By Tom Lady
Friday, November 4, 1994.
That was the date of the first board meeting of African Americans for LA Opera (AALAO), a brand new chapter of the Opera League of Los Angeles.
AALAO's mission? "Bring more Black folks to see opera," sums up Eva Grant, AALAO's founder. "There weren't many attending opera back then."
Eva became an opera fan early on in her hometown of Washington, D.C. Our nation’s capital did not yet have the National Opera or the Kennedy Center in her day, but just like pre-LA Opera, pre-Music Center Los Angeles, every year a visiting opera company would put down stakes to serve up some culture to the locals, using venues such as Ford’s Theatre, the site of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.
Eva had been married to her husband less than a month when he moved out here to attend the University of Southern California en route to becoming an organic chemist. Eva and their daughter followed soon after.
While it was wonderful to have the Grant family together, Eva still went solo to the opera. "Whenever an opera performance came to the Shrine, my husband would drop me off and then pick me up when it was over," she says. "My daughter would come with me sometimes, but she never really took to it."
Suffice it to say that when a certain volunteer organization of passionate opera lovers came together in 1981, Eva was among the first in line to join.
Also at the front of the line was Delores Kerr. Like Eva, Delores had been sating her opera appetite with trips to the Shrine. More than that, she'd also volunteered with Reach Out, the original volunteer organization of the Music Center of Los Angeles, organized and led by the woman who led the charge to build the Music Center itself: Dorothy Buffum Chandler. Or Buffy, as those in the know called her.
Delores, who became co-president of Reach Out, recalls: “When the Music Center was built, Buffy said, ‘I can build this building. But I can’t be sure all the people of Los Angeles County know it belongs to them. The Music Center belongs to ALL of the people.’”
And so Reach Out did just that, and in so doing innovated a full slate of programming that included seminars, emerging young artist recitals, backstage tours, artist services… Any of this sound familiar, Opera Leaguers?
“We did fun things with Reach Out,” Delores says. “Luncheons and things. It was fun. Tiring, but fun… We were always welcome. People went out of their way to make sure we felt welcome.”
“Dorothy Chandler was a savvy lady,” says Opera League co-founder Alice Coulombe. “She realized if the Music Center was going to work, it had to be for everybody.”
The original AALAO brochure featuring Gwendolyn Bradley in Ariadne auf Naxos
The mission of diversity and inclusion has coursed through the Music Center’s veins from the very beginning and, by extension, the arts companies that have taken up residence there. So you could say it was inevitable that the Opera League, which was born at the Music Center in 1981 as the volunteer nonprofit love child of Buffy Chandler’s Reach Out, would create a wing dedicated exclusively to inclusivity.
Eva Grant was on the Opera League Board of Directors when she, as well as Gwendolyn “Gwen” Wyatt, a dramatic soprano with a doctorate in music, conceived of a new chapter of the League called African Americans for LA Opera (AALAO).
In that pre-social media age, Eva got the word out the only way you could for a nonprofit grassroots venture: word of mouth. Eva was an administrator for Los Angeles Unified School District, whose Grand Avenue office was right up the way from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Suffice it to say she told all her friends and colleagues about AALAO. She also put ads in Black newspapers like The Sentinel and used her volunteering at Opera League events to spread the word.
And let us not forgot the precious intermission time at LA Opera productions in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
AALAO in the early days
To Xerxes and Beyond
Joyce Nembhard was attending a Saturday matinee of Handel’s Xerxes at LA Opera in the fall of 1994. During intermission, Eva approached her and introduced herself and told Joyce about a new organization she was forming called AALAO, with the goal of helping Blacks participate more in the opera world. Would she, Joyce, care to join? Joyce of course said yes. As an aside, she told Eva the story of her growing up in Omaha, Nebraska, and how her mother would always turn the radio on at 11am to the Met’s Saturday broadcasts. One Saturday when she was 10, and her mother flicked on the radio, “Ombra mai fu,” the opening aria of Xerxes, was playing. Joyce thought it was the most beautiful music she ever heard. And now here she was, decades later, experiencing Xerxes live, being invited to join a group of opera die-hards with the mission of growing and diversifying opera’s audiences.
Alice Coulombe laughs when I tell her how Eva approached Joyce during the Xerxes intermission. “That’s how it worked!” she says. “We worked the crowd. We approached whoever caught our eye.”
Joyce attended her first AALAO board meeting in January 1995. "They pulled out all the stops for our board meetings," Joyce laughs. "Nibbles served on sterling silver. The works!"
Just as the Opera League proper is organized by committees (e.g. the Marketing and Communications committee oversees BRAVO, the Opera League website, etc.), so is AALAO. Joyce joined their committee in charge of programming those AALAO recitals we all know and love.
AALAO in modern times
The very first AALAO recital took place at a private residence in the L.A. neighborhood of Baldwin Hills on May 5, 1995, concurrent with an LA Opera production of Porgy and Bess. Performing at the recital was none other than Bess herself: soprano Marquita Lister. Joyce was going through her records during my phone call with her and came upon Marquita Lister's Northwest Airlines itinerary, as she flew across the country just for this performance.
Many more recitals followed, mostly at private homes around Los Angeles with the occasional public venue thrown in, including Bing Auditorium at USC and Westwood Presbyterian. AALAOers also took field trips hither and on. "We took a trip to San Francisco to see Marquita Lister perform in Aida for SF Opera," says Joyce. She also cites a trip to Cerritos Performing Arts in Orange County to see Leontine Price give a concert.
"It was delightful to see these beautifully trained, lovely voices," Joyce says. "And how more opportunities opened up for Black singers for both stage and recital."
As for how AALAO was able to land such big names for their recitals, everyone I spoke to gave the lion's share of credit to AALAO co-founder Gwen Wyatt. As a dramatic soprano herself, she had a lot of contacts in the operaverse.
"And the opera world is so small," Delores adds. "Opera singers always need help...Very few of them can support themselves being opera singers."
Eventually the recitals were held mostly at the residence of Delores and her husband Ben Kerr, an aircraft designer whose career took him to McDonnell-Douglas and Boeing. They would also host dinners for the Premier-level members and donors. And in the age before Shop at the Opera, the annual sweepstakes took place at their place. Alice Coulombe and her late husband Joe would also host one recital a year.
Soon enough, AALAO, even though it is a chapter of the Opera League, evolved enough to run itself autonomously, including producing its own programs and hiring its own singers.
Ben and Delores Kerr
So what would the veterans like to see from AALAO in the future?
"We need to increase our membership," says Joyce. "We've never gotten as big as I've wanted. When I attend the recitals, I generally see the same people."
Delores takes it further. “We need to go back to our grassroots,” she says. “Like recitals at churches, more advertising in The Sentinel. That’s how some of our board members found out about us originally. How about more free tickets like we used to do? Giving them out at schools? At some point we stopped doing that, but we need to get back to that….And yes, more members. We need some young blood. Some of us have been traveling this road a long time.”
In the meantime, the pandemic has not crimped their style. Indeed, AALAO members were the very first to push the Opera League at large into the Brave New World of virtual programming with a virtual recital on Father’s Day 2020 featuring vocalist Alannah Garnier. On February 21 they’ll produce their second virtual recital, this time featuring bass-baritone Cedric Berry. And when local safety guidelines allow it, they intend to get right back to their in-person recitals, dinners, receptions…
Alice Coulombe plans to continue hosting at least one recital a year. The Opera League co-matriarch considers AALAOers close friends as well as wonderful colleagues. “They’re good, loyal friends,” she says. “They’re very savvy. I love them, I’m proud of them, and I’m grateful.”