Tour de force: `Porgy and Bess'

UP FRONT

January 17, 2002|By Gina Kazimir | Gina Kazimir,SPECIAL TO THE 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.

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