New Orleans Opera is very proud to present a new interview with soprano LaVergne Monette, the winner of the Lifetime Achievement in Classical Arts Award from the Gambit affiliated, Big Easy Awards. The interview is conducted by Founder and Artistic Director of the award-winning OperaCréole, New Orleans Opera artist and Advisory Board Member, Givonna Joseph, and directed by Dylan Trần.
Ms. LaVergne Monette is a native of New Orleans who has broken racial barriers in opera and has given honor to our city through her international success as an operatic and classical artist and educator.
LaVergne Monette, soprano
Ms. LaVergne Monette was the 1960 winner of the National Metropolitan Opera Auditions. She also made history by becoming the first person of color to sing a role with New Orleans Opera. This groundbreaking 1968 production of Carmen included Ms. Monette as Mercedes next to Ruth Falcon as Frasquita. It was staged by Arthur Cosenza and conducted by Knud Anderson. LaVergne Monette would later sing Mercedes, Micaëla, and many other roles, including Mimi in La Boheme at New York City Opera and beyond.
The New York Times said that Ms. Monette possessed “a beautiful voice with tremendous power and warmth”, and the Herald Tribune said this of her performance in the Metropolitan Opera’s concert at Lewisohn Stadium: “LaVergne Monette, a promising newcomer discovered after winning the Met auditions, breezed through the score with her exceptionally fine voice. Only a reprise tumultuously urged and willingly granted brought the evening and highly invigorating season to an end.”
Her parents, Adolph and Flora Mel Monette, made sure she had music in her life from an early age, and brought her to study voice with Nelson Francis privately, which led to her working with him while a student at Xavier University Preparatory High School.
Ms. Monette graduated from Xavier University of Louisiana’s groundbreaking opera program created by Sr. Elise Sisson, SBS, with whom she studied voice, and sang the title role of Aida (to Nelson Francis’ Radames) and other roles in their historic productions. The great basso of New Orleans heritage, Norman Treigle, came to Xavier to stage their production of Le Nozze di Figaro with Ms. Monette as Countess Almaviva. She and Norman Treigle would go on to perform together often.
After attending a summer program at Chatham College in Pittsburgh, PA, Robert Lawrence recommended her to the great diva, renowned soprano Rosa Ponselle, who took her under her wing as a protégée (Ms. Ponselle was herself a protégée of the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso).
During her time in New York, she would also study with Bert Knapp and perform at New York City Opera with Norman Treigle, Beverly Sills, and Plácido Domingo. Ms. Monette, sponsored by the Metropolitan Opera and Columbia Artists International, distinguished herself by representing the United States as a featured solo artist in a orchestral and recital tour of Finland and on audition tours of Austria, Germany and Switzerland.
In addition to roles with the Met and New York City Opera, she sang with Baltimore Opera, Virginia Opera, and Saratoga Opera in Florida. She even sang a role in the 1966 New York City Opera production of The Consul staged by Gian Carlo Menotti himself.
In 1987, she had the honor of being chosen as a soloist for the Papal Mass celebrated at the University of New Orleans during St. Pope John Paul II’s visit. She also appeared in recitals in the UNICEF Pavillion of the Louisiana World’s Fair in 1984. Ms. Monette was also a featured soloist in recitals at New York’s Town Hall and Carnegie Hall.
Throughout her career, LaVergne Monette has divided her talents between performances and nurturing young artists by teaching voice, performance, acting and world languages all over the U.S. She taught privately in New York, at Illinois State University, Indiana University at Bloomington, and at Xavier University and Delgado Community College in New Orleans, Louisiana. She also gave back to the community through her work with elementary school children at St. Rita’s Catholic School in New Orleans.
Ms. Monette has also been a champion of New Orleans Creole culture. In 2000, she was featured on Sybil Kein’s CDs Creole Classique Music for a New Orleans Soirée. This CD brought the music of 19th Century New Orleans free composers of color to life, and she was a soloist in Dr. Kein’s CD Songs of Romance.
In retirement, Ms Monette continues to use her beautiful voice singing in Carol Dolliole’s choir at St Augustine Church in Faubourg Tremé, at St. Anthony of Padua with Larry Lydon, organist and member of the New Orleans Opera Chorus, and at other churches throughout New Orleans. In 2017 she received the “Lift Every Voice” Legacy Award from the National Opera Association. She currently resides in New Orleans and is thankful to God for all her blessings.
Givonna Joseph, OperaCréole
As Founder and Artistic Director of the award-winning OperaCréole, Ms. Joseph’s research on operatic composers of African descent has been featured in The New Yorker, Southern Living magazine, and on NPR. She was previously honored as a standard bearer of Louisiana culture on Le Grand Tour, a documentary for French TV, and Music Inside Out with Gwen Thompkins.
Her company received The Gambit affiliated Classical Arts Awards in 2018, and 2019. In 2020, The Coalition for African Americans in the Performing Arts (CAAPA) of Washington, D.C. honored them.
Since 2011, the international soloist, along with her daughter, OperaCréole co-founder Aria Mason, has successfully mounted lost operas by composers of color such as Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s Thelma, and Lucien Lambert’s La Flamenca.
In 2018 they created an original opera The Lions of Reconstruction: From Black Codes to the Ballot Box in honor of New Orleans’ tricentennial.
Ms. Joseph teaches private voice, and specializes in Arts Integration using the science of music, and Creole culture.
She previously served as Education Director for the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, and as a singer, the mezzo-soprano has sung featured roles in many New Orleans Opera productions, and serves on their Advisory Board. She has also performed with Houston Grand Opera, and sang a leading role in Wading Home, which told the story of Hurricane Katrina.