Articles Featuring Aria in Print and Web Media
August 29, 2015
By Aria M. Mason
I’m a typical Creole girl.
Made in Treme, born Uptown, and raised in Gentilly in a multigenerational household with beaucoup music, dancing and loud, hilarious people: gumbo at birthday parties, mirliton vine on the fence, off-color phrases in Creole, and Mass every Sunday. Food was love, and love was celestially delicious.
My mother’s family has roots in the gens du couleur libre (free people of color) community two centuries deep and forebears with African, French, Sicilian, Spanish and indigenous American roots.
Culture and tradition were integral to daily life, and as I grew, finding my voice had more to do with my personal development. In an environment where my culture was predominant, my identity was a fabulously comfortable pair of shoes and its etymology common knowledge. As the 20th century closed, New Orleans was ostensibly in decline. Our city was at its zenith as “murder capital of the world,” replete with failing schools and crumbling infrastructure. For those of us growing up in relative security, we focused on its joys and hoped challenges were being addressed.
We believed our strong collective identity would never fundamentally change.
I went away to college, believing I chose a similarly diverse environment at a private university in the nation’s capital. Imagine my surprise when I discovered I entered AMERICA!, a land of unseasoned food, interaction-free parades and smothering, unquestioned white privilege. It became increasingly evident to me that New Orleans was a sovereign nation, and my intersectional existence as a black multiethnic woman and a left-of-center devout Catholic made me a unicorn outside of its borders.
I was desperately homesick. It was then I heard my voice for the first time. I became a vociferous defender of differences in the cultural norms between the boisterous beauty of my culture and that of the heartland.
Although I formed some enduring friendships while in college, I also witnessed, perhaps for the first time, the ease with which a majority group dismissed the reality of people of color. I watched with disdain as classmates who resisted exploring the causes of disenfranchisement were accepted to service programs in my hometown where they could “save those poor people,” in their words. It steeled my resolve to come home and be part of the city’s future.
I graduated in May 2005 and came home, eager to enjoy the city as an adult. The events at the end of August turned all my dreams upside down. In my family alone, upwards of 30 homes were destroyed here and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. My mother and I shuttled between several Texan cities before we were able to see our house, destroyed by 11 feet of water.
So much has been written about the devastation of the levee failure, but what struck me most was the total absence of life: no birds, no grass, nothing but mold. Our house was marinating in a chemical gumbo — every surface bore thick curtains of black, green and white mold. We were beyond uprooted. Rather than angry or frustrated, I found myself in shock.
The mold in the house made physical what my emotional climate had for weeks: It left me silent. My vocal cords were literally paralyzed for months and I couldn’t speak above a whisper. At the most painful time in my life, I could take no comfort in my usual application of my music as metaphysical analgesic. I could not reach out to those similarly afflicted to discuss the swirling mélange of emotion I was pickling in.
While I underwent vocal rehabilitation, my speech pathologist told me that my condition was possibly neurological, not an allergic reaction, and I might have aphasia, a language disorder that causes those affected to have a disturbance in the way they formulate and comprehend speech.
It seemed fitting, since I couldn’t find words to express my feelings. The physiological silencing I was experiencing compounded my experience as a refugee. I say refugee, not the toothless, trite “evacuee,” because I quickly learned that, though Americans, we were strangers in a land that did not welcome us. We felt unheard as we set about untying the Gordian Knot of personal recovery while working the stages of grief and simultaneously navigating bureaucratic labyrinths to receive minimal aid.
All I knew for sure is that I needed to find a way to get back home and be a part of whatever happened next to my hometown, even if I did it as a mute. When I asked my grandfather, a revered civil rights activist, what I should do, he advised me, “When you have grandchildren, and they ask what you did to help, make sure you feel good about your answer.”
When my prodigal voice returned after three months, I took that as a sign that I could begin to be of help and I chose to enter a program, a branch of AmeriCorps, that was founded as a recovery and rebuilding team.
When I arrived in Baton Rouge, I discovered I was the only corps member of 50 directly affected by the storm. I found wonderful support among the corps and was forthright about harvesting my experience to expose them to the truth of the disaster.
The next thing I knew, when I wasn’t busy with a service project, I was sent across the country to fundraise for the program. I was happy to do it, because I thought it offered an opportunity to be a voice for my community to those making meaningful change. Soon I discovered that my input wasn’t welcome, just my story and my singing ability. When people heard my story, and wanted to help me personally, the leadership actively discouraged them from doing so. As my team was gutting houses for others for free, my mother and I had to pay to have our houses, which the corps toured to get “the real story” as part of training, emptied and gutted by strangers.
While I no longer had physical aphasia, I began to witness a new kind of aphasia: jargon aphasia.
Jargon aphasia is a type of dysfunction where an individual’s speech is incomprehensible to others, but appears to make sense to them. I noticed that as recovery and renaissance began in earnest, my voice and that of other native Orleanians were brought on board for “street cred” but little else.
Education nonprofits brought locals on board to attract people to their programs only to decry the way time was wasted by local holidays — perhaps the most puzzling attitude to Mardi Gras ever. Off-handedly, they sneered that the local climate bred lazy educators not fit to run schools. Charter networks employed teaching artists for enrichment programs, but often didn’t prioritize or respect their curricula.
Our dissenting voices were quieted as recommendations made by local residents during post-storm forums went unrealized, mental health resources went unreconstructed and trauma in a returning populace went unprocessed. Neighborhoods began changing from authentic seats of culture into increasingly white theme parks teeming with Orleaneophiles taking second line classes and founding walking clubs with salty, PG-13 names. Meanwhile, endeavors led by young professional natives, often those of color, went unsung in the local and national press even though we were more likely to be committed to the work for the long haul.
Little by little, the nicknames natives had used for New Orleans for decades — the Crescent City, the N.O., the Big Easy — started being supplanted by the city’s postal abbreviation Nola. It was on shirts, signs and, increasingly, in conversation.
For me, the rise of Nola is more evidence of jargon aphasia.
Nola is a twee, cutesy, sparkly place with organic gluten-free gumbo, artisanal beignets and coffee with hand-ground chicory where newcomers are more local than the locals. Nola is a tritone without the third sound, a shadow of the real thing, a half-life built on the shiny side of traditions that has been gutted of the gritty struggle and veracity that bore them.
If I have the choice, I will take the home of the frozen cup, endless games of Pitty Pat, $10-and-under poor boys and door poppers. I want my kale in gumbo z’herbes and my juice in a strong cocktail. I will take New Orleans, me.
Aria M. Mason, mezzo-soprano, is a vocalist and musician. She is a founding member of the acclaimed ensemble OperaCréole, the nationally acclaimed New Orleans opera company.
May 18, 2011
By Maria Montoya
WHY YOU'VE HEARD OF HER: Mason appears at local weddings, was a founding member of City Year Louisiana and recently was featured in the role of Annie in the 2010 production of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess."
WHAT'S SHE UP TO: In partnership with the Louisiana Creole Research Association and six local soloists, founded OperaCreole to pay tribute to New Orleans as the First City of Opera and to the many Creoles of color who were great supporters, composers and performers of classical music.
WHERE TO SEE HER: OperaCreole will offer a free concert Saturday at 6 p.m. at St. Mary's Church at the Old Ursuline Convent. For more information and future concert dates, visit www.operacreole.com.
A: My mother is Givonna Joseph, a longtime member of the Opera Chorus, and she introduced opera to me at a very early age. Initially, I did musical theater at NORD as a pre-teen and teenager, but when I got to college, the opera bug bit me. Opera is like musical theater concentrate.
New Orleans Opera blog, October 2010
When did you realize that singing was important to you and that you wanted it to be a part of your life?
I have been singing since I was very little. I used to sing books to my family and make up songs about whatever I was doing, which I still do! I refused to admit it, for a long time, because I didn't want to be compared unfavorably to my mom. I would sing alone in my room or under my breath to the radio...until my mom caught me when I was 11, and turned the radio down, and said, "Okay, let me hear it." That was the first time I actually wanted to sing for anyone, and I started doing musical theater not long after that at NORD Theater. In high school, I opened myself up to the idea that singing was a life I wanted to pursue.
Do you have a mentor? Who and how did this person inspire you?
Obviously, my mother has been my greatest mentor and inspiration. She is a truly gifted vocalist and a great advocate for the power of music, both as an educational and therapeutic tool. Listening to her sing and sharing in her love for all kinds of music made me a music lover in the first place.
She raised me on everything from Earth, Wind and Fire to Led Zeppelin to Patsy Cline, and she and my grandparents had a passion for movie musicals, great entertainers, and literature, so I was exposed to eclectic styles and tastes from a very early age. I had great teachers at Lusher, Ben Franklin, and NOCCA, who gave me a real passion for knowing every aspect of the craft and the importance of professionality and scholarship in order to succeed. I also had a wonderful relationship with my voice teacher at Catholic University, Regina McConnell, who was part teacher, part mom and part taskmaster. She always encouraged me to sing repertoire I was in love with and to feel comfortable inside my own voice, and to not only embrace my strengths, but use my growth areas as a musician as motivation to be better.
What was your first favorite song? Do you have a favorite now?
My first favorite song was a tie between "Up, Down, Touch the Ground" from Winnie the Pooh and "Beat It". :) These days, I have so many favorite songs from every genre! It would be impossible to choose-as a reflection of this I have thousands of songs on my iPod. My favorite piece to sing is Schubert's "Ave Maria". I can remember hearing my mother sing it at Mass as a little girl, and I first sang it at Mass in college. The Hail Mary prayer within it has brought me a lot of comfort over the years.
How long have you been singing with the Opera Chorus?
I have been with the Chorus since 2006, but if you ask any of the veteran choristers, I have been an unofficial chorister since 1984.
Do you sing with other choirs? Which ones?
I spent three years with the choir at St. Louis Cathedral, which was wonderful, and last served as the Director of Music at Our Lady of the Rosary.
Of all the times you have sung for the public, which has been the most rewarding to you and why?
I was a founding member of City Year Louisiana, an AmeriCorps program that serves in schools and in community service projects here and in Baton Rouge. In 2006, I was asked to sing at the national convention in New York City, in memoriam to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and in acknowledgment of the site's founding, but also of my own losses of home and family in the storm. I sang one of my favorite songs: "Home" from "The Wiz" a cappella before an audience of over 1,000 people with a backdrop of pictures from New Orleans and Biloxi (my father's hometown). It meant so much to me because the lyrics are about the comforts of home and knowing who you are and where you come from no matter what happens, and I sang it as much in honor of my fellow lost citizens but also in honor of those who had done so much for myself and others who had to redefine what home meant. It was very emotional and I wasn't sure that I would make it through, but hearing the audience reaction and having people tell me how much it meant to them was really beautiful.
What has been you favorite opera to sing?
I loved the works we have done by Puccini since I have been with the chorus, most especially Suor Angelica. That music was heartbreakingly beautiful and the libretto is so poignant: it also gives us a look into the inner lives of women that I find interesting. Porgy and Bess has been one of the most fun and the most heartrending to sing as well: fun in the big chorus scenes, and heartrending in the most spiritual moments-I have really enjoyed singing Annie and helping to bring this wonderful music to life.
Want to share any particular behind the opera scene stories?
During Lucia di Lammermoor, I had a costume that easily weighed 60 pounds. I thought I would faint from the weight of that thing! I was onstage, singing, when I felt the dress fall open-completely-in the back. I guess it collapsed under its own weight! I had to get help to come close it up and get me offstage; thankfully, the audience didn't see anything. It was hilarious.