By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
OXFORD – The lowly collard green must’ve been ready for an image makeover.
In July, Price Walden, a junior at the University of Mississippi, was asked to write an opera – yes, an opera – about the leafy, green vegetable. He was perplexed at first.
“The more I thought about it, the more it made sense,” he said. “Well, I don’t know if it made more sense, but the less weird it seemed.”
He was eating a family dinner at his grandmother’s house, when he discovered the heart of his opera.
“As Southerners, it’s not just about eating. There’s conversation. There’s being together. There’s family and friends,” the 20-year-old said. “That’s what makes food so special for us.”
Some words for his opera came from a collection of poems called “Leaves of Greens: The Collard Poems,” which was put together by organizers of a collard green festival in North Carolina. Walden also found other poems to use.
He spent the summer and fall putting his 30-minute homage together, then conducted 12 singers, one pianist and one percussionist at the world premier of “Leaves of Greens” during the Southern Foodways Symposium in Oxford on Oct. 30.
In the three-part oratorio, one person sings about thwarting her mom’s efforts to make her eat collard greens. But after taking her first bite, she loves them.
For another portion, collard greens represent time spent with the character’s mother before she died. The emotion is heightened by the father’s cancer.
“I had, like, eight people afterward say they were in tears,” Walden said. “It was an incredible feeling to connect with people in this really deep and moving way.”
The March issue of Southern Living magazine recognzies Walden as a runner-up in the arts and culture category for its “Heroes of the New South.”
“My family all went wild. I have an aunt who has every issue of Southern Living ever,” he said. “We’re Southern Living people at our house.”
“Leaves of Greens” also has been nominated for a music composition award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters.
Walden proved he can write stirring music about collard greens, but he can’t cook them. That’s OK. His grandmother is happy to oblige.
“She said I could not write an opera about collard greens if I didn’t eat any,” he said. “They’re not bad, actually.”
BOONEVILLE RESIDENT Price Walden’s piano recital will be 8 p.m. April 12 at the University of Mississippi’s Nutt Auditorium. It’s free.