Tour de force: 'Porgy and Bess'

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A MURDER committed at the height of passion. A novelist who used the real-life inci- dent to create a tale about African-Americans living in an area of Charleston, S.C. And a composer who read the book and envisioned a great musical work.

The result: one of the masterpieces of American opera, George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess, which begins a three-day run at the Lyric Opera House tomorrow.

Acknowledged as Gershwin's finest work, Porgy and Bess is based on the 1926 novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, a white South Carolinian.

As soon as Gershwin read it, he knew it would be the ideal story for the great American folk opera he dreamed of writing.

In the summer of 1934, he, his brother Ira and Heywood teamed up to begin work on the project. In July 1935, they finished. George Gershwin had written the opera's music, Heywood the libretto and Ira Gershwin and Heywood the lyrics. The nearly 700 pages of music represented Gershwin's most ambitious work.

Porgy and Bess tells the tragic love story of the crippled Porgy and the sad yet glamorous Bess. The show opens with Porgy's witnessing the murder of one of the residents of Catfish Row by Crown. When Crown flees, Porgy gives shelter to his woman, Bess, and an unlikely love springs up between them.

The residents of the row have a difficult time accepting the couple, but when Crown returns and is killed by Porgy, they rally around them. While Porgy is temporarily detained by the police, the dope dealer Sportin' Life seduces the weak-willed Bess away to New York. Porgy returns and refuses to give up hope of being reunited with Bess.

What the three men created was a true opera - the narrative is sung in recitative, not spoken - but it was more than that. It combined classical musical principles with the sounds of America. Jazz and spirituals formed the musical tapestry; the native Gullah language of the isolated black community in Charleston was not only acknowledged but also celebrated in song. And the harsh reality of black life in the South was presented with an unflinching eye for the truth.

Add all of that to the fact that Gershwin insisted on an all-black cast in 1935, and the show's lack of immediate popular and critical success can be understood.

Porgy and Bess opened in October 1935 at New York City's Alvin Theater. Gershwin chose a Broadway venue and avoided a full operatic production to ensure more performances, but the show closed after a disappointing 124 performances.

In later years, the opera - featuring such classics as "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Got Plenty of Nuttin'," - would be revived time and time again. But it was a huge thing - running more than 4 1/2 hours sometimes - and difficult to stage. So when Peter Klein's Living Arts Inc., a New York-based production company, decided to produce a two-act version of Porgy and Bess in 1992, no one involved could have foreseen that it would still be on tour a decade later.

From its opening in Buenos Aires, the show has traveled the globe, playing to critical and popular raves in countries such as Ireland, Japan and New Zealand, and in many cities in the United States.

Living Arts cut the running time to three hours and staged the show to play in smaller houses than earlier productions had used.

The Lyric Opera House production features Brian Gibson as Porgy, Dr. Elizabeth Graham as Bess (alternating with Baltimorean Jerris Cates) and Duane Moody as Sportin' Life.

In addition to singing Porgy around the world, Gibson has sung with the New Orleans Symphony, the Metropolitan Opera, the Philadelphia Orchestra and many choral societies, and at music festivals.

Duane Moody, who has received critical raves for his portrayal of Sportin' Life, is something of a hometown talent - he received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the Peabody Institute.

Dr. Elizabeth Graham is a professor of music at the University of Florida. She made her professional debut with the Houston Grand Opera company's production of Porgy and Bess, playing both Clara (a Catfish Row resident) and Bess. She has toured in the role of Bess around the world and has performed major roles in operas and with companies around the world. Graham also serves as the director of this production.

We caught up with her by telephone recently and had a chance to talk about the show, its place in musical history and more.

Q: What makes Porgy and Bess a show worthy of revival time and again?

A: This show really never goes out of style. It's a show that people can relate to, No. 1, because it's a love story against incredible odds.

It deals with a community that is dealing with drugs and gambling and violence and prejudice and all the things that every community deals with today. I think that's the reason that the story is always new, always relevant to what's going on.

Q: Although it's been a great showcase for African-American talent over the years, Porgy and Bess has long been criticized for what's perceived as negative stereotypes of African-Americans. How do you feel about that?

A: I think you can criticize anything. Any time that there is an all-black show of any kind, it can be criticized as being not what people want to see. But sometimes the truth isn't what we want to see but what we should see to get beyond it. I think the fact that the show has lasted is important. Any time a show can stand the test of time across the span of audiences shows that it has merit and validity and it's worth seeing.

Q: Why do you think a show that wasn't a hit when it debuted has come to be seen as a masterpiece?

A: Gershwin and Heywood shook up the status quo, and people were not going to run out and embrace them. You have to remember that when Gershwin wrote this piece, we didn't really have many black opera singers. Even the leads were more classical concert singers, not opera singers. I don't think the country had evolved to the point where they were embracing black opera singers and certainly not a whole opera on black life in an unglamorous setting dealing with our ugly problem of racism. It was just too much truth for anyone to look at. I think today as African-Americans we can look at [a story like Porgy and Bess] and say, "Yes, this was our past, it's what we did endure and some of it we're still enduring," and I think white audiences look at it and say, "Yes, it's part of our past and we're trying to get beyond it, too." I think it shows that we've grown.

Q: How long have you been with this production?

A: From the beginning. Not all the time, of course. Like many people, I've come back to it many times.

Q: How long do you expect the tour to continue?

A: [Laughing] I have no idea. I ask myself that all the time. I don't know, but I think I can speak [for] those of us who have been with the show for a long time: We're all very thrilled it's lasted as long as it has. It's been a wonderful vehicle for those of us who have performed in it.

Q: You've played Bess with companies around the world, including your debut with the Houston Grand Opera company. What attracted you to this role?

A: I wasn't attracted to it, actually. I started out singing Clara, and I loved that part because she gets to sing "Summertime." I was approached to sing Bess, and I gradually made the transition into that.

Q: Do you miss singing "Summertime"?

A: Well, we do have that little reprise of it, which is a saving grace. Bess has no aria at all; everything she does is in conjunction with someone else. Which I think says a lot about who she is - she's very pivotal and everything really branches off her. You always do sing "Summertime" backstage, though.

Q: Bess has been seen as everything from an essentially good woman led astray to an unredeemed sinner. How do you see her?

A: I see Bess as a survivor. She has looks going for her. She has a good heart essentially, but she's a person who does what she has to do to survive. I don't necessarily think that she wants to do drugs, but that has been an escape for her. She doesn't like to be alone and will put up with a lot of things not to be alone. She will do drugs or drink to be with someone. I think she wants a home and a person who really loves her. She finally has that with Porgy. Sportin' Life is an opportunist; he's just waiting to prey on that fear of hers of being alone. He's the true villain in this. She doesn't want to be with him, but she doesn't want to be alone even more.

Q: What do you think happens to these characters once the curtain goes down?

A: I definitely think Porgy gets Bess back. I'm a hopeless romantic and always hopeful for impossible situations. I remember the first time I saw the opera - when Porgy left I was just in tears, but I remember from the way he sang that I had no doubt he finds her and they are together. I think he is probably the only person who can give her the stability she needs to be whole. She is his legs, and he is her center. The two of them are whole together.

Q: What do you tell aspiring black singers about this show?

A: I tell singers you probably won't escape doing a Porgy and Bess, and if the opportunity comes up, don't be afraid of it. Black singers still have difficulty being cast in good roles. Those of us who have been lucky to sing other roles have been just that, lucky. There are a lot of singers of color who are very good but have never been heard. It's a difficult business, not just for artists of color but for everyone. It's a difficult and sometimes cruel profession. There are no guarantees. The reward is that if you love music, you don't really have a choice not to do it. Music is a very jealous mistress. It puts its tentacles around your heart, and you need to sing.

Q: With all the difficulty of making a living in music, do you wish you could be a plumber sometimes?

A: [Laughing] Yes. I think they live a much more solid life. This is almost like neurosis. The highs are so high and the lows are so low. But you love it.

The facts

What: Porgy and Bess, presented by Living Arts Inc.

When: 7:30 p.m. tomorrow, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: The Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

Tickets: $41-$46.

Call: 410-481-SEAT.

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