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BSO and Morgan State Choir production of ‘Porgy and Bess’ returns to showcase artistic expertise and local pride

For the Baltimore Sun

It’s common enough for a piece of music to get programmed by multiple orchestras. It’s rarer to see one orchestra return to the same piece within a few short years.

And yet, the upcoming production of “Porgy and Bess” by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Morgan State University Choir marks just three years since their last rendition of the iconic American opera.

You could say it’s back by popular demand. “Our 2016 production enjoyed enormous success, and we wanted to reprise this semi-staged version … in anticipation of the 85th anniversary of the opera,” said BSO Vice President and General Manager Tonya McBride Robles.

“Porgy and Bess” premiered in 1935 as a nearly four-hour-long grand opera. A collaboration between the novelist DuBose Heyward, lyricist Ira Gershwin and composer George Gershwin, it made waves with its all-black cast, a remarkable staging in 1930s America. (The Gershwin Estate continues to stipulate that “Porgy and Bess” be performed by an all-black cast, which companies in different parts of the world have not always honored.)

This year’s production offers four days of performances — with the first on April 11 taking place at Strathmore — and features artists that can boast both expertise within their roles and strong Baltimore ties. Soprano Laquita Mitchell and tenor Larry Hylton will reprise their 2016 roles as Bess and Sportin’ Life, respectively. Bass-baritone Robert Cantrell, playing Porgy, is not just an internationally active soloist, but also an instructor at Morgan State.

Of the returning artists, it is the Morgan State University Choir that may have the longest history with Baltimore performances of this work, according to the choir’s director, Dr. Eric Conway. Under his predecessor, Nathan Carter, the choir was the go-to chorus for productions at the Baltimore Opera Company before the organization shuttered in 2009 due to bankruptcy. If not for the abrupt closure, “Porgy and Bess” would have seen another production in May of that year.

Even when the choir is not preparing for a major production, selections from “Porgy and Bess” appear in their regular programming. “Because this choir has sung this piece so much, there is a core group of the ensemble that knows the piece,” said Dr. Conway. “It’s beloved. Gershwin’s music is the epitome of Americana.”

Audiences, too, are likely to recognize music from “Porgy and Bess” even if they don’t know its origin. “Summertime,” the aria which appears within the first minutes of the opera, quickly became a jazz standard and has been recorded and reimagined tens of thousands of times. A 2012 report from The New York Times logged the number of covers at 25,000, making it one of (if not the) most recorded songs in music history.

The entire opera has not always been so roundly adored. It is, after all, a story of African-American life written by three white men, and it received criticism from the outset for its stereotypical characterizations; the storyline is heavy on violence, sex and drug use.

At the same time, it has acted as the rare canonical work that featured black artists performing at their full range. Hana S. Sharif, who is directing the staged component of the performance, credits a childhood viewing of “Porgy and Bess” at Houston’s Outdoor Theatre with sparking her love of theater. “What I remember is seeing so many beautiful people on stage — people who looked like me,” said Sharif. “My family was very passionate about the arts. We were encouraged to have a cultural life.” But “Porgy and Bess” stood out because “I was hearing this opera where I understood what they were saying.”

Over its lifetime, “Porgy and Bess” has been shortened and adapted for musical theater many times. A 1976 revival by the Houston Grand Opera sparked interest in honoring original staging intentions for the work. This week’s performances by the BSO and MSUC are semi-staged, allowing audiences to enjoy both the music and the flow of the dramatic action.

“The entire apron of the stage is playing space,” said Sharif. In addition to presenting the full orchestra and a 100-plus-person choir, “we’ll have the ability for the vocalists and the storytelling to have active engagement with each other. It will feel like stepping into the world of the play instead of just the concert version.”

It will also feel like stepping into the heart of Baltimore’s larger arts community. The production draws on talent not just from the BSO and Morgan State, but from Baltimore Center Stage (where Sharif works as an artistic consultant) and the Baltimore School of the Arts.

“We have local opera heavyweights,” said Sharif. “We have a handful of high school actors who are going to be in some of our other roles. It’s quite wonderful for this production to embrace … multiple generations of artists. It’s a real testament to our city and to the great cultural life that we have here.”

IF YOU GO:

“Porgy and Bess” runs from April 11-14. The April 11 performance takes place at Strathmore and the Friday-Sunday performances at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall. Ticket prices start at $25.

Elizabeth Nonemaker covers classical music for the Baltimore Sun as a freelance writer. Classical music coverage at The Sun is supported in part by a grant from the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation, the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. The Sun makes all editorial decisions.

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