Natchez Festival of Music celebrates 30 years of performances

Published 12:45 pm Saturday, June 19, 2021

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NATCHEZ — The Natchez Festival of Music celebrated 30 years of bringing music to Natchez on Friday with a special Opera performance, “String of Pearls,” at the Natchez City Auditorium.

Festival chairman Diana Glaze said the Natchez Festival of Music began in 1990 with a simple question over dinner at the Santa Fe Opera Festival.

Lani Riches leaned over and asked her husband Ron the question, “Wouldn’t it be great if Natchez could have an opera festival like that?”

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At the time, the Riches were the owners and proprietors of Monmouth Inn. Upon their return to Natchez, a conversation started at Monmouth between the Riches and Buzz Harper, David Blackburn, and his wife Sarah regarding the possibility of hosting such a festival in Natchez. It became known that Blackburn, who was staying at the inn, was a respected Opera professor and conductor working in New York and that two of the performers from the Santa Fe festival were singers in his New York studio.

Former Natchez Mayor David Armstrong agreed to call a community meeting at the Carriage House restaurant. There, he tasked Blackburn with preparing a conceptual plan for what would be called the Natchez Opera Festival. When the plan was presented at Monmouth later that year, the festival was born.

Blackburn became not only the co-founder and first artistic director of the festival, but also would become a committed Natchez resident. Blackburn died in 2008 and his artistic leadership was followed by George Hogan in 2009 and Jay Dean in 2011. Dean, Director of the School of Music at the University of Southern Mississippi, continues to lead the festival.

“Over 18 years, the festival thrived under David Blackburn’s artistic ability. He had an amazing ability to audition and bring outstanding talent to Natchez every year,” Glaze said.

“The city hosted 30 or more artists plus a production crew and orchestra each May. For the past 30 years, this community has benefited from and helped launch the careers of young opera and musical theater vocalists. During that time, we have employed well over 1,000 seasonal performers.”

The festival began as the Natchez Opera Festival and later evolved into the Natchez Festival of Music to include a more diverse selection of entertainment, Glaze said.

To commemorate the operatic origin of the festival, Dean and stage director Carroll Freeman led a nostalgic performance from a chamber orchestra and Opera singers Bridget Cappel, Tjaden Cox, Hosea Griffith, Maryann Kyle, Peter Lake, Patrick McNally and Stacey Trenteseaux.

Friday’s celebratory concert had been scheduled to take place on the 30-year anniversary of the Natchez Festival of Music in 2020, Glaze said. However, COVID-19 caused a change of plans and the committed performers in the concert graciously agreed to return the following year, she said.

Also attending in the audience of Friday night’s festivities was the first ever festival board chairman, Forest Germany.

“Thank you so much for kickstarting us for 30 more years,” Glaze said to Germany.

Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson and Ward 1 Alderwoman Valencia Hall also presented a proclamation on behalf of the City of Natchez in honor of the festival’s 30 years.

“May this past 30 years be only a prelude to the many years to come,” Gibson said.