February 2010 Issue
Celebrating a Classic
George Gershwin’s musical masterpiece, “Porgy and Bess,” captivates new audiences.
The singers are,
no doubt, nervous.
That’s natural: When your job consists of performing on big stages accompanied by live orchestras in front of eager crowds, you’re bound to get a little anxious. Throw in roles that require belting out beloved tunes, and nervousness is the norm.
However, “Porgy and Bess” is no normal job.
“In terms of American opera, there’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ –– and then there’s everything else,” says producer Michael Capasso, whose new national tour celebrates the groundbreaking 1935 folk opera that, after a 1953 revival, transformed soprano Leontyne Price into a household name, and earned actors Sidney Poitier
and Dorothy Dandridge Golden Globe nominations when it was filmed as a musical in 1959. It is still widely considered composer George Gershwin’s masterpiece.
Let the hand-wringing begin.
Of course audiences can simply sit back and revel in the production and its famous score (which includes the songs “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So”).
And Ohio arts lovers have the opportunity to experience this new version first: This month, the 75th-anniversary tour debuts in four cities across the state: Van Wert, Columbus, Portsmouth and Cincinnati. But no matter the venue, the classic story remains the same.
In a Charleston, South Carolina, fishing community known as Catfish Row, a disabled man named Porgy takes in a troubled woman named Bess, who can’t seem to escape her violent boyfriend and the local drug dealer. When Porgy and Bess fall in love and he attempts to free her from her past, the results are, well, operatic.
A composition laced with jazz and blues idioms and an all-African-American cast, “Porgy and Bess” –– an opera based on DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel, Porgy
–– was peerless when it debuted 75 years ago.
“It was something entirely new,” says Capasso, who is splitting his time between the six-week tour and serving as the general director of New York City’s DiCapo Opera Theatre, the troupe he co-founded in 1981.
Ask him to recall his first encounter with “Porgy and Bess” –– a staging by the Houston Grand Opera in 1976 –– and his response is just as dramatic as the production itself. “I was overwhelmed by the grandeur and the glory of the music,” says Capasso, “the overall greatness of the piece.”
But the work resonates just as much for its historic merit as its entertainment value. Segregation was in full swing at the time George Gershwin insisted his cast consist solely of classically trained African-American singers.
“The Metropolitan Opera [in New York] wanted Gershwin to do ‘Porgy and Bess’ there –– but he would’ve had to do it with white performers in blackface,” says David Weaver, development director of the Ohioana Library in Columbus, who researched the 1935 production while writing a book on one of its original cast members, Ohio State University alum Ruby Elzy.
Since the cast was not allowed to perform at The Met (the country’s most esteemed opera house would not stage its first African-American singer, Marian Anderson, until 1955), the premiere of “Porgy and Bess” was a private performance in Carnegie Hall. It would take another year before it was seen by an integrated audience, at the National Theater in Washington, D.C.
It was the anniversary of that trailblazing past that inspired Capasso to seek permission from the Gershwin estate to mount a tour.
After all, when it comes to opera reaching a diverse audience, there are still barriers that need to be broken.
“Opera fans go see ‘Porgy and Bess’ because they know it’s an amazing production. And people who are into musicals like it because, in their mind, it’s almost like a Broadway show,” says
Capasso, noting that the 1959 film helped the story cross into popular culture.
“But it also has the ability to reach a younger, black audience,” he adds. “I really believe in tearing down the elitist feeling that many people have when they think of opera; they don’t know if it’s accessible to them. The story and music behind ‘Porgy and Bess’ are appealing enough to do that.”
A fresh look at some of the production’s details helps, too.
For tour director Charles Randolph-Wright, that meant paying special
attention to the characters’ costumes. Yes, he thought, the fictitious residents of Catfish Row are hard-working laborers. And yes, the community is impoverished. (Porgy’s character is a beggar.)
But why, he wondered, do so many “Porgy and Bess” productions dress the characters in rags and burlap?
“I descended from the types of people represented in this opera,” says Randolph-Wright, a South Carolina native. He combed through personal photos of his family from the 1930s, as well as archives from South Carolina museums, to show the costume and set designers that even those African-Americans without money found a way to display pride in themselves and their community.
“In period pieces representing people of color, there is often an undignified image that’s portrayed,” says Randolph-Wright. “I don’t want to put the cast in the latest fashions, or try to modernize the story. But you want a depiction that’s going to build the community up, not tear it down.”
The singers are, no doubt, up for the challenge.
Between walking in the footsteps of a historic production and filling the shoes of some formidable past performers, depicting a positive image of African-Americans through “Porgy and Bess” should be a breeze.
Feb. 18: Niswonger Performing Arts Center, Van Wert, 419/238-6722 npacvw.org
Feb. 19-21: Southern Theater, Columbus, 614/469-0939 capa.com
Feb. 23: The Vern Riffe Center for the Arts, Portsmouth, 740/351-3600, vrcfa.org
Feb. 24: Aronoff Center for the Arts, Cincinnati, 513/621-2787, cincinnatiarts.org
Columbus author David Weaver showcases the life of "Porgy And Bess" singing sensation Ruby Elzy.
The book might never have been written.
If, in 1998, then 88-year-old Madge Cooper Guthery had mentioned the name of her former Ohio State University classmate, singer Ruby Elzy, to anyone other than David Weaver –– an opera singer and musical theater buff who has appeared professionally in more than two dozen productions –– it probably wouldn’t have been written.
But the story of Elzy, a famed performer who was in the original 1935 production of “Porgy and Bess,” found an eager audience in Weaver. He would spend four years, countless hours and plenty of frequent-flyer miles researching her past after Guthery’s mere mention of her.
“Of course, I’d heard of ‘Porgy and Bess,’ and I’d attended Ohio State –– so I couldn’t believe that I didn’t know who Ruby was,” says Weaver, development director of the Ohioana Library in Columbus, and author of the 2004 biography, Black Diva of the Thirties: The Life of Ruby Elzy
, published by University Press of Mississippi.
Looking back, the discovery seems serendipitous.
Eleven years ago, Weaver was working as a fund-raiser when Guthery –– one of his volunteers –– asked if he knew of Elzy. She was a Mississippi native with a hardscrabble upbringing who, while studying to be a teacher at a college near her hometown in 1927, caught the attention of visiting OSU professor Charles McCracken. He arranged for Elzy to come to Ohio and join the school’s music program. It was a move that changed her career path and ultimately lead to her playing the role of Serena in “Porgy and Bess” (the opera’s second female lead, who sings the memorable “My Man’s Gone Now”). She also appeared in the film “Birth of the Blues” with Bing Crosby, and entertained First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House.
“I was fascinated,” says Weaver. “I felt that her story really needed to be told, and her talent rediscovered.”
He threw himself into the details of Elzy’s life, making trips to Mississippi to interview her surviving sisters, and even tracking down Josephine Love, the friend who accompanied the songstress to George Gershwin’s New York City penthouse so she could audition for “Porgy and Bess.”
“She described the expression on Gershwin’s face when Ruby sang: how he closed his eyes, and how you could just tell he was really taken with her,” says Weaver.
He also learned of the ever-present prejudice she faced while on the road to fame.
“When Ruby joined the choral ensemble at Ohio State, three white students from Texas protested having to sit next to her,” says Weaver, noting that Elzy compliantly moved to the back of the chorus –– until, after hearing her sing over the following weeks, the shamed students asked that she take her original place.
Elzy became a radio star and played the role of Serena more than 800 times between 1935 and 1943. She died at age 35 following surgery to remove a benign tumor. Her achievements were largely unknown until Guthery mentioned her name to Weaver.
“Hopefully,” says Weaver, “this book will inspire someone else out there to find these other great contributors who have fallen through the cracks.” – Jennifer Haliburton
Hear an excerpt from the CD, “Ruby Elzy in Song,” produced by David Weaver.