The American folk opera "Porgy and Bess" has had a controversial history, but in recent decades, has become accepted as one of the greatest American operas. As Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, a fresh production will bring the work to a new audience.
Porgy and Bess was an ambitious effort by Broadway composer George Gerswhin to set to music a story of African-Americans. Set in a fictional ghetto called Catfish Row, in Charleston, South Carolina, the story first found life in a novel by the writer DuBose Heyward, and was later produced as a play by Heyward and his wife, Dorothy. George Gershwin, with his brother and collababorator Ira, created the opera with Heyward.
With hit songs like "Summertime" and "It Ain't Necessarily So," Porgy and Bess would become a classic. But its 1935 opening in New York was disappointing. It ran for just 124 performances.
There were periodic productions through the 1940s and '50s, especially in Europe, where the opera became popular. In 1959, a film version starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge extended the reach of Porgy and Bess even further. By the 1960s, however, some African-Americans saw the opera in a bad light, offended by its use of black southern dialect.
But in 1976, a production in Houston turned that view around. Conductor John DeMain oversaw a production by the Houston Grand Opera that was considered groundbreaking, as he tried to recapture the opera's original spirit. Porgy and Bess tells the story of a crippled black man, the beautiful woman he loves, the drug dealer who tempts her, and a large cast of unusual characters who live in a fishing tenement.
DeMain, who is also conducting Porgy and Bess in Los Angeles, says the Houston production abandoned some of the Broadway elements that had been introduced to the opera, and focused on the story.
"And so we went back to just tell the story. And the other thing that we wanted to do it, we didn't want us, who were white and not intrinsically knowledgeable of a southern black experience, to impose our way of doing this piece onto the cast," he explains. "We wanted to draw on the cast's experience so that the cast reclaim this work, so that the actors rediscover and own this work because they felt that they were accurately portraying a piece of their tradition."
Porgy and Bess was soon presented by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Since then, DeMain has done productions around the world, with two generations of performers.
One, Indira Mahajan, plays Bess in the Los Angeles production, and she is the daughter of an earlier lead. Mahajan performed in the opera herself at the age of nine, in a child's role. She is back in one of the key roles, and John DeMain says she does it the way he likes.
"And I said to her when I heard her singing Bess, because it was the first time we were doing Bess together, and I heard her sing it last week and said, 'You've learned this so well,'" he recalls. "It's exactly like I teach all the Besses. She said, 'I've been listening to you do it since I was nine years old.'"
The opera is so strenuous that two full casts are needed, and performers are on stage alternate nights. Performer Kevin Short says his role as Porgy is demanding, but fulfilling.
"For me as a bass baritone, it's not often that we are singing gorgeous melodies such as this with sweeping duets," he says. "And musically the range is great. So from that standpoint, it is very satisfying."
Alfred Walker, who alternates in the role of Porgy, says the story is about a community.
"And in a community, you have a lot of different people. You have your shady characters. You have your religious people. You have your troublemakers. You have your lawbreakers. You have your loose women. You have your loose men. And you have love, and you have jealousy - all of that," he notes.
As rehearsals got under way, conductor John DeMain said the Los Angeles production will reach a fresh audience, including many young people who are new to the opera. He says the story of Porgy and Bess, although set in the 1930s, could be drawn from today's headlines.
"You've got a drug dealer on stage selling cocaine. Bess's life being ruined because in the end she submits to him. It's a very contemporary story," he says. "And it's a great love story. So I think that kids will relate to it very, very well. And the music is so gorgeous."
Porgy and Bess, directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by John DeMain, is presented by the LA Opera, will be on stage at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles through May 20.