Preview: Seattle Opera Presents Porgy And Bess The Great American Opera

For the fourth time in their rich musical history, Seattle Opera presents Porgy and Bess, one of their most successful and popular productions. It runs August 11-25 at McCaw Hall.

The first great American opera is back, and our city is rejoicing.

The opera’s vibrant mix of action, humor, romance, struggle, and celebration returns with a new staging that will inspire audiences to rise up and cheer. Just as they did in 2011 at the sellout performances of S0’s production of Porgy and Bess.

As we all know, Porgy and Bess is an English-language opera by the American composer George Gershwin, with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin. It was adapted from Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, itself an adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name.

Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy). (Photo by Philip Newton)

Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy). (Photo by Philip Newton)

There are so many reasons to celebrate this production; Gershwin’s glorious music, DuBose Heyward’s exquisite lyrics and libretto, the sublime singers, and the magnificent 40-member chorus. And Maestro John DeMain, whose Porgy and Bess recording won a 1976 Grammy, conducts the opera for the fourth time at Seattle Opera. He made his Seattle Opera Debut conducting SO’s 1987 production. He subsequently directed it in 1995 and 2011.

The opera’s history is as rich as its music. Gershwin read Porgy in 1926 and proposed to Heyward to collaborate on an operatic version. In the summer of 1934, they traveled to Folly Beach, South Carolina (a small island near Charleston), where Gershwin got a feel for the locale and its music. The ambience was so inspirational; Gershwin finished the three-hour opera within a year.

His brother, Ira, wrote lyrics to some of the opera’s classic songs, most notably “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” But most of the lyrics, including “Summertime,” were written by Heyward, who also wrote the libretto.

Although the writing had proceeded smoothly, casting proved more difficult. Once he had assembled a cast of African American singers who could successfully balance jazz and operatic singing, it became clear that the opera world was not ready for a “black opera,” and the jazz world was not ready for opera at all. Most frustrating of all was that various Broadway producers with whom Gershwin had worked successfully for years insisted that he hire only white singers and put them in blackface. He refused—emphatically. —a daring artistic choice at the time

Only after much negotiating and his refusal to compromise on a black cast did Gershwin manage to arrange for an opening on Broadway, where his own reputation could carry the show.

The opera premiered at the Alvin Theatre in New York City on October 10, 1935.

The production met with limited success, running for only 124 performances. Although an unusually large number for a new opera, it was small for a Gershwin show on Broadway. Jazz fans were put off by the work’s serious tone and opera fans by its saucy voice. At the same time, some African American observers felt that the work stereotyped their culture, presenting it as one involving drinking, gambling, violence, and drug dealing. But there were some who were pleased that African Americans were at last being portrayed in a serious stage work of operatic scope.

Cast members of Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess. (Photo by Philip Newton)

Cast members of Seattle Opera’s Porgy and Bess. (Photo by Philip Newton)

Porgy depicts life, death, love, and hope in an African American community. The plot generally follows the Heywards’ stage play. Set during the 1920’s in Catfish Row by the shores of Charleston, South Carolina, it deals with the attempt of Porgy, a disabled beggar, to create a home for himself and Bess, a young woman whose troubled past threatens to consume her present. Porgy attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer.

Porgy and Bess has generated controversy since its 1935 debut. From the outset, the opera’s depiction of African Americans attracted controversy. A planned production by the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle in the late 1930s, part of the Federal Theatre Project, was cancelled because actors were displeased with what they viewed as a racist portrayal of aspects of African American life.

The racist label gained momentum during the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power movement of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As these movements advanced, Gershwin’s all-black opera was also unpopular with celebrated black artists. Harry Belafonte declined to play Porgy in the 1959 film adaptation, so the role went to a reluctant but contractually obligated Sidney Poitier.

Despite the poor American reception, the opera thrived abroad. In 1952, with the State Department’s blessing, Missouri-born Blevins Davis and Robert Breen co-produced a revival of Porgy and Bess that toured Europe, receiving accolades everywhere it played. The cast included classically trained African-American singers: Leontyne Price as Bess, William Warfield as Porgy, and Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life, a role that Gershwin had composed with him in mind. The role of Clara was played by a young Maya Angelou.

Another turning point came via the 1976 Houston Grand Opera. The successful production gained a new momentum.

Finally, the Metropolitan Opera presented a production of Porgy and Bess. It opened February 6, 1985 with Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry starring as Porgy and Bess. Directed by Nathaniel Merrill and conducted by James Levine, it received 16 performances in its first season and was revived in 1986, 1989 and 1990, for a total of 54 performances.

Grace Bumbry, who excelled in the 1985 Metropolitan Opera production as Bess, made the often-cited statement: “I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there.”

A 2012 Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess stirred up more controversy. A production starring Audra McDonald, the opera was downsized to two and half hours. Despite disapproval (including that of Stephen Sondheim), it went on to win a Tony Award for Best Revival and a sixth Tony Award for McDonald.

Cast members of Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess. (Photo by Philip Newton)

Cast members of Seattle Opera’s Porgy and Bess. (Photo by Philip Newton)

SO’s all-Black cast includes both international opera stars such as Plácido Domingo’s protégée and former beauty queen Angel Blue (Bess), and a chorus made up of artists from throughout the Puget Sound, such as Ty Willis, who most recently performed in 5th Avenue Theatre’s Kiss Me Kate, and his daughter, Bethanie Willis, who recently starred in Crown at Taproot Theatre. Also joining the Porgy chorus is Michael A. Wansley (“Wanz”), who sang the soulful hook on the Grammy-Award winning song “Thrift Shop,” by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, and Tena Duberry, a popular Northwest actor/songstress and host of the Tena Duberry WOW Show.

In another coup, SO’s creative team includes Paul Tazewell, who took home a Tony Award for his costume design for Hamilton, and stage director Francesca Zambello, whose production has been hailed as “proof that Gershwin’s opus remains America’s most important 20th-century opera.” Scenery and props for this production of Porgy and Bess are co-produced by Glimmerglass Festival and Seattle Opera, and costumes by Washington National Opera.

The music reflects Gershwin’s New York jazz roots, but also draws on southern black traditions. It is now considered one of the pillars of the American opera repertory, with unforgettable melodies, including the haunting “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” and “I Loves You, Porgy,” as well as the playful “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ ” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

Several songs have become standards in jazz and blues. The more celebrated include Sarah Vaughan‘s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the versions of “Summertime” recorded by Billie HolidayElla Fitzgerald and Louis ArmstrongMiles DavisJohn Coltrane, and Jascha Heifetz in his own transcriptions for violin and piano.

Pop stars followed suit. Janice Joplin recorded a blues/rock version of “Summertime” with Big Brother and the Holding Company. Billy Stewart’s version became a Top 10 Pop and R&B hit in 1966 for Chess Records. Even seemingly unlikely groups such as The Zombies (1965) recorded “Summertime.” And the ska punk band Sublime released “Doin’ Time” (1997), a loose cover of Gershwin and Heyward’s beloved song.

An unforgettable mix of humor and intense drama, Porgy and Bess deals frankly with drug addiction and violence (two characters are killed onstage in fight scenes). The heroine sings love duets featuring both tender compassion and raw sexual passion, and race relations in the American South during the era of Jim Crow.

That Gershwin sought to write a true jazz opera, and that he insisted it only be sung by a black cast, indicates he did not intend the work to belittle African-Americans. He intended to celebrate them.

Eighty-three years have passed since Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway. Deemed a failure, it lost its entire $70,000 investment. Gershwin and Heyward died in 1937 and 1940, respectively, not knowing that their poorly-received opera would become one of the most important American musical works of the 20th century.

It would be crowned “the first great American opera.”

Seattle Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess runs August 11–25 (Aug. 11, 12, 15, 17, 18, 19, 22, 24, & 25 in English with English captions at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall; Evening performances begin at 7:30 pm, Sunday matinees at 2pm; tickets available at 206-389-7676 or; tickets may also be purchased at the box office, 1020 John Street, M-F 9am-3pm; group rates are available, 206.676.5588 or; The $25 tickets are sold out for the run of the show, orchestra seat tickets start at $119, and second tier tickets at $49. Family Day: Sunday, August 19, students 18 and under in the company of an adult pay only $20 for almost any seat; the opera runs approximately 3 hours including one intermission; Movie-style rating: PG-1 due to references to drug use and addiction, fight scenes/violence, resulting in the on-stage deaths of two characters, sexuality and sexual violence.

Seattle Opera offers standing room tickets for all performances at McCaw Hall. For the main season, standing room tickets are $20 per person. Standing room is in the back of the Orchestra and you do, literally, stand throughout the performance. You may not sit in any unoccupied seats, but there is a padded rail to lean against. Standing room tickets become available on the day of the performance or, for Sunday performances, one day before. To purchase standing room tickets, call the Ticket Office at 206.389.7676 or visit our administrative offices at 1020 John Street on the day of the show starting when the ticket office opens (9:00 a.m. for weekday performance days; noon for Saturday performance days). Standing room tickets are not available online. Please be aware that the English translations are not visible from the standing room location in the back of the Orchestra seating, and that availability is extremely limited.

More Info On Seattle Opera’s Production Of Porgy And Bess

The Roles
Porgy, a disabled beggar (bass-baritone)
Bess, Crown’s girl (soprano)
Crown (baritone)
Sportin’ Life, a dope peddler (tenor)
Robbins, an inhabitant of Catfish Row (tenor)
Serena, Robbins’ wife (soprano)
Jake, a fisherman (baritone)
Clara, Jake’s wife (Soprano)
Maria, keeper of the cook-shop (contralto)
Mingo (tenor)
Peter, the honeyman (tenor)
Lily, Peter’s wife (soprano)
Frazier, a black lawyer (baritone)
Annie (mezzo-soprano)
Strawberry woman (mezzo-soprano)
Jim, a cotton picker (baritone)
Undertaker (baritone)
Nelson (tenor)
Crab Man (tenor)
Scipio, a small boy (boy soprano)
Mr. Archdale, a white lawyer (spoken)
Detective (spoken)
Policeman (spoken)

Porgy and Bess Cast:
Porgy: Alfred Walker (Aug. 11, 15, 17, 19, & 25)
Porgy: Kevin Short (Aug. 12, 18, 22, & 24)
Bess: Angel Blue (Aug. 11, 15, 17, 19, & 25)
Bess: Elizabeth Llewellyn* (Aug. 12, 18, 22, & 24)
Crown: Lester Lynch
Serena: Mary Elizabeth Williams
Sportin’ Life: Jermaine Smith
Clara: Brandie Sutton*
Jake: Derrick Parker*
Maria: Judith Skinner*
Mingo: Bernard Holcomb*
Robbins: Edward Graves*
Peter the Honeyman: Martin Bakari*
Jim Nicholas: Davis*
Undertaker: Damien Geter*
Annie: Cheryse McLeod Lewis
Nelson: Ernest C. Jackson Jr.*
Crab Man: Ashley Faatoalia
Strawberry Woman: Ibidunni Ojikutu
Lily: Marlette Buchanan

*Seattle Opera Debut

The Creative Team
Conductor John DeMain
Original Production by Francesca Zambello
Stage Director Garnett Bruce*
Set Designer Peter J. Davison*
Costume Designer Paul Tazewell*
Lighting Design Mark McCullough
Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel*

*Seattle Opera Debut


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Starla Smith

Starla Smith

Starla Smith is a career journalist, writing features for such publications as The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Daily News, The Des Moines Register, Vibe and a prize-winning Gannett Newspaper. She helped launch Theater Week Magazine and eventually became its publisher. As a regular contributor to Playbill, her interviews and photos were featured in Playbill and Playbill-on-line. Smith was featured in the New York Times "Style" section for her "Word Portraits," specialized tributes, speeches, and presentation profiles. And she covered theater and features for City Search, Digital City, and the Tena Duberry WOW! Radio show. She previously served as astrology guru for Out Magazine, and she hastens to assure her readers that "Starla" is indeed her real name.

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