Behind the Scenes: New Orleans Opera
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Behind the Scenes: New Orleans Opera

Tenacious arts advocate JACKIE CLARKSON is a master rebuilder of the city’s cultural landscape.
by Helen Sheehy. 

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Clarkson with Domingo in 2009, when the stage of the Mahalia Jackson Theater was renamed in the tenor’s honor
Photos courtesy of New Orleans Opera Association
“I whispered to him, ‘I’ve always wanted to be on this stage.’”
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With Domingo and her daughter Patricia
Photos courtesy of New Orleans Opera Association

FOR MORE THAN two centuries, opera in New Orleans has survived fire, yellow fever, economic depression, world war and, most recently, Hurricane Katrina. Founded in 1943, the modern New Orleans Opera Association is “old, but not creaky,” says the company’s general and artistic director, Robert Lyall.

The same might be said for New Orleans’s patron saint of opera, eighty-year-old Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson. Before she began her political career—she served on the New Orleans City Council and was a representative from District 102 in the state legislature—Clarkson worked as a realtor and was president of the Louisiana Realtor Association. She also served on the opera board for a number of years. “To have a voice like Jackie’s—gregarious, exuberant and in a leadership position—advocating for the arts is invaluable,” says Lyall. “She’s tenacious.”

During Hurricane Katrina, Clarkson stayed and worked to evacuate the city; afterward, she helped people rebuild. Clarkson recalls being interviewed by a Fox News reporter who questioned whether New Orleans could come back after so much devastation. “I was almost annoyed, because he was so insistent that we couldn’t rebuild,” she says. “‘Watchus,’ I told him. The spirit of New Orleans is never underwater.”

New Orleans is Clarkson’s hometown, and everyone calls her Jackie, or sometimes “The Lady in Red”—her signature color. Last fall, Clarkson told me by phone that when she was a girl, she was known as the “little sister of the opera.” Born and raised in Algiers, New Orleans’s fifteenth ward, Clarkson remembers being “always in the wings of the opera, but I wanted to be on the stage.” Her older sister Jeanne started singing with the opera when she was six. “Jeanne used to sing with Norman Treigle,” Clarkson says, “and I’d go to rehearsal with her to listen. I was constantly exposed to opera music, and I just loved it.” 

Raised in a family devoted to the arts, Clarkson was extremely close to her Lithuanian maternal grandmother, a European immigrant, who, says Clarkson, “believed that the arts were a salvation of life.” In the 1940s, Clarkson’s father, Johnny Brechtel, a legendary football coach, created the New Orleans Recreation Department, which brought integrated sports and arts to the poor of New Orleans. Inspired by her father’s belief that “we won’t have a city unless we have opera,” and by her older sister’s deathbed command, “Don’t let the opera die,” Clarkson has devoted her life to the arts in New Orleans.

Clarkson recruited her youngest daughter, award-winning actress Patricia Clarkson, to serve as the master of ceremonies for two fundraising galas since Katrina. Her four other daughters are also lovers and supporters of the arts. “Jackie is a community activist,” says Lyall. “The whole concept for arts giving is that people give to people, and with Jackie we have a strong, much loved and respected advocate.”

Clarkson’s political skill was essential to renaming the city-owned stage in the Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts after Plácido Domingo, whose half-century relationship with New Orleans Opera began in 1962, when he performed Arturo in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor. “When I walked out to present him with the keys of the city,” Clarkson says, “I whispered to him, ‘I’ve always wanted to be on this stage.’” spacer 

Helen Sheehy is the author of biographies of Margo Jones, Eva Le Gallienne, and Eleonora Duse. 

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