The artists in Seattle Opera’s upcoming “Porgy and Bess,” which opens Aug. 11, say it’s fine to celebrate the music, but it’s even better when that appreciation comes with a desire to think about the bigger cultural picture.
There’s a lot to love about “Porgy and Bess.” The Gershwins’ opera, set in an African-American community in 1920s South Carolina, is full of action and glorious songs like “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
It also represents a rare chance to see a majority-black cast on stage, and it’s long been a springboard for black artists’ careers.
Then there’s the problematic side. For one, black people didn’t write either the source material or the opera. And its themes — young women led into lives of prostitution, young men ruined by drugs and gambling — represent some of the most tenacious and damaging stereotypes about black culture.
The artists in Seattle Opera’s upcoming “Porgy and Bess,” which opens the 2018-19 season on Saturday, Aug. 11, say it’s OK to celebrate the music, but it’s even better when that appreciation comes with a desire to think about the bigger picture.
Positives and negatives
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Tenor Jermaine Smith made a name for himself playing Catfish Row’s ne’er-do-well drug dealer Sportin’ Life, a role he’s performed all over the world and will be playing in Seattle Opera’s production as well.
He likes the way “Porgy and Bess” shows positives and negatives, hard edges and softness, evil but also goodness, all against a backdrop of a tight-knit community of people who find strength in their shared spirituality and interdependence.
As is the case with many black singers, this opera has helped open doors for him. “I’ve been offered house auditions because someone saw me as Sportin’ Life,” he said.
Smith will be directing his first fully staged opera in January — “Porgy and Bess” for the South Florida Symphony Orchestra. It’s a big opportunity, especially given how rarely opera companies hire black directors.
“Maybe Gershwin created not only the chance for African Americans to grace the stage, but also to open the door to ‘Why not allow an African American to direct this opera,’ ” Smith said. Ideally, he added, someone will admire his work and say, “I’d love to see what this person would do with ‘Tosca.’ “
Smith is well aware of the opera’s controversial history, but he says it portrays a sliver of real life he saw growing up in St. Louis, where some of his hardscrabble relatives had a lot in common with Sportin’ Life.
The role also gives him a chance to show off his emotional, physical and vocal range while making a potentially unsympathetic character three-dimensional. “He’s not just a bad guy. You don’t attract by being a bad guy. You do it by being charming. I see him like the snake in the Garden of Eden,” he said. “One patron came up after a show and said, ‘I hate that I love you so much.’ ”
When “Porgy” first opened on Broadway in 1935, many in the black community welcomed it as a rare big-stage showcase for African-American talent — though there were prominent dissenters as well. It led to desegregation in some theaters when performers refused to sing for whites-only audiences.
But over the years, as black performers made inroads into the mainstream arts scene and the civil-rights movement grew to a crescendo, the opera fell out of favor. After having been “too black” for some white audiences in its early years, it was not black enough for many African Americans tired of seeing themselves negatively portrayed in all kinds of entertainment.
Linda Callecod, who will be part of the “Porgy” chorus in Seattle, was a college student studying music in Detroit during the turbulent late 1960s.
When black audiences first saw “Porgy” in the 1930s, she said, the response was, “‘Yay! We get to participate!’” But then “the second wave was like, ‘There’s more to us than broken English, murder and drugs.’ ”
It didn’t help that by the time she and many others first saw “Porgy,” it was as a shortened musical-theater version rather than the more nuanced opera it was originally meant to be. The full opera largely faded from stages for decades, until Houston Grand Opera produced a landmark performance in 1976. Its musical director was John DeMain, who’s conducting the full-length version for Seattle Opera.
As well as adding back the music cut over the years, “we tried to create an environment for the black Southern cultural experience to come forth, engineered by the people in the cast rather than by us white folks directing it,” DeMain said during a forum on diversity, equity and representation in opera called “Breaking Glass: Hyperlinking Opera & Issues.” Seattle Opera paired with the Glimmerglass Festival to present that forum last month as part of the rollout to “Porgy and Bess.” (The discussion is posted on Seattle Opera’s YouTube channel.)
Hiring talented singers, involving the cast in staging decisions and letting each performer’s abilities shine are crucial in successfully staging the demanding “Porgy.” Those working on Seattle Opera’s production says this one does that with a seasoned cast including Alfred Walker (Amonasro in Seattle Opera’s recent “Aida”) and Angel Blue (who appeared in Seattle Opera’s 2011 “Porgy and Bess”).
“Every person in this opera is a principal, in that you will feel the energy always flowing and everybody’s engaged,” Smith said.
A collaborative effort
Porgy was a collaborative effort from the beginning, said Naomi André, author of the book “Black in Opera.”
The composer, George Gershwin, and one of the lyricists, brother Ira Gershwin, were Jewish. DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, white Southerners, co-wrote the libretto based on their own play, itself based on DuBose Heyward’s novel.
“Then we had the performers, who were African Americans and who were embodying these roles and talking with the Gershwins and the Heywards to sort of help with interpretation,” André said during the “Breaking Glass” forum.
The extra-large chorus, which, as in the Seattle Opera production, often includes high-caliber singers from the local African-American community, adds another dimension. In this staging, they also play a much more active role than in most operas.
Callecod, now a business and organizational consultant, performed in a few operas in college but never seriously considered becoming a professional singer. Back then, “I would never, ever be considered for a leading role in a majority-white opera,” she said.
That kind of discrimination is not entirely behind us. Recently, a white woman walked up to Callecod at a classical-music recital she was attending and said, “We’re so glad you’re here!” Callecod was happy for the welcome until the other woman continued, “You must be the bus driver!”
“The knock upside my head was, even if you’re not a performer, even if you just show up, you’re not expected,” Callecod said. “Sometimes, our current experience will say, ‘You’re not welcome yet.’ ”
The “Breaking Glass” forum, which, in addition to DeMain and André, also included theater and opera writer and director Tazewell Thompson and director, choreographer and playwright Paige Hernandez, tackled many issues — past and present — around racial inequity in the arts.
Perhaps the biggest problem with “Porgy and Bess,” panelists said, is that it allows opera companies to feel they’re covering their bases when it comes to diverse programming.
“It’s unfortunate when that’s the only opera in a company’s repertory on a black topic and that has black singers,” André said. “The music is great, but there’s also other great music that we haven’t heard.”
That includes work by artists such as Thompson, who has directed “Porgy and Bess” several times, including in Seattle. He recently wrote the libretto for “Blue,” an opera about a Harlem couple dealing with the death of their teenage son. Hernandez tackled race, immigration and the question of home in “Stomping Grounds,” equal parts hip-hop and opera.
Thompson says “Porgy and Bess” should have a place in the opera canon. But some of the largely unknown operas created by people of color “deserve to be performed twice as much as ‘Porgy and Bess’ is.”
When it comes to “Porgy and Bess,” André said, “I think there’s a lot of good in it, but we have to have dialogues and conversations like this, because it’s not an easy, simple performance.”
Clarification: An earlier version of the story said that the chorus in Seattle Opera’s “Porgy and Bess” includes high-caliber amateur singers. Some singers in the chorus came to the production as amateurs; upon joining the production, they are paid as professionals.
The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess,” Aug. 11-25; Seattle Opera at McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$328; 206-389-7676; seattleopera.org.