From Rosalyn Story, the author of Wading Home

Nearly five years ago, Agate published my novel Wading Home: A Novel of New Orleans, set in the Crescent City just after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood that almost destroyed it. I’m not from New Orleans nor do I have any connection with it, other than having visited many times over the years and finding it to be one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever seen. While working on a theme for a novel to follow my first, More Than You Know, I had no trouble seeing a narrative woven around the events of the last days of August 2005; you had only to watch the news every day to understand the real-life, heart-breaking drama that was unfolding.

Now, nearly ten years after the storm, the story goes on. The city is rebuilding. The schools are better, the restaurants are full. Some neighborhoods are thriving. But others still struggle to reclaim their former glory, to reconstitute the rich culture of family history and tradition that is generations old.         

While the story of post-Katrina New Orleans seemed perfect fodder for a novel, a theater piece with classically trained singers, an orchestra and a children’s chorus, performed on an opera stage before an audience, was the furthest thing from my mind. But on April 2, 2015 some 35 vocalists and instrumentalists will perform a ‘staged workshop’ production of Wading Home, an opera in two acts based on my novel, in the downtown arts district of Dallas, where I live. The Dallas-based composer Mary Alice Rich, a good friend for many years, had approached me with this idea about two years ago. She convinced me that Wading Home had all the requisite drama, intrigue, and musical possibilities of an opera, with all the attendant elements: heroes, adversaries, obstacles, and a life-changing journey fraught with moments of tragedy and triumph.    

When the work was completed within the following year, I applied for a grant from the Sphinx Organization in Detroit, a group that supports and promotes diversity in the arts, to mount a production. As a violinist with the Sphinx Symphony Orchestra, which accompanies many talented competitors in Sphinx’s annual competition for black and Hispanic string instrumentalists, I was eligible to compete for the $250,000 in grant awards available only to Sphinx affiliates. I was awarded a $40,000 grant, and Wading Home the opera went from notes on a printed score to a production in progress.

Like a film, an opera is a massive endeavor, requiring teams of talented artists and technicians onstage and offstage. We partnered with another nonprofit organization, The Black Academy of Arts and Letters in Dallas, a 38-year-old presenter of theatrical, visualm and performing arts. We assembled a cast of wonderfully gifted classical singers headed by Donnie Ray Albert, the internationally known baritone, another friend of mine for many years. Other brilliantly talented friends came aboard the project: Barbara Hill Moore, the great soprano and distinguished vocal pedagogue at Southern Methodist University, became our musical director, and my friend and colleague from the Fort Worth Symphony, pianist Shields-Collins (Buddy) Bray, is our coach-accompanist. And there are many, many others.

Often, in our planning meetings, I thought of those old Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland movies with the formulaic plot: a couple of neighborhood kids with big dreams decide to put on “the greatest show this town has ever seen!” They borrow an uncle’s barn for rehearsals and, after a two-second film dissolve, a slick, million-dollar production unfurls onto the screen. Such are the movies, and we realized very quickly that putting on an opera in real life is not that simple. As composer, co-librettists, and producers, Mary Alice and I found ourselves in unchartered territory, mounting an opera from scratch with no experience, and many times we wondered if we had gotten in over our heads. But as time passed and rehearsals pressed on through Dallas’s winter ice storms (which shut down the whole city twice), singers’ illnesses and emergencies, unplanned expenses, and cost overruns (our $40,000 did not go as far as we thought it would) we managed to navigate our way through the whole production process, and a bona fide opera was taking shape.

As the rehearsals progressed, we saw something extraordinary take place. Our group of singers became a family of artists with a common interest and devotion to the undertaking. We were, we realized, making history. To our knowledge, never in recent history had an opera with a cast of mostly African-American artists and employing African-American cultural themes been conceived, created, and performed in Dallas, Texas. Some cast members, having been born in Louisiana themselves or having a personal connection to New Orleans or Hurricane Katrina, found a measure of pride in the story of the Fortier family’s heroic struggle. Thanks to Agate’s generosity in supplying each cast member with a copy of Wading Home, singers were able to establish deeper bonds with their characters. Little by little, what existed first just as words on a printed page was lifted up and given musical life through the glorious voices of some of the most talented singers I have heard.

We look forward to our performance on April 2 as just the beginning, and hope that Wading Home: an Opera of New Orleans will live far beyond this first performance, and finds future audiences in New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, and every other city where Hurricane Katrina’s 250,000 evacuees now make their homes.

But mostly we hope that as the tenth anniversary of the storm approaches, our production will shed light on the truth of the aftermath of the devastation: that even though there is the undeniable progress in this city revived from near-destruction, the struggle continues for those in the areas hardest hit, the low-lying, workaday neighborhoods filled with people who have contributed so much to New Orleans’ incredibly rich culture.

That’s why we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to use our production to give something of value that would last beyond the final curtain: during our free concert, we will call for donations, 100 percent of which will go to the Dallas-based Bruce Foote Foundation, which provides college scholarships for talented young singers, and to The Roots of Music in New Orleans, an after-school program providing academic tutoring and music instruction to middle school children.

It’s been a long journey from printed page to opera stage. But in the end, the goal of our opera production is not only to commemorate a time in our country’s history when a great city, faced with the possibility of extinction, was brought back from the brink. It is also our goal to celebrate, through music, New Orleans’ gift to the world, and the fortitude and endurance of this great American culture.