Opera/South is a beautiful story of cultivating entire communities

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Sister Mary Elise with musical director Margaret Harris

By Alice Thomas-Tisdale

JA Publisher Emerita

Twentieth-century composer Ulysses Kay’s The Juggler of Our Lady and other operas by all-Black casts staged by Opera/South was a joint effort with Xavier University in New Orleans. Kay was a neoclassical composer known best for his symphonic and choral compositions, and The Juggler of Our Lady represented his first foray into opera. 

It was first performed in New Orleans on February 23, 1962, with Xavier University, and then performed again 10 years later in a double bill with William Grant Still’s Highway 1, U.S.A., by Opera/South with Xavier University. The 1972 performance at the Jackson city auditorium was also broadcast on Voice of America.

Ebony magazine captured the performance in great detail. Founder of Opera/South, Sister Mary Elise, of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, a Catholic order, is shown getting the cast prepared for the stage, and afterwards congratulating Margaret Harris, musical director of the opera. 

The article written by Hamilton Bims also features dancers Hollis Pippins, Linda Cleveland, and Joseph Gordon who enlivened Juggler

Backstage are photos of Kay, Dr. John Peoples, then president of Jackson State University, and Dr. George Owens, then president of Tougaloo College. Also, Dr. Dollye Robinson, head of the Department of Music, is pictured walking the campus with Dolores Ardoyno, then general manager of Opera/South, discussing long-range plans for funding of the operation. Robinson later became dean of the College of Liberal Arts at JSU, culminating a career that spanned 60 years. 

Opera/South was founded by Sister Elise in the early 1970s, long after she decided not to pursue a career in opera in the 1950s, but shortly following her retirement as music director at Xavier University in New Orleans. 

The concept of Black theatre gained traction when she accepted an invitation by Charles Evers, then mayor of Fayette, MS, to develop a cultural program for his town. Once the Fayette Cultural Center was up and running, Sister Elise relocated to Jackson. It didn’t take long for her to realize the city’s Black population was lacking in her preferred music genre. A collaboration with Jackson State University, Tougaloo College and Utica College resulted in the creation of Opera/South. 

According to Ben E. Bailey, former chair of the Tougaloo College Music Dept., the music chairmen at all three institutions readily agreed and approached their presidents for permission and support, which was given immediately.

“As plans developed and events unfolded, it became apparent that the group would have to be legally chartered with a board of directors if it were to have credibility when seeking funds from foundations and corporations. 

“Consequently, the Mississippi Intercollegiate Opera Guild was chartered by the State of Mississippi on February 18, 1971. Sometime later the name Opera/South was adopted for the production arm of the guild at the suggestion of Sister Elise,” stated Bailey.

Actors Ossie Davis and Sydney Poitier were among its first board members, as well as Margaret Walker Alexander who was on the Jackson State University faculty at the time. The Rockefeller Foundation financially supported the program. 

For its debut in May 1971, the company staged Verdi’s Aida, using professional artists in the leading roles and college students for the choruses and ballets. The Juggler of Our Lady followed.

Opera/South remained active for over 30 years, producing a number of celebrated performances. It went dormant for several years, but had a resurgence in 2006. It is now referred to as Jackson State University Opera-Musical Theatre Ensemble/Opera South Guild.

Dr. Phyllis Hale, an accomplished opera singer and JSU professor of music/voice, is director of the Opera/Musical Theatre.

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Opera/South is a beautiful story of cultivating entire communities

By Jackson Advocate News Service
February 26, 2024