Porgy and Bess Review - A Lyric Opera of Chicago Premiere

The Lyric Opera of Chicago presentation of the Washinton National Opera production of Porgy and Bess has been long in coming. Worth the wait, it is a spellbinding production. Staging, costuming, special effects are outstanding. The curtain opens and we are in an active community - Catfish Row, a South Carolina slum near Kittiwah Island, a fishing village.  Clara (Laquita Mitchell) is singing “Summertime” to her new baby, sheltered by her husband, Jake (Eric Greene).  It is hot but bright and people seem happy with children playing and groups of people chatting.

Clara(Laquita Mitchell)and Jake(Eric Greene)

Porgy, the lame beggar and a stalwart member of the community, passes by on his crutch.  Soon, Crown, a thug, arrives with Bess, a lady of disrepute, on his arm and Sporting Life, a drug dealer. Several men engage in a crap game. Crown kills Robbins, one of the craps players, with a cotton hook and he and Sporting Life disappear. Bess is left alone when the police arrive to investigate. Porgy offers her shelter and protection and later, they fall in love; two needy individuals supporting one another.

The evil characters, Crown (Lester Lynch) (Terry Cook) who was thought to have drowned and Sporting Life (Jermaine Smith)  continue to appear and to lure Bess into evil ways.  Sporting Life (Jermaine Smith) keeps you on the edge of your seat.  Wily and evil, with his dancing, singing and “razzle dazzling”, he reigns supreme as he performs, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.


Serena, Robbins’ wife, (Jonita Lattimore) is very religious.  Her prayers are healing and mystic.  Her song, “My Man’s Gone Now” was very powerful, deeply moving and haunting.  Porgy (Gordon Hawkins) (Lester Lynch) using a crutch was convincing, tender, and strong.  The use of the crutch, in place of the more usual rolling cart, is a change for this production and I believe, placed Porgy more completely within the community.  Bess (Morenike Fadayomi) (Lisa Daltrius) takes us with her through the heights and depths of emotions with her voice and movements.  We care about this community and the stories of the individuals who inhabit it.  We want so much for Bess to change her ways.  We are saddened when Jake and his crew are lost in the hurricane.  We want to protect the innocent individuals, who are arrested by the police, (the white cast members who only have speaking parts).  The restructuring of this production from three acts to two further intensifies the emotional involvement.

Porgy(Gordon Hawkins)with his crutch

The production is a triumph. “Many times during the past few decades we have wanted to present Porgy and Bess”, says Lyric’s general director William Mason. “But there was always something that didn’t quite work out –….. This season I’m delighted we’re doing it. We’re putting all the resources and expertise of one of the world’s great companies into our (14) performances…”

Porgy and Bess has a checkered past and is shrouded in controversy. Hannah, my friend, described her Porgy and Bess experience as a teenager in St. Louis.  She recalls a segregated audience and “integrated” cast.  The first integrated audience to see Porgy and Bess did not take place until the National Theater in Washington, D.C. production in 1936. Porgy and Bess with music by George Gershwin, and libretto and lyrics by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and, Ira Gershwin has a history so involved, it could be an opera on its own.  The Gershwin estate stipulates that all singing parts be filled by black cast members if performed in the U.S., but white cast members can fill the speaking, not singing roles of the police. This production features a very large black cast with primary roles double cast and rotating for different performances.

Crown is dead Porgy(Lester Lynch),Bess(Lisa Daltirus)Crown(Terry Cook)

Before it was a play, Porgy, written by DuBose Hayward, was a best-selling novella inspired by a newspaper report about a lame beggar living on Folly Island. Later, the authors' wife dramatized the book for the New York Theater Guild and after 300 well attended performances in New York, the play toured across the country and in London. Searching for a theme for what he envisioned to be an “American Folk Opera”, George Gershwin was inspired when he read the book and collaborated with the Heywards to develop the opera.

Gershwin thought an exploration of the community that inhabited Folly Island was important in order to create an authentic setting for his opera.  He sought to deepen his understanding of Gullah speech, music and culture and spent a month in a rented holiday shack near Charleston, South Carolina where the Heywards also owned a home.  The shack still stands on the beachfront at Folly Island.

The speech patterns at Cabbage Row, (“Catfish Row” in the opera) were of special interest. Sometimes the opera is believed to caricature black people but, in fact, the libretto, by Heyward and Gershwin’s brother Ira, is a precise rendering of the way the inhabitants of the Island spoke.

Bess(Lisa Daltrius)and Porgy(Lester Lynch)

Lyric Opera of Chicago Education & Community-Engagement Programs presents community lectures and I attended Mary and Howard Robins’ presentation.  This talk suggested Porgy and Bess is actually about the specific Gullah population at Folly Island and less about the general black population.  

The opera is especially noteworthy because it incorporates a wealth of blues and jazz idioms into the classical art form of opera. Porgy and Bess premiered in New York in the fall of 1935 and featured an entire cast of classically trained African-American singers- a daring and visionary artistic choice.  Two controversies regarding this opera have persisted over time:  Is this work truly an opera and is it an accurate depiction of the way African Americans see themselves?  Attending the pre-opera lecture by a professor of musicology from the University of Chicago, we learned more about these issues. He posed the question, “How could Southern whites and two Jews from New York express the African American story?”  One could ask a similar question about Puccini’s Turandot, Verdi’s Aida and Bizet’s Carmen.

Porgy and Bess was initially considered a musical because it opened on Broadway. Its creators demanded that it be done with an all African American cast except for a few speaking roles. Black performers weren't allowed at the Metropolitan Opera until Marian Anderson led the way in 1955, leaving Broadway as the only possible venue.  After the 128 well received but commercially unsuccessful performances, it faded away.

Porgy(Lester Lynch)Bess(Lisa Daltirus)

Porgy and Bess had a four-week run at the Civic Opera House in Chicago in the early 1950’s that was an important part of the Opera’s history.  This was two years before Lyric Opera was formed. The late Danny Newman (later to become Lyric’s public relations counsel and press agent) was hired to promote Porgy and Bess and to do so he persuaded the producers to let him give away tickets for the entire first week so that the three remaining weeks would sell out. They did.  This ensured the success of an international tour that followed. 

In the mid-50s, The State Department revived Porgy and Bess with a tour of twenty-two countries including historic performances at La Scala, in Moscow, Latin America and the Middle East. Principal cast members included Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway and Maya Angelou. (Leontyne Price and William Warfield had married during the run in Chicago). Unfortunately, bitter race criticism, from prominent Black artists such as Duke Ellington, who believed it depicted blacks stereotypically, more or less put it to rest in the 60’s and 70’s.

Though Gershwin considered Porgy and Bess his finest work, it was not widely accepted as legitimate opera in the United States until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera production revived the complete score in conjunction with the American Bicentennial.  Its position as an opera was strengthened with the Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1985. The work is now considered part of the standard operatic repertoire and is regularly performed internationally.  However, despite its success, it continues to be controversial, considered by some, as racist from the outset.

"There's a Boat that leaving soon.." Sporting Life(Jermaine Smith) and Bess(Morenike Fadayomi)

At the very end of the play, Bess has gone off to New York with Sporting Life (“There’s a Boat that’s Leaving Soon for New York”). Porgy recently released from jail, finds Bess gone but is relieved to find she is alive, and also leaves for New York. He is determined find her. One can only wonder if there is any chance he will.  On the other hand, what are the chances that Lyric Opera of Chicago would premiere Porgy and Bess at a time so close to Chicagoan, Barack Obama becoming President Elect of the United States of America?

George Gershwin wrote of his composition, "I think the music is so marvelous, I don't believe I wrote it."  And it is marvelous with songs like, “Summertime”, “I Got Plenty o’Nuttin’”, and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” take hold and don’t let go.  At its core, the opera is a beautiful, powerful, tragic love story true to the spirit of grand opera.  

Make every effort to get tickets for this terrific production with only 10 performances left.  Call:312.332.2244 or go to: lyricopera.org

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Photos: Courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago/ Dan Rest

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