“Porgy and Bess” is firmly entrenched in the American cultural canon.
But there’s an ebb and flow of interest in the galvanic American opera by Dubose Heyward and George and Ira Gershwin, and lately the attention has been flowing. A recent Tony Award-winning Broadway adaptation of the 1935 work is launching a national tour this fall, and it arrives at Seattle’s 5th Avenue Theatre next June.
In his new book, “On My Way — The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and ‘Porgy and Bess,’ ” esteemed music critic Joseph Horowitz gives a multidimensional backstage account and appraisal of the opera, emphasizing the contributions of both composer Gershwin and original director Mamoulian.
And next week the Seattle Symphony, led by its new principal pops conductor Jeff Tyzik, will perform an all-Gershwin program dominated by selections from the opera, including “Summertime” and the Porgy-Bess duets.
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The perennial musical theater work, with its captivating story and ambience, and its unique melding of African-American and classical-music idioms, has loomed large in the career of many black singers. They include Janice Chandler Eteme, a Baltimore-based soprano who has sung the role of Bess in locales as far-flung as Lyon, France; Edinburgh; and Dallas.
Chandler Eteme will encore the role at Seattle Symphony, opposite Kevin Deas, who has appeared with her before singing Porgy.
Given how often she’s portrayed Bess (the “loose” vagabond who finds herself stranded in the close-knit Charleston, S.C., community of Catfish Row), the singer holds strong opinions about what makes the character tick.
“I think Bess is vulnerable,” she commented recently by phone. “Bess has obviously not been deeply loved in her life and is searching for something better. But when she meets Porgy it’s hard for her to recognize and expect real love from anyone. It takes her a while to even feel worthy of Porgy’s love.”
So once she trusts and returns Porgy’s affections, why does Bess get entangled again with men who have exploited her — her brutal lover, Crown, and the wily “happy dust” merchant Sportin’ Life?
“Her former life kind of crowds in on her. But what’s beautiful to me is that Porgy thinks enough of Bess to go after her when she heads off to New York. It’s ultimately a story of redemption, of people struggling through difficulty and love triumphing in the end.”
Asked her views on being long identified with a work that has, at times, been castigated as clichéd and one-dimensional in its depiction of African Americans, Chandler Eteme gave a thoughtful reply.
“Maybe one reason people may disdain it is not due to the piece itself, but because there still hasn’t been a wide enough variety (of opera roles) for black singers,” she suggested. “‘Porgy and Bess’ may be all they get hired for, and no one wants to be pigeonholed.”
Chandler Eteme has enjoyed a varied career as a concert artist performing classical repertoire by Mahler, Beethoven and others, and she appears on the Naxos recording of “Dear Mrs. Parks,” Hannibal Lokumbe’s oratorio devoted to civil-rights activist Rosa Parks.
But she notes, “There’s a lot of opera I’ve wanted to do. I’d really love to sing the Countess in ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ or Elvira in ‘Don Giovanni.’ I just haven’t had the opportunity.”
Not that she is eager to shed the part of Bess, which she has gladly sung with other symphonies on several occasions. “First of all,” she says, “it is great music.”
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org