For Anwar Nasir, the executive director of the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, who’s been at the helm for just 15 months, he’s been impressed with how the city and its people rally in a crisis. He arrived just in time for Hurricane Ida.
“I touched down in the middle of a pandemic and we didn’t have the first concert until October of 2021, because all of the fall festivals had cancelled,” said Nasir, “so we figured it was a good time to resume. But, we retained all of our musicians who are full-time employees with benefits, did some socially distanced ensembles, and spaced the entire stage out at The Orpheum to do recordings.”
Nasir loves that the orchestra plays many different styles of music, not just classical, and considers today’s Hollywood film composers the Beethovens of tomorrow. In fact, this season, the music of John Williams, who scored “Home Alone,” the MacCauley Culkin classic, will be featured as a drop-down screen plays the movie, while the symphony soars. (I saw this performed last Christmas with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra… it’s not to be missed, and it’s something for the whole family to delight in.)
Apart from the works of Ravel and Debussy, this season they’ll feature music for the Christmas holidays, and even some works from the Lost Bayou Ramblers, a Cajun band from Broussard, Louisiana.
There’s something for everyone at LPO. Check out the season at lpomusic.com.
The Jefferson Performing Arts Society has been around for 45 years, but its relatively new executive director Todd Simmons arrived in January of 2020—just two months before the pandemic.
“We didn’t open again until the December Nutcracker performance, with a lot of restrictions,” said Simmons. “Everyone wore masks, including those on stage, and those technical folks behind the curtain. The state had initially told us dancing was not allowed, but then got back to us and said ballet wasn’t really dancing. Hey, it allowed us to proceed.”
With nine productions a year and four student performances at their Airline Drive center, the arts group has always presented a nice mix of comedies and musicals including such classics as “Carousel” and “The Addams Family.” This season you’ll be treated to “Sweet Potato Queens,” “In the Heights,” “Holiday Inn,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “Murder on the Orient Express,” and “Misery” (just for starters), which will be played interestingly by a real-life husband and wife team.
Check the dates at jpas.org.
The New Orleans Opera Association has been around since 1796, as the birthplace of opera in the United States. This particular company is in its 80th season, with Clare Burovac serving currently as the executive director. “Many people think opera might be stuffy, and must have been written by some white guy in the 1800’s,” said Burovac. “Yet, there are hundreds of operas written every year by new people, like last year’s Terence Blanchard opera, “Champion: An Opera in Jazz.”
This season will see an array of eclectic works including Charlie Parker’s “Yardbird,” and “Sky on Swings,” about two women who grapple with the one friend’s onset of Alzheimer’s disease. The casts are made up primarily of locals with stars coming in from all over the world to play some of the leads in certain productions. With lavish costumes, elaborate lighting and amazing singing and dancing, going to the opera makes for an impactful evening, as Burovac knows well. For anyone who thinks this is an elitist endeavor, the people strolling through Audubon Park last May were treated to a performance of Porgy and Bess, as the music of Gershwin wafted on breezes through the trees. The crowd, behind the barricades for the ticketed audience, was overwhelmed.
For a complete schedule, go to neworleansopera.org.
What would New Orleans be without The Saenger Theatre? It withstood Hurricane Katrina, only after artisans from across the country restored it at a hefty price tag, and it endured the construction collapse of The Hard Rock Hotel right next door. But, by July 2021, it was back. Originally opening back in 1927, the community has had a long connection to this theater, which brings in touring companies of the major productions on Broadway. Although serious drama is not the niche of The Saenger, as CEO David Skinner says, that’s because many people come to the theater to forget their troubles.
“But, we do have “To Kill a Mockingbird” coming up this season, an iconic story that has withstood the test of time,” said Skinner. “We must be doing something right because our subscription base is higher than huge cities like Houston and Atlanta. People have bought tickets since the moderation of the pandemic, with a vengeance.”
And, there have been some iconic moments at this theatre. In the 1950’s, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were on stage in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. It’s a rarity to have big stars go on tour, but the Edward Albee play had become a destination for theatre-goers because of the two standout thespians, and it wouldn’t have been the same without them.
The upcoming season at The Saenger looks to be outstanding with its musicals from Broadway… including Pretty Woman, Six, Tina and Moulin Rouge, the winner of 10 Tony Awards—just to name a few of the well-known productions.
To see the complete schedule for the fall season, go to: saengernola.com
And, there’s a new theatre company in town. Crescent City Stage is the brainchild of Michael Newcomer, whose first performance debuted in September. Newcomer is also an actor and starred in the two-man drama called “Pantomime,” the story of two men (one Black and one White) at an island bed and breakfast, exploring the underlying issues of racial equality. The play uses dark comedy to underscore important messages, and get people talking. Currently, CCS is using the Marquette Theater at Loyola University for its productions, but according to Newcomer, if all goes well, they’d like to have their own brick and mortar building in 3 yo 5 years.
Newcomer is a man on a mission to get living wages for local actors. He’d like to shred the non-profit theater model which puts the actors at the bottom of the totem pole when it comes to who gets paid, and he said, flip the switch on the idea that administrators are the ones who do well financially, while writers and actors who are central to any production must have other jobs to support themselves.
Box-office receipts are only responsible for 25 to 40% of operating costs at any of the theatres in town, and the rest must be funded through donations, corporate angels, and grants. It’s a full-time job to find monies to keep these theatres operating. With the exception of LPO, which hires musicians as full-time employees, and The Saenger, which buys a touring company production with out-of-state performers, the actors here in town aren’t even making the equivalent of minimum wage in a larger city. Louisiana is a right-to-work state, so there’s no union even insuring Louisiana’s minimum wage for performers and important ancillary others.
“The performing arts should be majorly funded by the city,” recounted Newcomer. “We give major tax credits for films, but the rest of the performing arts are forgotten. I’d like to pay the people who work for my theater $15/hour—that doesn’t seem to be asking a lot. We cannot pay more for the sets than we do the writers, actors and technical folks. I’d like to change the business model so that the creative people in this town are respected, and not just the stars who come in from out of town under union contracts, and sometimes get a back-end deal on the box office receipts.”
There’s no question that every director spoken to for this article would like to see their performers get a fair shake. It is their talents which keep the performing arts in New Orleans alive. Supporting your local theaters is not only good for those who contribute to these productions, but with the sensational offerings on tap this season, it’s likely to be one of your most enjoyable evenings out.
Email Leslie Cardé at firstname.lastname@example.org.