The mother-daughter duo began to research Black Creole composers who’d left a paper trail—composers like Edmond Dédé, Lucien-Léon Lambert, and Eugene Victor McCarty. Some of the works they uncovered are pieces no one alive today knew existed, like the composition by African-English composer Samuel Colridge-Taylor found hidden in a drawer in Corden, England. Joseph is only half joking when she says that sometimes it feels like the composers are “bugging her from beyond.”
Joseph found Lambert’s La Flamenca at the Paris Conservatory of Music where he and other Creole musicians studied in the mid-19th century. “It was an easy piano score but all in French, and there was no real information” on the piece, says Joseph.
When a colleague translated the lyrics, she was surprised to find it was an opera revolving around the “immunes,” southern Black soldiers who were shipped to Cuba in 1898 to fight in the Spanish-American War because they’d developed immunity to yellow fever and other tropical diseases.
Lambert, along with his father Charles Lucien Lambert and his uncle Sidney Lambert, were among the most successful composers of color to emerge from New Orleans in the 19th century. But it was their contemporary, Edmond Dédé—likely the first Black American to study at the prestigious Paris Conservatory of Music in 1857 and to compose a full opera—who is arguably best remembered today, not because he came from New Orleans, but because he left it.
“Dédé moved to Bordeaux because he could not get the work here,” says Mason. “He was having a hard time getting his music published.” Even later, after 25 years as the director of Bordeaux’s L’Alcazar Theater Orchestra and the completion of his 1887 magnum opus Morgiane ou Le Sultan d’Ispahan, New Orleans’s theaters refused to stage his work.
When he returned to the city in 1893, “he was forced to perform in the private homes of well-to-do families and churches,” Mason continues. “He was not given the welcome he deserved.”
It’s a wrong that OperaCreole will finally make right in 2025. In collaboration with the National Opera House, Opera Lafayette of Washington, D.C., and the Consulate General of France in New Orleans, the company will stage the entire 550-page production with the help of Opera Lafayette’s artistic director, New Orleans native Patrick Quigley. People of color will fill as many roles as possible, from singing on stage to working behind the scenes. “It will be completely history-busting,” says Joseph.
“To me, this is what civil rights is about,” Mason says. The history of New Orleans’s composers of color “should be as well known as Rosa Parks. Black culture has so many more expressions than we know.”