Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Leaves of Greens": An Opera About Collard Greens

Posted By on Wed, Oct 26, 2011 at 9:51 AM

The theme of this year's Southern Foodways Symposium is the "Cultivated South." As usual, this annual syposium, hosted by the University of Mississippi's Southern Foodways Alliance (SFA), is sold out. But those still wishing for a little culture can attend Sunday's free performance of Leaves of Greens, an opera revolving around collard greens.

The opera, based on Leaves of Greens: The Collard Poems, was commissioned by SFA and written by Price Walden, a 20-year-old junior music major at Ole Miss.

Walden took some time to answer questions about Leaves of Greens.

There's much more to Southern food than greens. Why not Moon Pies or biscuits and gravy?
Well, the short answer to this question is that they told me to write about collard greens, but there are many good reasons. To me, Moon Pies or biscuits and gravy can't come close to the history and symbolism we find in the collard green. What makes collard greens even more interesting is that they aren't universally beloved. For every person out there who loves them, there's another person out there who can't even stand the smell, but they instantly conjure up many images and memories for us Southerners.

The opera is divided into three parts, each dealing with Southern life. What are they?
Part One, entitled "To the Virgins, Who Don't Pick Enough in Time" after the Robert Herrick poem, deals with our relationships with our parents. During this section, the characters remember how their mother used to force them to eat their collard greens and a son remembers helping his dad out in his mother's garden after she passed away.

Part Two, "My Sole Credentials," deals with how we Southerners deal with the rest of the world. A baritone tells the true story of how Thelonius Monk, the famous jazz pianist and composer, would wear a collard leaf in his lapel during his shows; a trio of women remember walking down a road and seeing the rows of collard greens.

Part Three, "A Vigil," is about our relationships with our grandparents. During this final section, a woman shares her grandmother's recipe for collard greens, while a man remembers his grandfather's mannerisms at the family's Thanksgiving dinner.

Did you cook or eat greens as research?
I haven't cooked any greens yet (I haven't gotten up the courage yet), but I have eaten plenty of greens since I got this commission. My grandmother, for one, has made it a point to cook greens every time I have been home for Sunday dinner. I did have one bad experience at a potluck dinner, where someone had, quite blasphemously, made greens without a trace of hamhock. Needless to say, I did not go back for seconds.

Operas tend to be dramatic. Will we see — fingers crossed! — a grisly greens death?
Ooh ... I'm afraid there won't be a death scene this time, though that thought sends my imagination in a thousand delicious directions.

What's next? Will we be seeing more food-related musical works from you?
In my immediate future is a recital piece for Jason Beghtol, bass trombonist for the Tupelo Symphony, and two song cycles for students here at Ole Miss, all to be premiered in the spring.

I honestly have no clue at this point whether I will write another food-related piece, though I would certainly be open to the idea if someone is interested. Writing this piece has really made me think about food in entirely different ways.

Leaves of Greens, which is free and open to the public, will be performed by Ole Miss Opera Theatre at the Lyric Hall, 1109 Van Buren in Oxford, Mississippi, at 10 a.m. Sunday, October 30th.

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