This story features “Porgy and Bess” presented by The National Philharmonic. Learn more about this concert and get tix on the event page here.
“Porgy and Bess” is one of those stories of delayed success in musical history. When George Gershwin’s groundbreaking folk-based opera opened on Broadway in 1935, reviews were mixed. The production closed after a few months.
“Porgy and Bess” faded until the late 1970s, when the Houston Grand Opera performed it and gave it operatic status. Since then, it has received both concert and full productions — with the latter planned for 2020 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
Closer to home, for its Black History Month offering, the National Philharmonic (NP) is presenting the opera in concert form for one performance only, with Stan Engebretson, artistic director of NP’s Chorale, conducting. “We did this concert version of ‘Porgy and Bess’ 10 years ago at Strathmore, when the hall first opened,” he said. “It’s the quintessential American opera and American art form, which tells the American story.”
The opera is now revered for its music as well as its characters, including the noble crippled beggar, who, at opera’s end, follows his love, the troubled and sometime drug-addicted Bess, to New York. “‘Porgy and Bess’ has its dramatic dark sides and bright sides,” Engebretson said.
The operatic work had its origins in a novel by Dubose Heywood called simply “Porgy.” He and his wife turned the book into a non-musical play and later, with composer George Gershwin and lyricist Ira Gershwin, an opera. The Gershwin brothers moved to South Carolina for a time to live among and observe the locals, where the opera is set.
“‘Porgy and Bess’ takes a jazz idiom and melds it into beautiful melodies,” Engebretson said. “There are so many great arias and choruses.” Among the lovely solos are the lullaby “Summertime” and “Bess, You is My Woman Now.” On the more-cynical side is “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Of course, the concert version lacks lighting and sets. But unlike some operatic works, “Porgy and Bess” stands strong on its own in a concert version, said Engebretson. “We use a narrator to bridge the story line and have tightened the opera into a two-hour production.
Also, participating in the production are members of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts’ Concert Choir, led by Samuel Bonds. “The choir performed with us 10 years ago and are now performing with us again,” said Engebretson. “I’m so excited to be working again with Sam Bonds, a friend and a colleague.” Bonds was a student of Todd Duncan, the original Porgy, also a Washingtonian.
Singing Porgy is a reprise many times over for Kevin Deas, bass-baritone, who said he has performed the role “hundreds of times” — including with the New York Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra and Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. In one concert version, he sang three different roles.
Deas first heard a recording of “Porgy and Bess” while a student at The Juilliard School and described the music as “so amazing and so beautiful.”
He finds the character of Porgy — “in love for the first time in his life” — very appealing. Of course, being Porgy in a full staged version is a “daunting task” — performing on his knees for three-and-a-half hours but having to get off his cart to kill Crown. “I remember how hard it was,” said Deas. “In modern times, there are knee protectors, which made things much easier. At least in a concert version, you can stand on your feet.”
When lyric coloratura soprano Marlissa Hudson appeared in a full production of “Porgy and Bess” about a decade ago at Union Avenue Opera in St. Louis, her hometown, she was struck not only by the music but the character of Bess. “I fell in love with the role,” said Hudson. “It was a lot of fun to drop all the Presbyterianism I had grown up with.” She has “done little pieces” from the opera — which she’s often been asked to sing in concerts, but this is the first time she’ll appear in the full concert version.
When the mercurial Bess turns to Porgy for help, Hudson explained, “she finds a chance to feel whole, to be provided with validation. He’s very good to her, and men hadn’t been good to her.” Bess, she continued, is “smooth and wily, able to talk her way in and out of everything. That’s the way she can handle Crown, who is abusive. But she’s also like a character out of a Greek tragedy who can’t win. Once she finally gets rid of Crown, there’s Sporting Life [the drug dealer] in the wings.”
Hudson finds the music “gorgeous and very operatic, not the musical theater some people think it is. And the genius is indisputable. Gershwin has everything you need to create a real character, tenderness captured and raw sexuality.”
The Gershwin estate requires all the performers in any production of “Porgy and Bess” to be black, even rejecting the offer of entertainer Al Jolson to do the role in blackface. The National Philharmonic Orchestra has honored that in terms of the soloists. But, Engebretson admitted, this production has a “mixed chorus.” “I feel differently than I would about a fully staged version,” he said.
From the outset, “Porgy and Bess” was criticized for its flawed characters and for “cultural appropriation,” since the Gershwins were New York Jews. “There’s always that controversy around the piece,” said Deas. “Some of the portrayals are offensive and stereotypical. But you have to look at the time in which the opera was written. I think Gershwin was well intended and took great care to make it authentic. He would sit on a porch, listen to the language and watch the body language of the people. If a work of art resonates with me, I will do it.”
Hudson believes that “It’s insane to limit the possibilities of a work of art based on race.” She sang the cantata “Songs of the Slave’” by Kerke Mechem (now about 93), who is white, and felt it captured the experience of slavery.
The concert version of “Porgy and Bess” made “some judicious cuts” to the original, Engebretson said. “But all the highlights are there.”
Although a concert version of a longer staged work may have limitations, Hudson sees its value. “It’s exposure for those who are curious about but don’t have the attention span to listen to the entire opera,” she said. “I think with the cuts, the concert version has kept the soul of the production, and it works.”
The National Philharmonic will present “Porgy and Bess” at 8 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24, at The Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. For information or to purchase tickets, ranging from $25 to $82, free for ages 7 to 17, visit www.nationalphilharmonic.org, or call 301-581-5100. Learn more about this concert on CultureSpotMC here.