George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess ranks as America’s most famous opera. Its arias and ensembles are firmly ensconced in the American Popular Songbook: “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o Nuttin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Loves You, Porgy.” “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” No other opera comes close except Carmen, and that’s French.
Gershwin’s adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s novel (and later, play) about a crippled African-American beggar set in Charleston, S.C., is now an enduring classic, but it remains the target of accusations of racism and being a trap for African-American singers.
Those arguments don’t hold for stage director Lemuel Wade, baritone Gordon Hawkins and soprano Jacqueline Echols, all members of Cincinnati Opera’s artistic team for the upcoming production of Porgy and Bess.
For Wade, already an experienced performer before joining the chorus in a 1997 Porgy revival, “I didn’t see it as something I’d get stuck doing.” Porgy “was an opportunity that happened to be a great show. Working with wonderful artists led to me directing this piece and that’s given me even more opportunities.”
Wade is director of a Porgy company touring Europe, and this fall he will stage the world premiere of Victoria Bond’s Mrs. President at New York’s Symphony Space and for Anchorage Opera.
Jacqueline Echols is a doctoral student in her final year at University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM). A former choir teacher, she joined a European touring company of Porgy singing Clara and understudying Bess. “It was my first role overseas,” she says. “From then on, many doors opened for me, especially in Europe.”
Gordon Hawkins sang Porgy in numerous productions and turned down as many requests to perform the role. Now one of the world’s leading dramatic baritones, Hawkins says that there are personal reasons for joining this cast.
“A lot of these wonderful artists, like Steven Cole (who plays Sportin’ Life), I don’t get a chance to see often in my career.”
This time, Hawkins will reverse roles, singing the opera’s villain Crown, which he says is more difficult because “Crown’s arc is like Carmen’s. You don’t warm up. You just are.”
Crown is a brutal loner who murders, rapes, blasphemes and is finally killed by Porgy
“The best thing you can do for a character like Crown is not to rationalize him. It’s my job to be that character, not to judge him.”
Echols is Clara, a young wife and mother, who opens the opera with the beloved lullaby “Summertime” (“And what a lullaby!” wrote Gershwin). Echols shrugs off the pressure. “I just get right into it and I try to make it as simple as possible.”
Hawkins adds, “Some people want to impose their artistic vision of what that piece is supposed to be. She trusts the composer and she has the instrument to do that.”
In fact, Hawkins, Echols and Wade have performed together in various combinations, but this is the first time all three will be in the same production.
“My first production of Porgy and Bess was in 2006 with Michigan Opera Theater and Gordon Hawkins was Porgy. I was in the chorus,” says Jackie Echols.
Lemuel Wade served as assistant director for the European traveling company Echols joined. “We kept telling her not to go back to teaching — and she didn’t,” Wade says, laughing.
Cincinnati Opera’s production is not Diane Paulus’s much criticized reworking, now a Tony winner. Lemuel Wade’s vision is a traditional production with characters who are genuine personalities.
“I want realism. Even though these people are poor, they have dignity. It’s important that the audience has the sense that these characters could have been real people, as opposed to an idea of a caricature of black people in Charleston, S.C., in 1935.”
The fictional community of Catfish Row serves as both setting and Greek chorus for Porgy and Bess’s bittersweet love story. Gershwin immersed himself in South Carolina’s Gullah culture, attending churches, listening to the cries of street vendors and was always attentive to the music in the language. The results were spectacular and enduring.
“He did his research,” says Echols. “I can really appreciate how he captured the community and how he listened and heard the nuances of the community.” The opera’s final ensemble, “Oh Lord, I’m On My Way” “gives me goose bumps.”
“It’s so American,” declares Wade, thumping the table for emphasis. “That final piece started out as an idea of a hymn and it grows into this massive anthem that is so absolutely American.”
Gershwin’s magnum opus runs nearly three and a half hours uncut, and even before its premiere Gershwin excised 40 minutes worth of music. Wade and conductor David Charles Abell worked through the score, adding their own cuts to Gershwin’s. “We’re musically very close to what premiered on Broadway in 1935,” says Wade.
Gordon Hawkins agrees with the decision to cut. “Had Gershwin lived long enough (he died in 1937), he would have edited his score, just like Verdi, Wagner, or any composer for the stage.”
As for drama within the opera, everyone agrees that it’s riveting, what Wade calls “an epic love story.” Bess’s struggle between a dysfunctional relationship with Crown and fulfilling love with Porgy is raw and genuine.
For Gordon Hawkins, Catfish Row’s story is equally powerful, especially as depicted by Clara and her husband Jake, who drowned in a hurricane.
“I have to see that Clara and Jake are the hope of that entire community, and when they go down…” His voice trails off.
“But that’s another thing I love about it,” exclaims Wade. “You don’t know what happens. Is it ridiculous that Porgy thought he could get to New York? Maybe he did get there. Maybe Bess and Sportin’ Life are hanging out in a bar outside of Charleston.“You can make up your own mind. Maybe love does conquer all.”
Cincinnati Opera performs PORGY AND BESS at Music Hall 7:30 p.m. June 28, 30, July 6 and 8. cincinnatiopera.com