Music festival offers culture to locals and performers
NATCHEZ — On stage, Emily Lockhart is Yum-Yum, the apple of Nanki-Poos’ eye, taunting him with a booming soprano voice and the flutter of her Japanese fan.
Off stage, she’s an ordinary house guest from Austin, Texas, visiting Natchez and soaking up all the crepe myrtle culture she can at her temporary home base on South Union Street.
Like many of the performers at the Natchez Festival of Music, Lockhart said she’s stayed before with host families in other parts of the country during music festivals. But there’s something about the way Natchezians treat the singers that makes them feel like part of the community.
“They’ve taken us to church picnics, Easter (celebrations) and the Cemetery in the Serenade,” Lockhart said.
Hilerie Klein Rensi, a New Yorker performing for her fifth year at the Natchez Festival of Music, said a big part of the culture at their fingertips is delivered on a plate.
“When we get off (rehearsal) at 11 (p.m.) at night, (locals) feed us,” Klein Rensi said.
That doesn’t happen anywhere else, the singers said.
“It’s a different (type of) cobbler every day,” Lockhart added.
“It’s trouble,” Klein Rensi said. “We’re worried about our costume measurements.”
Lockhart, Klein Rensi and a number of other performers with long resumes and raw talent will perform May 12 in “Mikado,” a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta that mixes humor with history.
“Mikado” director and Natchez resident Diana Glaze said Natchez is lucky get a chance to enjoy such rich culture when the Festival of Music comes to town. But Lockhart said the same goes for the performers.
“Part of the (joy of performing at the Natchez Festival of Music), is getting a cultural experience ourselves,” Lockhart said.
“We experience something unique, too.”
Klein Rensi said she’s carved out a bit of her own Natchez family on her visits.
Every time Klein Rensi comes back, locals are pleased to meet her children.
“‘Oh, I remember when you were pregnant,’” her fans and local friends would tell her, Klein Rensi said.
Paul Houghtaling, who is the assistant director and plays the lead role as Ko-Ko in “Mikado,” is back at the Natchez Festival of Music this year for the first time in 17 years. Like lots of its occasional visitors, Houghtaling, a former New Yorker and current assistant professor and director of opera theater at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, said he’s noticed the city’s evolution in the most meaningful of ways.
“I remember Fat Mama’s (Tamales), but (in 1995) it was in a different place,” Houghtaling said.
“Mikado,” a mash-up of musical theater and opera, is a comedy about beheadings, love triangles and the history and culture of Japan with some local references in the mix. Natchez politics, Southern culture and the New Orleans Saints will catch audiences by surprise, they said.
“There’s nothing sacred about it,” Houghtailing said.
He said the cultural comedy attempts to put a mirror up to society.
“It’s a nice gateway for audiences who have never seen opera,” Lockhart said.
Klein Rensi said the festival gives locals a chance to hear young artists and follow them on their way up in their careers. Some of the former Natchez fest performers, she said, have gone on to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York or toured around Europe.
Houghtaling said he’s also noticed the evolution of the Natchez Festival of Music, which was formerly the Natchez Opera Festival. Now, the festival has been rebranded to reach a wider audience by incorporating other types of music.
Talk about the Natchez Festival of Music has even made its way around the industry,” Klein Rensi said.
“If you can get people in New York to talk about (if they’re auditioning for the Natchez festival), it’s a good sign,” she said.
Glaze said this year is her first time directing a performance following her increased involvement in the festival since 1997, and she’s been relieved the talented out-of-town artists have embraced her ideas.
“This is a unique opportunity with a town this size to have the quality of talent of these singers,” Glaze said.
“Mikado” will open at 7 p.m. May 12 tentatively at the Margaret Martin Performing Arts Center for $25. A change in location might be announced due to renovations at the center.
The Natchez Festival of Music kicks off Saturday with Swingin’ Blues at 7 p.m. at the First Presbyterian Church for $20. Sunday’s event, a Hungarian Rhapsody, will be at 4 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church for $15.
Events will continue every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until May 26. For a full listing of the schedule of events visit www.natchezfestivalofmusic.com.