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South Africans Remake 'Porgy and Bess' Musical

Otto Maidi, who plays Porgy in the Cape Town Opera Company's production of Porgy and Bess, sings a solo during rehearsals in June, Cape Town, South Africa. (Peter Cox/VOA)
CAPE TOWN – South Africa’s Cape Town Opera Company is showing that the story of oppression translates across borders and time.

The 1930s American musical Porgy and Bess tells the story of oppressed black Americans struggling with the pains of poverty in the 1930s. George Gerswhin wrote the work as an American Folk Opera.

But producers at the Cape Town Opera company couldn’t help but hear familiar themes in the piece.

“I think Porgy and Bess has unique characteristics in its musical score which really speak to our singers lives,” explained Michael Williams, the director of the Cape Town Opera company.

“And so the singers on the stage can identify with a) the community that Porgy and Bess is about b) the issues between Sportin Life [a dope-peddling character in the musical] and his community with regards to the drugs that are put in the community - that is a major problem in South African townships," he added. "And also I think the violence that Crown [a tough stevedore character] personifies in terms of the way he treats women. Is something that perhaps we are bit ashamed of that statistic in South Africa, the male/female violence in S.A. So the cast members really grasp those issues. In the same breadth Piece is also filled with great joy.”

The opera follows the lives of people in the impoverished South Carolina community called Catfish Row.

When the Cape Town opera company first began performing Porgy and Bess in 2006, they produced the opera as it was - an American story. But reviewers and fans began pointing out how the opera was so closely linked to the story of black South Africans.

With that in mind, the company decided to reset the piece in the Johannesburg township of Soweto. They put the piece in the 1970s, when the country was still under apartheid. The opera’s dialogue has been infused with Xhosa and Zulu, and some African musical flourishes have been added to the piece.

Victor Ryan Robertson is the only American in the company’s current production, which is now on tour in England, Wales and Scotland [until July 21]. Robertson is experienced opera singer with a background in R and B [Rhythm & Blues] and Pop, which brings a Jazzy swagger to the character he plays, Sportin Life, a drug dealer and bookie who eventually tempts Bess away to NYC.

Robertson grew up in South Carolina, where the opera was originally set. He says the South African setting works well with the piece, and has gotten great reviews.

“Oppression is oppression no matter where you are," said Robertson. "The chorus are all Africans, they can totally relate. They’ve seen the cripple around the neighborhood, they have seen the drug dealer. I know that. That makes sense to me. They love it. That’s why it’s had such success around the world.”

Otto Maidi, a South African from Pretoria who is playing the role of Porgy, says the opera resonates deeply with the lives of South Africans.

“Even though it was composed by an American, the relationship is that it tells our story as black people," said Maidi. "It also informs and also entertains at the same time. Everything which happens in Catfish Row, it’s really, really, really, going together with our daily lives in the townships.”

When the company first began performing Porgy, they brought in Americans to fill the major roles. The recruits were familiar with the piece and had the talent and experience to play these characters. But the casting of Maidi in the key role of Porgy, and the fact that Robertson is the lone American in this production says a lot about the growing pool of talent of South African opera singers.

“Although we’ve been very appreciative of the work and help from our American colleagues, there comes a time when we need to start actually developing our own soloists here," he said. "We’re very proud that this production has a majority of South African soloists in all the lead parts. I think that’s a very important statement to be making, that we can now do the full piece. “

The opera will return to South Africa in September.