Women and children first

LaRoche celebrates the life of the Titanic's sole black passenger

It wasn't featured in James Cameron's movie. But now it's an opera.

When the RMS Titanic sank April 15, 1912, there was one black man on board, Joseph Phillipe LeMercier LaRoche, a Haitian citizen. LaRoche, his pregnant French wife and his two young daughters were on their way to his native Haiti to start a new life.

Joseph LaRoche's well-to-do parents sent him to France to study engineering at age 15. He graduated, and soon married Juliette Lafargue, with whom he had two daughters. Poorly paid for the work he was able to obtain in France, the aspiring engineer decided to return to Haiti with his family, hoping for a better-paying job.

The LaRoches planned to leave in 1913, but in March 1912, Juliette learned she was pregnant again. So that the child would be born in Haiti and the journey less difficult, the LaRoches booked first-class passage on the CGT/French Line's steamship France. Upon learning that the French Line's policies forbade children from eating with their parents in the dining room, they exchanged the tickets for second-class passage on the British White Star Line's Titanic, set to sail April 10.

When the Titanic sank April 15, Juliette LaRoche and her children were rescued and eventually returned home to France; Joseph remained on the ship and drowned.

Atlanta composer Sharon J. Willis first heard of Joseph LaRoche on public radio. "One night I was in bed [listening to] PBS, and they were talking about the Titanic, they were talking about the only black passenger on the Titanic. Well, I woke up out of a stupor, thinking I was dreaming." Unable to catch the source for the broadcast, Willis remembered the name "LaRoche." Fascinated, she went to a library, confirmed the story, and began her research. She remembers thinking, "What can I do with this?" The answer was Willis' third opera, LaRoche.

Willis had been composing since her student days at Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University), mostly spiritual arrangements, piano pieces and music for small ensembles. Then at age 46, feeling a sense of stagnation as a composer, she says, "I promised myself when [I got] to be 50, rather than have the big birthday bash, [I'd] write an opera." True to her word, at age 49 she began writing The Opera Singer, which premiered in April 2000. Her second opera, The Herndons, followed. She also formed the Americolor Opera Alliance, a racially diverse company that continues to offer unique opportunities for performers of color.

Although the historical Joseph LaRoche was Willis' inspiration, she's quick to point out that the opera is musical dramatization, very different from documentary. "You will find that half of what you see on stage is based upon fact and the other is certainly as fictitious as it can be," she says. She wants the audience to employ their imaginations. To portray the drowning of passengers, for example, she uses a mythical symbolic device, Neptune's Bride, to guide them to the afterlife.

An eclectic palette of diverse musical styles distinguishes LaRoche, whose first act opens with a market scene in Haiti set to "island" music. Other scenes borrow from styles such as 19th-century "parlor" music, classical music tinged with jazz and musical theater. In addition, Willis included several hymns that were sung on the Titanic voyage, superimposing the French national anthem on top of one of them.

The premiere performances of LaRoche, officially part of this year's National Black Arts Festival, take place at Callanwolde Fine Arts Center, July 18-20.

Saturday evening's performance will be preceded by "The Titanic Dinner," a pre-show event that replicates the final first-class meal served on the ship; the Lyra string quartet will provide authentic music that accompanied it. The $150 per person black-tie affair, which includes admission to the opera with priority seating, benefits the Callanwolde Bath House & Gardens Restoration Project.