Behind The Scenes Of Porgy & Bess

Behind The Scenes Of Porgy & Bess

Dayton Opera Prepares Immense Canvas A Collaborative ‘Porgy And Bess’

By Eric Street

Cast Of Porgy & Bess, Photo By Christopher Smith.

Backstage at the Schuster Center the atmosphere nearly crackles with anticipation as musicians, dancers, chorus, soloists and stage hands prepare for what should be the biggest collaborative project of the season: George Gershwin’s iconic American opera Porgy and Bess. This landmark production, which opens Saturday, October 23 and continues Friday, October 29 and Sunday, October 31, simultaneously celebrates Dayton Opera’s 50th anniversary and commemorates the 75th anniversary of Gershwin’s acclaimed masterpiece, which began its initial Broadway run in October 1935.

If the evening staging rehearsal I attended last week is any indication, Dayton audiences are in for a huge treat. The sizeable stage used for rehearsal almost overflows with the unusually large, powerful opera chorus, assorted props, and numerous solo singers required for the production, so space is at a premium. Director Gary Briggle along with chorus master Jeffrey Powell, conductor Neal Gittleman and rehearsal pianist Carol Walker have positioned themselves in the most advantageous spots, along the front edge of the staging area. Everyone involved works with focus and intensity to bring Gershwin’s richly demanding work to life, but from time to time the group erupts into full, easy laughter at a quip from Briggle, who is leading this rehearsal with an assured hand.

The sound from the full chorus is glorious, at times electrifying, and although Gershwin doesn’t recycle actual spiritual tunes for his score, so adept is he at assimilating the idiom of African-American song that several of the numbers sound as if they might indeed be authentic. Because of the rigorous rehearsal schedule, which calls for three rehearsals a day, some of the soloists are “marking,” singing at less than full voice or dropping the pitch an octave lower. Nevertheless, it is clear that Dayton Opera general and artistic director Tom Bankston has assembled a cast for this production which has been chosen from some of the finest up and coming African-American singers in the region.

While it would be inappropriate to review a rehearsal at this early stage, suffice it to say that audience members can expect to see a production filled with heart, memorable music and wonderful singing. Porgy offers more than just the famous title roles – Gershwin gives great vocal opportunities to a number of principal singers. Watch for Roderick George as an insidiously charming, sweet-voiced Sportin’ Life in “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” NaGuanda Nobles as Clara in a shimmering “Summertime,” and Judith Skinner as a spunky Mariah to be reckoned with.  Even in rehearsal, with piano instead of an orchestra, Adrienne Dandrich as Serena offers an emotionally searing, beautifully sung “My Man’s Gone Now.”

Porgy unfolds as a series of scenes from life in 1920s Charleston, South Carolina, set in the humble, close-knit African-American community of Catfish Row, a large mansion now turned into a tenement. Although the setting of the opera is nearly a century ago, Porgy doesn’t need updating, and is, in some respects, as modern as today’s newspaper or blog.  It unflinchingly addresses problems that are anything but behind us, including drugs, crime, poverty, violence and infidelity. To a post-Katrina audience, the gripping scene in which nearly the entire cast huddles together in shelter from a deadly hurricane is all too contemporary, though the cowering refugees are spared from hearing a president’s mother (and former first lady) declare how well things are working out for them.

Cast and Collaboration

This original Dayton Opera production of Porgy is a major community-wide collaboration, bringing together dancers from Dayton Contemporary Dance Company (DCDC), choir members from Central State University and Wilberforce University, as well as the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra and music director Neal Gittleman.  Stage Director Gary Briggle returns to Dayton Opera to direct this large production with sets and costumes designed by Felix Cochran for the Opera Company of Philadelphia. Resident lighting designer John Rensel lights the production.

“Our cast is a nice mix of returning and new singers,” Bankston said. “Returning artists Kearstin Piper Brown (Bess), Adrienne Danrich (Serena), Eric McKeever (Jake), and Phumzile Sojola (Mingo) are all alumni of Dayton Opera’s Artist in Residence Program. Kearstin was a part of the recent revival of Paul Laurence Dunbar: Common Ground (2006). Adrienne was Donna Anna in Don Giovanni (2007) and the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro (’04).  Also returning will be NaGuanda Nobles (Clara) who appeared as Liu in Turandot (2008) and Deborah Nansteel (Lily/Strawberry Woman) from last season’s Faust. Joining us for the first time are Thomas Beard (Porgy), Phillip Boykin (Crown), Roderick George (Sportin’ Life), Judith Skinner (Maria), and Cameo Humes (Peter). Beard is a product of the Young Artist Program of the Washington Opera where he was encouraged by opera great Placido Domingo. He has been performing with regional companies and has performed the title role in the U.S. and on tour. Phillip Boykin will reprise the role he performed in the recent 75th anniversary Porgy national tour. Later this season he will be appearing in New York City Opera’s upcoming production of Séance on a Wet Afternoon. Roderick George reprises the role he debuted with Pittsburgh Opera Theatre, Judith Skinner returns to the role she performs with Atlanta Opera later this season, and University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music student Cameo Humes debuts his role.

The cast includes three Dayton area singers of note. Opera-goers will be treated to hear Central State University’s director of vocal and choral activities William Henry Caldwell (Jim), Wright State University music faculty instructor Vincent Davis (Robbins), and Wilberforce University visiting professor of voice Tifton Graves (Nelson/Crabman). Three area actors in speaking roles round out the cast: Daniel Britt (Detective), Peter Wallace (Coroner) and Michael Taint (Policeman).

Further, world-renowned DCDC is making time in its own busy season schedule to perform in this celebratory production. Six dancers from the troupe’s main company join the cast.

“Collaborating with the Opera has always been an exciting and enjoyable experience for me,” said DCDC artistic director and Porgy choreographer Debbie Blunden-Diggs. “We have done several operas with Dayton Opera, the last being Samson and Delilah in 2007. It’s exciting to begin the process of sketching out movement with the dancers in the studio to Gershwin’s great music.”

Approximately 20 students each from Wilberforce and Central State Universities are joining with members of the Dayton Opera Chorus to make up the choral ensemble, directed by the aforementioned Jeffrey Powell.  When asked if he was enjoying his expanded chorus, Powell unhesitatingly shot back, “Great!  Love it!” Reflecting on the experience for the university students, Caldwell said, “This is a most valuable experience for the singers, especially for vocal majors. This opera has served as a launching pad for many major black artists, including CSU alum and famed soprano Leontyne Price.”

The artistic leaders for Porgy do not conceal their passion for the project.  “Blues, jazz, gospel, spirituals, prayer are all included in Gershwin’s score,” said Briggle. “From the first moment of rehearsal, I compel the performers to take personal ownership of this music. This opera requires a tremendous investment. It’s so dramatic. It goes from the depths of grief, despair and death to sublime heights of faith, hope and love. It’s an immense canvas.”

Gittleman, who will conduct both Porgy and Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio for Dayton Opera this season, displays similar zeal for the undertaking. “Working on Porgy for Dayton Opera is both great fun and a great responsibility,” he said. “I think this is one of the great operas, period. And the chance to do my first Porgy with an inspired director like Gary Briggle and a cast that’s a fabulous mix of veterans and first-timers is, for me, a real dream come true.  I got plenty o’ Porgy…an’ Porgy’s plenty fo’ me!”

The Creation of ‘Porgy and Bess’

In 1926 George Gershwin read Porgy by DuBose Heyward, a native of Charleston, South Carolina.  Gershwin wrote the author, suggesting that they collaborate on an American folk opera based on the novel. After eight years of correspondence, George and his brother Ira finally joined Heyward for the summer of 1934 at Folly Beach, located on an island about 10 miles from Charleston. They spent considerable time observing the residents of nearby James Island who became the models for the Catfish
Row community.

DuBose Heyward wrote the libretto, and Ira Gershwin and Heyward wrote the lyrics. By mid-August the Gershwins left Charleston, and George set to work orchestrating the opera. When it was completed in July 1935, Porgy and Bess was his most ambitious creation and his favorite composition. Incorporating a wealth of blues and jazz idioms into the classical art form of opera, Gershwin also used forms borrowed from his experiences on James Island, including the jubilee, praying songs, street cries, work songs, and spirituals.

Gershwin personally involved himself in casting Porgy, and he insisted that the singing be done entirely by classically-trained African-Americans. Mindful of the box office as well as the color bar in effect in opera at that time, he chose to give Porgy a Broadway run at the Alvin Theater rather than in an opera house, and the word “opera” was carefully avoided. Though Porgy was to run for 124 nights on Broadway, its opening night performance in New York was considered by many to be “too long” and the score was soon cut.  Many of those cuts were not to be reopened until the major 1976 Houston Grand Opera production.

Justifiably suspicious after years of stereotypical and demeaning portrayals by Hollywood, African-Americans of the day were at first reluctant to embrace Porgy. Put off by the use of authentic dialect and chagrined by the lack of respectable middle-class models, it took some time for them to warm up to the opera.  Nevertheless, Gershwin took pains to insure that Porgy presented an insider’s view, and the few white characters in the show appear more as intruders than as members of the Catfish Row community.  To heighten this impression, the white characters do not sing but only act. Their actions are markedly unsympathetic, such as the Detective who interrupts a funeral to haul an innocent elderly man off to jail merely as a ploy to elicit testimony.

Over the years the work that Gershwin regarded as his greatest achievement gradually won enduring popularity, first abroad and later at home. Several generations of classically trained black singers have found their first big break in a production of Porgy and Bess.  Gershwin’s insistence that the opera be sung only by African-Americans was a daring move in his day, and one that was to eventually help open operatic stages around the world to artists of color.

Arrive Early

If you hold a ticket, you are encouraged to arrive one hour prior to curtain for a variety of entertainment coordinated by Dayton Opera’s Celebration Committee. Enjoy free entertainment and mingle with other opera lovers. In addition, a 20-minute overview of the opera will be presented one hour before each performance in the Mead Theatre by Luke Dennis. Casual “dinner-by-the-bite” and refreshments are available in the Wintergarden in addition to a full dinner menu at Citilites Restaurant & Bar. For reservations, call (937) 222-0623 or e-mail citilites@schustercenter.org.

Also, in honor of the Gershwins’ opera, an original art exhibit entitled From Porgy to Barack, a portfolio of lithographs inspired by both the opera and the election of the United States’ first African-American President, will be on display in the Mead Theatre lobby. The exhibit features artwork by 12 regional African-American artists, including Olu Bandele, Larry Collins, Abner Cope, Dwayne Daniels, Bing Davis, Donivan Hahn, Terrance Hammonds, Kevin Harris, Annisa Lewis, Velma Morris, Althea Murphy-Price and Ellen Price.

Porgy and Bess will be performed Saturday, October 23 and Friday, October 29 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, October 31 at 3 p.m. at the Schuster Center, Second and Main Streets. Tickets are $36-$92 with discounts available for seniors, students and all WPAFB personnel. Discounts for groups of 10 or more are also available. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit online at www.TicketCenterStage.com or www.DaytonOpera.org

Reach DCP opera critic Eric Street at
contactus@daytoncitypaper.com


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