College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Soul Food Meets High Art in UM Student’s Collard Greens Opera

Price Walden

… Performance set Oct. 30, during Southern Foodways Symposium

OXFORD, Miss. – Black-eyed peas and cornbread. Rice and gravy. Collard greens and opera.

The third group might seem to be an unlikely combination, but University of Mississippi students have been working hard to pair the leafy vegetable with high art.

The “cultivated South” is the theme for the 14th annual Southern Foodways Symposium, set for Oct. 28-30. The Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture, hosts the symposium, and this year decided to commission an opera.

Price Walden, a junior music major from Booneville, was intrigued by the idea of elevating the status of collard greens through music and spent his summer composing “Leaves of Greens,” a Southern oratorio in three parts. The opera, which is free and open to the public, will be performed by Ole Miss Opera Theatre at the Lyric Hall, 1109 Van Buren, at 10 a.m. Sunday (Oct. 30).
“It struck me while I was eating at my grandmother’s house one Sunday that as we Southerners eat food, it’s never just about eating food, it’s about other aspects that we don’t even realize are important to us,” Walden said.

The bulk of the text for the “Leaves of Greens” comes from a collection of poems titled “Leaves of Greens: The Collard Poems,” published in the 1980s by the annual Collard Green Festival in North Carolina, supplemented with other poems and traditional hymns. Walden structured his piece in three parts, each dealing with an aspect of Southern life. The music is scored for soloists, a choir, piano and percussion, and lasts 30 minutes.

“Each of the three parts has to do with a different aspect of how we eat food, and it has turned out to be rather touching,” Walden said. “I hope the audience thinks about collard greens and the food we eat in a different way, and realizes the social aspects of food. I hope somehow they can relate to at least one of the singers or some of the music, or one of the pieces in some kind of way.”

Amanda Johnston, UM assistant professor of music, first recommended that Walden compose the opera.

“When the SFA initially approached me, they had a very broad idea, and at first it seemed overwhelming,” said Johnston, who has served as music director and will play piano for the performance. “I knew Price as a very talented percussionist who also did composing, so I recommended him, and he has been very positive. It has been really special for the Ole Miss Opera Theatre to be able to work with the composer, and it has been a terrific opportunity for our department, and for Price to have such support so early in his career.”

Working with the music department has been a boon for the Southern Foodways Alliance.

“The Center for the Study of Southern Culture has long been a national leader in interdisciplinary scholarship and outreach,” said John T. Edge, SFA director. “The SFA, inspired by that work, tells stories about the South through food. In the last few years, we’ve worked to use multiple modes of storytelling. A couple years back, we staged a ballet performance. This year, with support from the Lafayette-Oxford Foundation for Tomorrow, an opera seemed a logical next step.

The expectations for “Leaves of Greens” have been surpassed, Edge said.

“Sometimes it’s difficult for academic departments to find ways to work together,” he said. “But Amanda Johnston was so open, so generous, and her students have risen to the occasion. What Price Walden has composed is a very intellectually engaged and emotionally mature look at how foodways matter and how they are enmeshed in our daily lives.”

For more information about the sold-out symposium, visit the Southern Foodways Alliance Symposium website. You can also follow the symposium on Twitter by following the hashtag #foodways.