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Jul 9, 2021 |
sacred_in_opera  |

Joan at the Mardi Gras: A Musical Retelling the Biblical Story of Jonah

Joan is a young female college student on spring break in this paraphrase of the biblical book of Jonah, with book, lyrics and music by Richard Bernard. She receives a call from The Old Man to preach to the Krewe of Nineveh, who are ruining the Mardi Gras festivities with their wild ways. The work was designed with simplicity in mind and may be produced with a pianist and a bare stage. The music is straightforward and accessible for a high school or church choir, and Bernard’s Louisiana roots are evident in the jazz-flavored rhythms and chords. With a timely message of mercy and forgiveness, this 90-minute, one-act, sacred work offers both fun and introspection for the audience.

The Cast

The cast may comprise as few as four women and three men, playing multiple roles, or as large as six women and eight men, with the potential for more members of the chorus as townspeople.  The voices are all of medium-range, written on the treble clef, rarely leaving the staff, but for the rare low G2 in the men or high G5 in the women. There is one high B-flat 5 in the finale. 

Voice types are not specified for the characters listed below:

Joan: A young college student

The Old Man

Mr. Bobby: A Shrimper

Little Bobby:  Mr. Bobby’s Son

Miz Pesson: An older woman who lives in a fishing camp

Avery: A young man in New Orleans

Snake: King of the Carnival Krewe of Nineveh

LaRita: Queen of the Carnival Krewe of Nineveh

Lil: Senior member of the Carnival Krewe of Nineveh

Bean: Owner of The Lucky Bean, a neighborhood bar in New Orleans

Townspeople (At least 2 women and 2 men: Soprano, Alto, Tenor, Bass)

The setting is a present-day fishing village on a bayou near the central Louisiana Gulf Coast.  It is the Saturday before Mardis Gras.  



Scene One opens with the townspeople reading newspapers or communication devices.  With concerned expressions, they engage each other regarding Mardi Gras in New Orleans and that it is no longer family-friendly.  Krewes, organizations that stage parades or other events for a carnival, are withdrawing because of one particular krewe, called Nineveh. The Krewe of Nineveh is bringing the Carnival down with “mischief, mayhem, chaos and depredation,” including guns on every float.  Marching bands are dropping out, and biker gangs are rolling in.  

The townspeople sing “What Has Happened to the Mardi Gras?" as Joan sits uninterested beneath a large oak tree on the bank. She is home on spring break.  She is approached by the The Old Man, who calls upon her to leave what she is doing, go to New Orleans, and preach to the Krewe of Nineveh.  She is to tell them that he, the Lord, is displeased with them and that they must repent of their evil ways, turn away from their mischief, and learn to fear their Lord or face destruction.  He goes on to sing, "My People Have to Show My Face to the World."  Joan is less than pleased, arguing that she wants to hang out and enjoy her spring break.  As The Old Man exits, Joan sings, “Don’t do me no favors, Lord,” expressing her decided “N.O.”

After Joan's solo, Mr. Bobby enters, carrying a bag of provisions for his shrimp boat.  Joan brightens and asks Mr. Bobby if she can join him and his son as they pull out onto the calm waters to go shrimping in the opposite direction of New Orleans.

In Scene Two, we find Mr. Bobby at the wheel of his shrimp boat, the Trish, flanked by Little Bobby and Joan, in the Gulf of Mexico.  As they visit together on the gentle waters, we find out that Joan is studying physical education in college rather than engineering, as she initially told her father.  Mr. Bobby remarks that Little Bobby may still go to college one day, and Joan offers to host him for a visit before going below deck.  Mr. Bobby asks Joan why The Old Man was talking to her, and she shrugs him off, stating that she wants to forget about it.

Suddenly, the sea becomes violent and tosses the boat erratically, as a storm surges out of nowhere.  Mr. Bobby, Little Bobby, and Joan sing “Rough on the Water” while the men pray, and Joan confesses that she ran in the other direction rather than obeying the Lord.  Finally, realizing she is the cause for the violent seas, Joan grabs a life jacket, jumps, and disappears among the rough waves.

Scene Three opens with Joan asleep in a simple cot at a small coastal fishing camp on Mardi Gras morning.  Joan stirs and slowly awakens, then sits straight up, aware she is in an unfamiliar place.  She sings "Remembering" as she recaps the events of the musical up to this point.  The music segues into "Joan's Dream," as she recalls swimming all around the Gulf of Mexico and the many varieties of fish she encountered before being "scooped from the water in a great white light . . . whirled and swirled around the heavens above."

At the conclusion of Joan’s song, Miz Pesson enters with a small blanket and lays it around Joan.  When Joan asks about her location, Miz Pesson reveals she has washed up due south of New Orleans.  Miz Pesson also remarks that the seas have been smooth as glass for days. She found Joan three days and three nights previous but has no idea how Joan ended up at the Sothern fishing village when traveling West. Joan recalls the events that brought her to this place, as Miz Pesson reveals the mayor has urged Carnival organizations to cancel, stating he cannot guarantee the safety and wellbeing of participants or attendees of Mardi Gras.  Joan recounts the Lord’s call.  Miz Pesson encourages Joan to follow The Lord and head to New Orleans to preach to the Nineveh Krewe.  Before she exits, Miz Pesson hands Joan a phone to call her parents to say that she is safe.

Scene Four occurs in the French Quarter of New Orleans between the cathedral and the river, later Mardi Gras morning.  Miz Pesson and Joan enter, Miz Pesson showing Joan around and familiarizing her with the town.  They both comment on how empty the streets are, but Miz Pesson says the king and queen of the Krewe of Nineveh have to walk straight through the French Quarter.  Joan expresses concern that she won’t know what to say, so Miz Pesson promises to come back for support after she parks her truck.

Miz Pesson exits as Avery enters and excitedly warns Joan to leave as the Krewe of Nineveh is on their way.  Joan calls after Miz Pesson, and Avery states that she can come with him to stay safe.  Joan takes a deep breath and says she has to stay and preach.  Avery dreamily replies that he loves street preachers!  He decides to stay and watch the action, as Snake, Larita, and Lil approach, singing "We the Krewe of Nineveh."  The music segues into "Joan's Exhortation," as Joan fumbles for the right words to speak, then grows in confidence and preaches with enthusiasm.  

The krewe, abashed, responds that they realize they have made the production much less family-friendly. The discussion reveals each member thought they were carrying out the wishes of the others. They agree that the street preacher makes sense and confess that their misunderstandings have led to this disaster in "Quel Malentendu!”  

Miz Pesson has returned to watch the unfolding events and reasons with Joan that her words have caused the krewe to reconsider their actions.  But Joan has become a bit power hungry and warns the krewe that they have twenty-four hours to shape up or be destroyed. The krewe talks among themselves and decide to parade for Mardi Gras without all the wild antics they have been leading recently.  They resolve to help change the Mardi Gras' atmosphere for the better as they exit.

Joan is ecstatic and power-drunk.  She proudly regales Avery and Miz Pesson with her inflated version of her preaching and the response of the krewe.  Joan cannot wait for the 24 hours to be over so that she can relish the destruction of the krewe.  All go to The Lucky Bean to wait.

Scene Five occurs on a street corner outside The Lucky Bean, a neighborhood bar in New Orleans, late on Mardi Gras afternoon.  Miz Pesson and Avery enter and begin chatting with Bean as loud voices are heard offstage.  Joan has been preaching to everyone she can find, claiming the Lord will torch the City of New Orleans and burn it to the ground.  Bean tells Miz Pesson and Avery that the news is reporting the Nineveh Krewe behaved better than anyone ever expected at the parade.  He also believes that Joan should mind her own business and let people live their own lives.  He discusses his philosophy that there exits no good or evil in "Who's to Say They Were Wrong."  Bean believes that Christians make peace by laying guilt trips on everybody else.  Avery says that believing in God is as natural as putting his clothes on in the morning.  Miz Pesson counters that her Catholic upbringing was more like her skin and not something she ever questioned.  The crowded voices fade as the lights go dim.

Scene Six consists of Joan roaming the streets of New Orleans on Mardi Gras Night, addressing the citizens by neighborhood and street as she threatens catastrophic destruction in “The Lord’s Gonna Burn You Down.”

Scene Seven occurs once again in the French Quarter, on Ash Wednesday morning.  Miz Pesson and Avery enter, looking about for Joan and the Nineveh Krewe.  Avery’s forehead displays a large cross made of ashes.  As they discuss Joan's good intentions going to her head, they sing about "The People who Pass Your Way."

Snake, LaRita, and Lil enter dancing and singing, “Peer Pressure,” each with a large cross of ashes upon their foreheads. They approach Miz Pesson and Avery and begin talking as Joan enters for "The Confrontation."  The Nineveh Krewe confesses that they were up all night talking, then rose to Wednesday's Lenten rite and beg for mercy and forgiveness.  Avery and Miz Pesson entreat Joan to listen to their confession and repentance, but Joan insists that it's too late and calls upon the Lord to burn them all down.  Nothing happens. 

Joan continues to call out to the Lord for destruction on Nineveh and New Orleans but is finally reduced to abject consternation when the Lord does not oblige.   Miz Pesson reminds Joan that she was shown mercy when she did not end up at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico and begs her to open her heart.  Joan feels like a fool that her words did not come true and storms out with angry words towards the krewe and, ultimately, the Lord.

Scene Eight happens one year later, back on the bayou banks, with Joan sitting under the giant oak tree, which is now dying. It is the Saturday before Mardi Gras. Joan contemplates that "A Year is a Long, Long Time" as she confesses to the Lord her wrongdoing in being so proud and contentious with the Krewe of Nineveh and the people of New Orleans.  Avery, LaRita, Snake, and Lil enter, all wearing Mardi Gras masks.  They sing "Got to Come to the Mardi Gras," explaining that the Krewe of Nineveh has led the parade in a beautiful new direction:  marching bands are flocking in, biker gangs are standing down, and everything is fresh as spring on Bourbon Street.  They attempt to crown Joan the new queen of Nineveh.  When Joan resists contemptuously, they remove their masks and reveal their identities. Joan is embarrassed about her actions a year previously and confesses her regret.  Avery, Larita, Snake, and Lil sing "Raise Your Eyes Up," encouraging Joan to renew her angry heart and receive their crown of thanks.  

When Joan continues to resist, Avery appeals to her in "Avery's Plea" to recognize that her message brought repentance to a sick and wayward krewe but that she'd let it turn her into a vengeful and prideful person.  Joan recalls the prayer of Mr. Bobby and Little Bobby, and her attitude slowly shifts.  Her resistance finally melts, and she slowly moves toward Avery, who takes her hand as they exit.

The final scene takes place on Mardi Gras morning, once again in the French Quarter.  Snake, Larita, Lil, Joan, Avery, and Miz Pesson reprise "We the Krewe of Ninevah” with new lyrics to represent their new attitude.  They toss Mardi Gras beads into the audience as the song and musical conclude.


The Composer

Richard Bernard, grew up in New Iberia, Louisiana, in the heart of French bayou country.  He earned a BA degree in Music History-Literature at The University of Southwestern Louisiana, now known as The University of Louisiana at Lafayette.  Expecting to become a musicologist, Bernard spent two years at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill but ended up earning an MBA degree from The University of New Orleans and entered a career in international sales with Balon Corporation, a manufacturing company. His love of music remained undiminished, and international travel gave him a chance to hear great music from all over the globe. 

Two of his colleagues, Raleigh Marcell and James Edmunds, secured a production commitment from the Opera Theater at USL for an original musical and asked Bernard to write the score.  The result was The Band Inside Your Head, a musical set in South Louisiana and telling the story of a young man trapped in a cultural identity crisis.  The Band was given a mainstage production at the Heyman Performing Arts Center in Lafayette and was quite an excellent financial success for the Opera Theater.  Director G. S. Beaman Griffin was also delighted to stage Edmunds and Barnard’s next project, Napoleon on the Bandstand, a Cajun musical of conquest. 

Joan at the Mardi Gras! is the most recent project for Bernard.  He states that he loves this story because Joan is so human and reminds him of himself.  She knows the right choice to make but does the wrong thing anyway.  She then struggles to show mercy and forgiveness, even when they are extended to her—a timely message for all of us.

To learn more and to hear excerpts, visit Bernard’s Linkedin profile at: 


About our Contributor:

Dr. Tammie Huntington is a Professor of Music at Indiana Wesleyan University, where she has taught voice, opera, diction, vocal pedagogy, and song literature for the past 15 years. An avid performer and a proponent of new music, Huntington tours nationally and internationally with the ensemble Soprani Compagni.  Soprani Compagni had their Carnegie Hall debut in 2012 and has performed in Argentina, South Korea, Hong Kong, China, and the U.S. with their Portraits of Women project, and at the International Congress of Voice Teachers in Stockholm, Sweden.  Huntington received her Doctor of Arts degree from Ball State University, where she produced and directed the world premiere of Fifty-Third Street, a new American opera by composer Jody Nagel. She currently serves as President for the Indiana Chapter of the National Association of Teachers of Singing, and Great Lakes Regional Governor for the National Opera Association.