It's a kind of a musical homecoming.
"Porgy and Bess," the first and, many would say, greatest American opera, returns to Baltimore after a long absence with a large-scale production this week at Morgan State University, featuring several well-established singers who have come back to their alma mater for the occasion.
In a way, the character of Bess is coming home, too. The creator of that role, Baltimore-born soprano Anne Brown, studied at what was then Morgan College before moving to New York and sharing the spotlight at the 1935 premiere of "Porgy and Bess."
"This opera belongs right here on the stage at Morgan State," says alumna Kishna Davis, who will sing the role of the sensual, easily-led-astray Bess. "I get tears just thinking about it."
"Porgy and Bess," with its indelible music by George Gershwin, lyrics by his brother, Ira, and book by DuBose Heyward, has not had a major homegrown staging in town since Baltimore Opera Company's revival of the piece in 1988. If the company had not gone bankrupt, "Porgy" would have been performed again in 2009. (A touring troupe breezed through Baltimore with a production of the work a decade ago.)
The Morgan venture, ambitious for any university, caps a 10th-anniversary celebration of the Murphy Fine Arts Center on campus. Performances will feature the school's famed choir, a substantial set purchased from the Opera Company of Philadelphia and 50 musicians of the Mid-Atlantic Symphony conducted by Julien Benichou.
This "Porgy" arrives as the opera has been generating renewed attention — and debate — in this country.
Billed as "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" (Heyward, it seems, has been downgraded), a new version running on Broadway starring Audra McDonald raised some eyebrows before it opened and since. Stephen Sondheim caused a stir when he scoffed at the producers' stated aim of improving on the work.
"For Broadway, they cut a lot," says Hope Clarke, the Tony Award-nominated choreographer who is directing the Morgan production. "It's more like 21/2 hours, instead of 31/2. And they added dialogue they didn't need. I don't see anyone adding dialogue to [Puccini's] 'Tosca.'"
Davis, who has performed Bess with such companies as New York City Opera and in concert versions with such orchestras as the Baltimore Symphony, shares Clarke's dim view of the New York show.
"The music was transposed down so much," the soprano says. "It was clear they wanted Broadway singers. But 'Porgy' is grand opera at its best."
Larry Hylton, who brings his widely admired portrayal of the devilish Sportin' Life to the Morgan staging, likewise is disappointed with the New York version.
"The music just doesn't sound authentic," says Hylton, who did some of his studies at Morgan and sang in the choir there in the mid-1990s.
Ever since 1935, people have argued whether Gershwin created a musical or an opera, but the composer never hesitated to define it as the latter. Hylton sees Gershwin's score as settling the matter.
"It requires the training and vocal production of an opera singer," Hylton says. "And the plot has all the ingredients of a grand opera — murder and mayhem."
Bass-baritone Kevin Short, a 1984 Morgan grad, will sing the role of the crippled beggar Porgy, who falls hard for Bess. Short recently sang the hefty title role in Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" at the Bern Theatre in Switzerland. "Porgy is harder," he says.
The singer credits Gershwin's work with setting him on his career path.
"This was my introduction to opera in 1983, when the Baltimore Opera Company did it for the first time, with Donnie Ray Albert as Porgy," Short says. "Wow. My whole life changed. I told my teacher this is what I want to do. I remember going around on my knees like Porgy for days after."
Davis found herself similarly drawn to Bess.
"She's literally five personalities in one," the soprano says. "And she's dealing with so many things — the drugs, the pain, the anguish.
"It feels like my life sometimes," Davis adds with a laugh. "But I'm scared to take a Tylenol."
The drug use in "Porgy and Bess," which is set in a poor black community on Catfish Row in Charleston, S.C., is one of the elements that caused some African-American singers and audiences over the years to keep their distance from the opera, concerned about unflattering stereotypes.
"Gershwin went to Charleston and he lived there for a time," Hylton says. "He wrote an authentic piece based on real people. For us to sit back and say it's a stereotype is not fair. We all know a Sportin' Life. We all know someone like Bess or Porgy or Serena, the church mother. To create controversy is missing the point — it is a specific story in a specific place."
Short suggests that "Porgy and Bess" is in some ways easier to accept today than it would have been when the opera was new.
"In yesteryear, there were not so many different images of African-Americans," the singer says. "It wasn't as balanced as it is today. Now we have Obama, Oprah Winfrey. This opera is a slice, but it is not the only slice. And if we don't embrace it, who will? It is incumbent upon us to do it."
"It's a story that needs to be told, a very important story," he says. "And for all of the arguments people have about it, there's one thing you can't change: The music always wins."
If you go
"Porgy and Bess" will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 4 p.m. April 1 at the Murphy Fine Arts Center, Morgan State University, 2201 Argonne Drive. Tickets are $25 to $65. A student matinee, open to the public, will be at 9 a.m. Thursday with an alternate cast. Tickets are $15. Call 443-885-3168 or go to ticketmaster.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun