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Originally published July 23, 2011 at 7:02 PM | Page modified July 25, 2011 at 5:37 PM

Gershwin classic 'Porgy and Bess' to take stage at Seattle Opera

"Porgy and Bess," being staged by Seattle Opera July 30-Aug. 20, 2011, has seen its fortunes rise and fall since its 1935 debut because of its depiction of Southern black life. Times critic Misha Berson traces some of its tumultuous and triumphant history.

Seattle Times theater critic

OPERA PREVIEW

'Porgy and Bess'

Saturday-Aug. 20, starring Gordon Hawkins and Lisa Daltirus, with Chris Alexander, director, and John DeMain, conductor, Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; $25-$200 (206-389-7676 or www.seattleopera.org).

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The landmark American opera "Porgy and Bess," the jewel in George Gershwin's crown, is sure to be a hot ticket when it opens at Seattle Opera on Saturday.

With its enormous cast and staging demands, the opera (which yielded such beloved standards as "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So") has not been seen here since 1995, so anticipation is high.

Another near-certainty: Seattle Opera regular Chris Alexander's airing, featuring "Porgy" veterans in the leads and a locally cast chorus, won't resolve all of the musical, theatrical and sociological controversies the 75-year-old opera has catalyzed.

"Porgy and Bess" has been beloved and canonized, repudiated and reconfigured since its 1935 debut. And the melodically sumptuous tale of the crippled beggar Porgy, and his affair with the troubled "harlot" Bess, returns here at a time when it is stirring new kudos and interest.

University of Washington music professor and George Gershwin biographer Larry Starr says some key arguments seem settled — for now. "History, especially in the past 30 years, has vindicated Gershwin's idea that this is an opera, but an intrinsically American one — not just in subject matter but musically," Starr informs.

"The music has permeated so many different musical arenas. It is the most performed American opera worldwide and it has survived completely as an opera, as well as a theatrical musical, in excerpts and in the jazz [repertoire]."

This year has already seen a stripped-down, well-received "Porgy and Bess" at Chicago's Court Theatre and a revived Atlanta Opera production.

Moreover, a new version starring Tony Award honoree Audra McDonald debuts next month in a pre-Broadway run at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.

This one is generating special interest: with the blessing of the estates of George and Ira Gershwin and the librettist and co-lyricist Dubose Heyward, "Porgy and Bess" will be revised and "re-imagined" by two noted black artists: dramatist Suzan-Lori Parks and writer-musician Deidre L. Murray. As "Porgy and Bess" moves into the regional and national spotlight again, it's a good time to revisit two of the major debates it has engendered.

Genuine opera, or Broadway-style musical?

The answer will vary according to whom you ask. But in its lifetime, Porgy's saga has been both — as well as an acclaimed novel, and a play.

South Carolina writer Dubose Heyward's tale was inspired by a newspaper item about Sammy Smalls, a black, disabled beggar the author (who was white) had observed in Charleston. It was reported that Smalls, who got around via a goat cart, had been arrested for attempting to shoot a woman named Maggie Barnes.

Heyward's imagination was also stirred by a rough black enclave near his home, a courtyard surrounded by dilapidated apartments known as Cabbage Row.

In Heyward's 1925 novel "Porgy," Sammy became Porgy; Cabbage Row became the dockside Catfish Row; and Maggie turned into Bess, who tries to go straight but is dogged by her brutal lover, Crown, and a seductive drug pusher, Sportin' Life.

An empathetic story brimming with passion, melodrama, spiritualism and picturesque atmosphere, "Porgy" was a success, and in 1927 Heyward reworked it into a hit stage drama. By then it had caught the attention of the brilliant Gershwin, who saw in the narrative a perfect vehicle for the indigenous opera he yearned to write. It would fuse classical leitmotifs with the African-American gospel, folk and jazz idioms that had fueled much of his show music and his great "Rhapsody in Blue."

His brother Ira and Heyward joined in, to create something far more ambitious than the escapist, all-black musical revues that had delighted Broadway.

" 'Porgy and Bess' is a grand opera; everything but a handful of dialogue is set to opera," says Starr. "That's clearly the work as Gershwin envisioned it."

When it debuted, critics either embraced the scope of the work, or branded it an aesthetic overreach.

Broadway audiences didn't quite know what to make of "Porgy and Bess" either, and it ran only several months. When revived on Broadway in 1942, after Gershwin's 1937 death from a brain tumor, the opera was radically edited into more of a standardized musical. Much of the sung dialogue was converted to spoken lines. The orchestra was smaller, the cast size halved. It was a hit.

It wasn't until a thrilling 1976 Houston Grand Opera production that the score was restored, by and large, to the Gershwin-approved 1935 version.

John DeMain, the conductor of that smash revival (and the new Seattle Opera version), is a staunch advocate of the 1930s score.

Musically the Seattle Opera's "Porgy and Bess" will hew close to the Houston Opera's, which DeMain says conveys "the deep spirituality and intense love story, and ... allows 'Porgy' to take on the proportions of grand opera in every sense."

But the score is being treated as a living theatrical document, not a sacrosanct relic. Director Alexander says his staging includes a number often cut, the Act 2 "Buzzard Song," "because it's dramatically very important for the show." (That song was cut by Gershwin himself, to ease the vocal burden on Todd Duncan, the first Porgy.)

Authentic black drama, or stereotype mill?

The matter of the opera's cultural authenticity, its "blackness" or lack of it, was a thornier debate for decades.

Gwynne Brown, a music professor at University of Puget Sound who has researched the subject, says black, classically trained singers deeply appreciated the entree that "Porgy and Bess" gave them to a prestigious opera world they'd historically been shut out of.

But in 1935 and later, prominent African Americans also raised strong objections to the story's portrayal "of only poor blacks engaged in gambling, murder, dope-taking and loose behavior," she says. "These were considered negative stereotypes of black people, especially in a work created by whites."

The father of the first Bess, played by Juilliard-trained soprano Anne Brown, disapproved of her taking such an unsavory role. Jazz composer Duke Ellington was one of those who bashed the gospel, jazz and folkloric strains in Gershwin's score as "inauthentic."

Even as black musical stars such as Miles Davis and Nina Simone made popular recordings of the opera's songs, criticism from other artists and intellectuals intensified in the 1950s and 1960s.

As the civil-rights movement picked up steam, black journalist Dean Gordon Hancock complained, "The mind of the new Negro is on Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, D.C., not Catfish Alley ... "

By 1959, when an overblown, widely scorned (and now out of circulation) film of the opera with Sidney Poitier came out, black singers who once might have sought roles in the opera were backing away from it.

Playwright Lorraine Hansberry disparaged its images of Southern blacks as hackneyed and limited. And novelist James Baldwin, who praised Heyward's depiction of this strata of Southern life, also complained it omitted how whites helped cause and perpetuate the poverty and criminality the story depicts.

Yet with the 1976 Houston revival, the tide turned. A wider array of black American images was appearing on Broadway, TV and in films. And the opera world was striving for more authenticity in its stagings of "Porgy and Bess."

Though Catfish Row is worlds away from the German-bred Alexander's background, his cast of young Seattle choristers and such "Porgy and Bess" repeaters as Gordon Hawkins (a Seattle Opera alum) as Porgy and Lisa Daltirus as Bess, includes natives of the South who are sharing their knowledge of the region's culture with the director.

"They love the score," he reports. "They embrace it, they know they can have an incredible impact on an audience with it. They're raring to go."

"There's still no getting around the presence of stereotypes in that libretto," acknowledges Brown, the music professor. "But on many levels this is a universal story. And when you look at 'Porgy and Bess' in a larger context, there are very few operas that have so many complicated characters.

"It's easy to say Bess is a prostitute, Sportin' Life is a dope dealer. But these people are really deep, they're rich and dynamic, both universal and individual."

DeMain, who helped engineer the opera's resurrection, is happy with what he sees in the Seattle rehearsals. "African-American singers now embrace and love the piece, they want to be in it, and see it," he says. "That's what we accomplished over the last 25 years."

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com

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