By Tracie Isaac
Each year the Rochester Fringe Festival provides selected artists of various genres the opportunity to present unique and original works on an international platform to attendees who may or may not have heard of or seen their artistry.
The festival sponsored by KeyBank runs from September 12th-22nd. Over eleven-days at 20+ venues with 300+ unique performances including theatrical, musical, dance, film and interactive entertainment activities that the whole family and any individual can find something that will suit their taste or enhance their cultural exposure.
For the 2018 season the Rochester Fringe Festival premiered on Friday, September 14th a presentation of The Violet Hour, a one-act play about African-American opera diva, Mary Violet Leontyne Price
The show premiered at the Lyric Theater: Main Stage located at 440 East Avenue.
This theatrical production featured Joelle Lamarre, Playwright/Actress/Soprano in the star role of the great Leontyne Price. Lamarre is a Chicago based, triple threat talent who took on the admirable task of telling the life story of the classical Soprano singer Leontyne Price—noted as the first real African American superstar in opera.
Lamarre’s production is presented in narrative and song invoking the spirit of Price with the aid of still photos and video to set the backdrop and timeline.
Lamarre said a friend suggested that she present her project to the Rochester Fringe Festival. Taking this advice, she applied and was immediately accepted and was offered two venues to house the performance. Her choice of the Lyric Theatre seemed to be a perfect fit providing an ambiance for soul stirring spirituals and majestic opera.
The Violet Hour is a 60-minute excerpt of Lamarre’s production, which she narrates and sings Leontyne Price’s journey from her youth to the pinnacle of her career.
The project was conceived as an educational platform Lamarre says. “I wanted to do something that not only educates people of the masters of this caliber and also to make an opportunity for others to rent the show out and produce it themselves …I wanted to do something outside of the box …it is important for people to not forget about Leontyne Price who won over 19 Grammys, she was a super star.”
Mary Violet Leontyne Price is the birth name of the great opera diva. Born and raised in Laurel, Mississippi, she rose to international acclaim in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and was the first African American to become a leading artist at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
Utilizing a portion of the subject’s name and the length of the excerpt was a creative birthing for the title of this production.
Ms. Lamarre enlisted local artists like actor David A. Shakes who portrayed Dr. Charles Wesley, the President of Wilberforce University who was noted to have influenced Price to seek a career with her phenomenal singing talent.
Additionally, actor Michael Graziano, a recent transplant to Rochester portrayed Rudolf Bing, an Austrian-born opera impresario who worked in Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States, most notably being General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera (The Met) in New York City from 1950 to 1972.
Sir Bing fostered other opera singers and several more African Americans including the career of Leontyne Price who debuted at The Met in 1961.
The Accompanist, Daniel Schlosberg provided the complimentary grand piano musicianship filled with grandeur and passion to the powerful Soprano vocals of Joelle Lamarre.
Joelle Lamarre with photo of Sir Rudolf Bing and Leontyne Price
The Rochester Connection
Leontyne Price was married to William Warfield an American Bass-Baritone singer who grew up in Rochester, NY, where his father was called to serve as pastor of Mt. Vernon Missionary Baptist Church.
In 1952, Warfield performed in Porgy and Bess during a tour of Europe sponsored by the U.S. State Department. In this production he played opposite the opera star Leontyne Price, whom he soon married; but the demands of two separate careers left them little time together.
After twenty-years of marriage they separated in 1972, but did not divorce until years later. William and Leontyne maintained a wonderful friendship but had no children.
Both Leontyne Price and William Warfield paved the way for today’s classical artists. Not only did these great artists break new ground by diversifying the classical field, they gave back.
Mt. Vernon church was the benefactor of a concert fundraiser presented by Leontyne Price and William Warfield which helped to pay off the mortgage for that church with additional contributions from Warfield.
Fast forward to current day, a friend contacts the nephew of William Warfield, Thomas Warfield, a Rochester native and whose father is the brother to William Warfield. Thomas is the Director of Dance for the past 20-years at RIT/National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID). When asked is he planning to attend this season’s Fringe Festival to see The Violet Hour, Thomas is surprised and excited to hear of the production about his Auntie Lee (his affectionate name for Ms. Price).
This writer went to East High School with Thomas Warfield and was in the audience on the night of the performance. As chills ran through my body, I wished Thomas Warfield was in the audience to hear the parallel of Joelle Lamarre’s voice to Leontyne Price.
After the show, I spotted Thomas in the front row and was overjoyed to see him. I was able to capture a photo of Thomas and Joelle together, as this was a significant moment.
Later on I spoke with Thomas Warfield to get his feedback on the performance. “When Joelle sang Vissi D’arte Tosca’s aria from Tosca/Puccini, her rendition brought tears to my eyes. Her voice is an incredibly remarkable instrument. It is one thing to have a good voice and another to know what to do with it. That is why Leontyne’s career was so extraordinary,” he said.
As the Executor of the William Warfield Scholarship Fund, Thomas Warfield has a vested interest in supporting the next generation of classical singers. “It is important to support those talented artists in this genre. Additionally, we must not forget those who paved the way for future generations,” he continued.
It is noted that Leontyne Price was a role model for many singers. Many African-American singers refer to her as “our empress,” “our queen.” Today, at the age of 91-years old, Ms. Price’s legacy represents a powerful confidence, resounding voice and strength of her artistic convictions, withstanding the test of the times which often was in the face of adversity.
You can find out more about Joelle Lamarre’s work on social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Let’s make it a point to explore the diverse artistic contributions of new artists and support the incredible productions brought to you by The Fringe Festival which runs until September 22, 2018.
Try something new and “FREE” like the outdoor living room where you can sit in comfortable lounge furniture, have a delicious meal from the food trucks, play life size chess or watch a feature film like the blockbuster “Black Panther” with individual headphones for everyone. There are many venues that offer various types of shows for a reasonable cost.