"Summertime, and the livin' is easy . . ." So goes the most popular tune from George Gershwin's acclaimed American folk opera Porgy and Bess, but livin' ain't always easy on Catfish Row, a fictitious suburb of Charleston, South Carolina, where the all-black, 1930s-era opera is set.
In Gershwin's story, based on a novel called Porgy by DuBose Heyward, Porgy, a crippled black man, attempts to rescue Bess from Crown, her pimp, and Sportin' Life, a drug dealer. Heyward, who was a native of Charleston, based his novel on actual people, places and events. Together with his wife Dorothy, he adapted the novel into a successful play.
Gershwin first expressed a desire to adapt the novel and the play into an opera in 1926, but the opera was not performed until 1935. Gershwin took his time composing the opera's score, in the 20 months between 1934 and 1935, and enlisted Heyward and his brother, Ira Gershwin, to write the lyrics. Gershwin thought it his finest work ever, and it has been widely acclaimed for its innovative blend of European orchestral techniques with modern jazz, blues and folk music.
Prior to composing the score, Gershwin visited Charleston many times to absorb the city's culture. He was especially inspired by time he spent on the remote James Island, which was home to a group of African Americans called "gullahs" as well as the Holy Rollers Church in Hendersonville. The musical styles he heard there were integral to the makeup of Gershwin's operatic compositions for Porgy and Bess.
In his own words, "Since the opening of Porgy and Bess I have been asked frequently why it is called a folk opera.
"The explanation is a simple one. Porgy and Bess is a folk tale. Its people would naturally sing folk music. When I first began work on the music I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore, I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music -- and therefore, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera.
"However, because [it] deals with Negro life in America, it brings to the operatic form elements that have never appeared in opera, and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irresistible high spirits of the race.
"If, in doing this, I have created a new form, which combines opera with theatre, this new form has come quite naturally out of the material. It is true that I have written songs for Porgy and Bess. I am not ashamed of writing songs at any time so long as they are good songs."
Though initially popular, Porgy and Bess quickly came under harsh criticism, directly after it premiered as well as during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s, '60s and '70s. Critics thought the tale perpetuated a prejudice held by the white man that all African Americans lived in poverty, used drugs and solved their problems by fighting.
However, the work was also hailed by some black artists, who acknowledged that Gershwin's opera told a story of African American life and culture that had not previously been told, one that had been forbidden to be told.
The opera itself could be credited for making strides in the Civil Rights Movement because, before Gershwin's opera, African American opera singers were not allowed in the major opera houses. Gershwin refused to have white singers performing the opera in blackface because it would negate the authenticity of the story being told.
It is interesting then, that the Metropolitan Opera was interested in premiering Porgy and Bess there, black singers and all. However, Gershwin chose instead to premiere the opera on Broadway, believing it would receive more performances there than it would if it were performed in a traditional opera house.
Because of Gershwin's stipulation that all of the opera's singers must be African American, it has been especially interesting for the heads of opera houses to cast.
Carol I. Crawford, Tulsa Opera's artistic director, said, "Theoretically, if any company were to produce and 'ethnic' opera like Porgy and stipulate that the performers must be of that ethnicity -- for example, American singers of Czech descent for an Janacek opera, or American singers of Spanish descent for Bizet's Carmen -- you would have just as challenging a time casting them as casting Porgy.
"However, there is no composer estate stipulating such a thing, in addition to the fact there is no other opera that I know of that has the unique history of Porgy in terms of its time of composition and its significance in opening doors of opportunity for a specific ethnic group within opera."
There is such a thing in the opera world known as "the Porgy circuit," whereby a cast of African American singers has found a niche performing Porgy and travel around the country or the world doing so. For regional companies, like Tulsa Opera, and for Crawford (as this is something she is quite known for), the only way to produce the opera is with singers chosen specifically for the company's performance of the piece.
Crawford spent two years searching for whom she considered the perfect singers for TO's Porgy and Bess and hired them for "their God-given vocal gifts, their heart, their physical look for their respective roles and -- in some cases -- the fact that they had not performed their roles in a staged production of Porgy before and therefore have no preconceived notions of 'how you perform Porgy.'"
"Our Porgy (Brian Matthews), Bess (Donita Volkwijn), Crown (John Fulton), Serena (Hope Briggs), Clara (Awet Andemicael) and Maria (Gwendolyn Brown) have never performed their roles before," said Crawford. "They are all artists that I would hire for any other opera for which their voices are suited, and, in the case of Brian, Donita and John, they have all performed here at Tulsa Opera before in pieces that did not require or stipulate 'black' singers." (You may remember Volkwijn as Micaela in February's Carmen.)
Crawford said that TO went to great lengths to recruit local members of Tulsa's African American community to sing in the chorus, and many of the chorus members have never sung opera before.
"The biggest challenge in any regional that produces Porgy is identifying a local chorus. If I am proud of anything involving our production of Porgy, it is that members of Tulsa's African American community have emerged to participate in this chorus for the opera, and they are fantastic," Crawford said. "I knew the talent was here in this community, and Gershwin -- were he alive -- would love these chorus members."
This is the first time since 1986 that TO has produced Porgy and Bess, and Crawford said it was definitely time. Almost two generations of Tulsans have never seen Porgy and Bess produced here, and she's sure everyone in the community will take away something from the opera after having seen it.
Porgy and Bess opens Saturday, April 14 at 7:30pm in the Chapman Music Hall of the Tulsa Performing Arts Center, at 2nd and Cincinnati. It continues Friday, April 20 at 7:30pm and Sunday, April 22 at 2:30pm.
One hour prior to each performance, TO's Principal Coach and Rehearsal Pianist Mark Armstrong will lead a pre-performance lecture to give the audience more insight into Porgy and Bess. Tickets to the opera range from $25 to $90.
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