The Lasting Magic Of Porgy and Bess
George and Ira Gershwin's "American folk opera" continues to rank as one of theater's best
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IN the theater world, there are few exceptional productions that––no matter how long they have been around––never seem to lose their appeal, their significance or their power to generate relevant conversation year after year after year. Porgy and Bess is one of those timeless theater gems––with a captivating music score that many observers consider to be unequaled.
George and Ira Gershwin's "American folk opera," which is based on the 1927 Broadway play Porgy, has been hailed by observers as America's greatest opera and includes a riveting mix of classical music, popular song, jazz, blues and spirituals. After a five-year absence, the historic, Tony Award-winning production returns to the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where a collection of powerful voices and soaring music will fill the theater during the musical's run that continues through December 20.
If you ask, there are many critics, performers and spectators alike who will agree that it is the collection of music––both moving and expressive––that has been a primary reason for the epic love story's long-lasting appeal. "I think this production continues to resonate with generation after generation because of, more than anything else, the music. The story is a captivating part, but I think it’s the music, first, that holds people’s attention," says Eric Greene, the award-winning baritone who is cast as Crown, Bess' brutish, violent and possessive lover. "Of course, the drama comes into play, but the music has been played over and over and over… it’s been excerpted and extracted. There are certain tunes from the production that have been played by jazz musicians, classical musicians, rock musicians––all have taken something from the Porgy and Bess score and done other things with it."
In the Lyric Opera's revised version of the classic, the familiar music will blanket the crowd as the electrifying voices of the cast, including bass-baritone Eric Owens as Porgy and soprano Adina Aaron as Bess, highlight such memorable songs as "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "A Woman Is A Sometime Thing," "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'" and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." No stranger to this production, Owens, a Grammy Award-winning performer who is known for his commanding stage presence, is again poised to to put his signature on the music. "I'm looking forward to revisiting this role. Porgy is quite a complex character; he's very human, as is each and every character on that stage," says Owens, who began his musical training at age 6. "To be able to do it in this wonderful environment that is Lyric Opera of Chicago, it's a gift; it's not even work. You come and there is a spirit of unity, a wonderful unison happening while this amazing harmony permeates through the place. It's fantastic!"
The revival of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess is in the hands of renowned director Francesca Zambello. The touching love story focuses on the lives of the residents of Catfish Row, an African-American community on the shore of Charleston, S.C. It is there that the physically disabled Porgy (Owens) meets and falls in love with the curvaceous and alluring Bess (Aaron), girlfriend of the vicious, physically imposing Crown (Greene). Porgy is determined to rescue Bess from Crown, and she eventually leaves Crown to live with Porgy. But she is vulnerable and can't say no when it comes to the drugs made available to her by the unscrupulous and shameless Sportin' Life (tenor Jermaine Smith). The cast also includes soprano Karen Slack as the God-fearing Serena, soprano Hlengiwe Mhkwanazi as the charming young mother Clara, contralto Gwendolyn Brown as the earthy Maria, and baritone Norman Garrett as Clara's benevolent husband Jake.
In the Lyric Opera's production, Greene, again makes the switch from playing the easygoing Jake in previous Porgy and Bess presentations to become the forceful Crown, a role that he says contributes to his growth as an actor. It's actually his third role in the opera, with the first being Robbins when he worked with the Virginia Opera in 2000. "I think they only gave me that role because I was the only one who could match Crown in a fight," says Greene, who was first cast as Jake in 2005 during a Washington National Opera production. "In this production, it takes some getting used to [playing Crown] because I'm so used to being Jake. I think what any artist wants to do is grow, and I think the growth happens with other roles that you are presented."
Fortunately for Greene, he was prepared early for practically any opportunities that might come his way. He grew up in Baltimore and went to the Baltimore School for the Arts, where he was introduced to classical music, which he describes as "life changing," giving him focus and purpose and, by 11th grade, led to his realization that he wanted to be an entertainer. With a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in music from Juilliard, he began to take roles that have taken him near and far to perform in some of the world's most acclaimed operas, including the Birmingham (UK) Opera Company, Opera North UK, San Francisco Opera, Opera Company of Philadelphia, Los Angeles Opera and the Théâtre National de l'Opéra Comique in Paris. After Porgy, he will join the Portland Opera for the role of Escamillo in Carmen, then it's on to London, where he's cast as Janitor in the English National Opera's production of Between Worlds.
For now, though, it's all about Porgy and Bess. "First, it's exciting to be a part of Porgy and Bess. There's a great sense of responsibility that I feel on my part to tell an honest story. I've been speaking with the director about trying to pull out the honest story of Crown––as much as you can within the bars of music that we are given and in the short time that the audience gets to meet him and experience him," says Greene, who hopes to one day be cast as Renato in Verdi's A Masked Ball. "You want to be sure that his honest sides are brought about in his character. After what the Gershwins, Dorothy and DuBose Heyward, and the team did to compose the music and write the words, it's our responsibility to interpret that and give an honest story."
Bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Adina Aaron are in the title roles in Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Porgy and Bess at Civic Opera House.
The cast includes Eric Greene (left) as the brutish Crown and Jermaine Smith (right) as the drug-dealing, smooth-talking Sportin' LIfe.
For tickets and information, call (312) 827-5600 or go to lyricopera.org/porgy. Watch video and read articles about this production at lyricopera.org/InsidePorgy. Follow the conversation on Twitter: #LyricPorgy.