The Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House is a most dynamic venue; as Sydney’s stage, it hosts virtuoso pianists, rock musicians and HSC students – and that’s just in one week. In November it will morph into yet another guise – an opera theatre, as conductor David Robertson and director Mitchell Butel bring their vision of Porgy and Bess to life.
George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is inherently hybrid because musically, it blends jazz, African-American Spirituals and musical theatre while retaining the qualities of an opera. Through Robertson’s vision, its hybridity will extend beyond the music because his Australian orchestra Sydney Symphony (SSO) will be combined with an American cast. Opera will blend with concert. In technical terms, this is known as a ‘semi-staged’ performance. In layman’s understanding, this means a world of possibilities.
Before we turn to the 2016 production, it is interesting to peel back the layers and discover how Porgy and Bess came to be formed. Like Shakespeare, its intersection of ideas, characters and politics makes it quite timeless. George Gershwin was a product of New York of the early 1900s. Born Jacob Gershwine, he was the son of Russian- Ukrainian immigrants, a boy who cut his musical teeth in Yiddish theatre, learnt the art of classical music and then scored his first job writing popular songs on Tin Pan Alley. In his twenties, Gershwin began collaborating with his older brother, Ira, and together they produced over a dozen Broadway musicals and some of the most memorable songs of their generation.
Around this time, further down the Atlantic coast, a man by the name of DuBose Heyward was hard at work writing a novel, Porgy, a local tale that would reach the world. Set on the streets of Heyward’s hometown in Charleston, South Carolina, Porgy told the tale of a disabled African – American beggar and his efforts to rescue his beloved Bess, from the hands of both her lover Crown and a drug dealer by the name of Sporting Life.
For its time, Porgy was a brave work and indeed, it was the first novel to validate the experience of the African – American population. When Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, adapted the novel into a play it broke further ground and, in a bold move, the Heyward’s insisted upon an African-American cast and Dubose subsequently crediting them as collaborators who transformed the drama.
Back in New York, Gershwin read Heyward’s Porgy and decided it would make a great opera. The Heyward’s stage play was already underway in development, so Gershwin decided to name his project Porgy and Bess to distinguish between the two. He decided, however, that this would be a folk opera and as he explained to the New York Times, ‘Porgy and Bess is a folk tale. Its people naturally would sing folk music. When I first began work on the music I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music – and therefore, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera.’ Seven years would pass before Gershwin and Heyward signed a contract with the Theatre Guild to write the opera but finally, in September 1935, the show opened at the Colonial Theatre.
Eighty years later, and an ocean away, staging Porgy and Bess is perhaps a timely reminder of how little the world has really changed. Fine Music spoke with soprano Nicole Cabell who will be performing the role of Bess in the SSO production. Upon being asked what the story means to her, Cabell responded, ‘Porgy and Bess is a story of love in the hardest of circumstances. Sometimes the characters triumph in love, and sometimes they fail, but the message always is of hope. The story is also an expression of joy when faced with unfair, heartbreaking circumstances. This small community in Catfish Row looks after one another, living and fighting through tragedy, always managing to come out stronger in the end. I can personally relate to some of the struggles expressed in this story, and can attest that it is only strong relationships that matter, that can get you through hard times.’
Cabell’s answer captures succinctly why the work remains so humanly and emotionally timeless. When asked what draws him to the work, Robertson provided an understandably musical answer. ‘The brilliance of invention of the melodies and the way in which Gershwin is so incredibly fecund in coming up with all of these brilliant tunes, is what makes it so appealing.’
As it is Cabell who will be voicing these tunes, it is interesting to try and understand how she relates to the character of Bess. Female characters in opera seem to exist somewhere on a spectrum of sweet to manipulative but as Bess sits on the crossroads, Fine Music asked Cabell which one she prefers to play.
‘Antithetically I actually have more fun playing the good girl,’ she replied.‘It’s more natural for me, I guess. That said, it’s also fun to play “bad” even though many of the rougher female characters in opera, such as Bess, have a heart of gold. I’ve come to embrace the challenge, to step outside my comfort zone, and it’s certainly becoming easier.’
From the way she describes Bess, it is clear she feels an emotional kinship with the character. ‘Bess is only a little manipulative,’ she defends, ‘and it’s really a survival tactic. Most of her hard exterior comes from pain and struggle, both of which she constantly fights to overcome. She wants to be sweet and loving, but has suffered a lot of abuse. You can see, watching the opera, that she has a wealth of love to give, but fights quite hard to tap that well. Her weaknesses are the weaknesses we all suffer, or would suffer, in her circumstances. Given the right circumstances, she can be, and is, very sweet.’ With this powerful evocation of the female lead, it is left to wonder in what way Porgy’s character provides a counterpart and it is Robertson, perhaps, who provides the answer when asked what audiences should take away from their night at the opera: ‘The resilience of hope within the human spirit.’ That’s Porgy, through and through.
Joining Cabell in Sydney will be Alfred Walker as Porgy, Eric Greene as Crown, Karen Slack as Serena, Julia Bullock as Clara, Leon Williams as Jake and Jermaine Smith as the acrobatic Sportin’ Life. Being a semi-staged production, there will be neither costumes nor set but as Cabell explains, this is far from a disadvantage. ‘When an audience isn’t given the full distraction of a set, lighting and costumes, they are encouraged to listen more closely to the music.’ And what music it is! As Robertson emphatically explains, ‘He thinks it is unlikely that there is an audience member alive on the planet who is unfamiliar with Gershwin’s music – they may just not know those beautiful melodies are associated with that particular composer. Gershwin is at once sophisticated and direct and very human.’
This directness and humanity is what permits the story to be told with only minimal dramatics. At the helm of those stage movements is Australian director, Mitchell Butel, who, much like Gershwin, has also explored the breadth of his field. Acting in everything from Romeo and Juliet to Oklahoma! and The Mikado, Butel turned his hand to directing in 2015. That same year he won Best Director of a Musical for his work in Violet performed at the Hayes Theatre. Butel is clearly well equipped to tackle this hybrid production and it is fascinating to try and imagine what he has in mind. Robertson is clearly pleased with the direction the collaboration is taking, saying he and Butel have ‘already had preliminary discussions and what he is putting forward is going to be an essential part of what I think will be a huge success.’
Robertson may be confident about his venture but it took a long time for Gershwin’s work to truly take off. Opinions were divided as to whether it was a racist work or an empowerment of race. As such, the opera fell into relative obscurity during the race riots of the 1960s. Its revival came at the hands of the Houston Grand Opera in 1976. For the first time the opera was being performed by an American opera company, rather than a Broadway production, and it secured the work in the opera repertory. Houston Grand Opera deservedly won a Tony award for the production.
From Cabell’s description, as would be hoped, it seems that today the work is seen as empowering, a foray into exploring race relations and manifesting aspects of humanity. Beneath the sails of the Sydney Opera House it is hoped that the opera will take people beyond the streets of Catfish Row and into their own hearts. This is the tale of two brothers, a husband and wife and two lovers brought together in a fusion of music and drama, popular and classical. It is a hybrid work for an ever re-incarnating hall. Come on down.
– Nicky Gluch