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The Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” Opera at McCaw Hall in Seattle

Posted by glennled on August 15, 2011

George and Ira Gershwin

Porgy and Bess premiered in New York in 1935 during the Great Depression and in Seattle in 1987. My wife and I finally saw it for the first time yesterday in McCaw Hall, home of Seattle Opera. It was my gift to her for her birthday.

Yes, we knew many of the hit songs from this most famous American opera: “Summertime,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” “I Got Plenty O Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” But no, we had no idea of the content, storyline, and plot. I was simply expecting a love story with some hard times; the ending might be happy or sad, I did not know. This folk/jazz opera was that and much, much more.

I learned that the uncut opera is almost four hours long. This version (including a 30-minute intermission) lasted almost three hours. It is set in Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. In 1935, it was quite radical—an all-black cast using authentic dialogue. It’s based on a 1925 novel, Porgy,by DuBose Heyward. To me, the love story is turned tragic by addiction to sex and drugs. And yet, Bess’ love for the

Ruby Elzy, the original Serena, performed the role more than 800 times.

beggar and congenital cripple, Porgy, would not have happened were it not for her addiction and his disability. He is her means from a dissolute to a decent life; she is his means out of rejection, isolation, and loneliness. The opera is filled with conflicts: striving for good—survival, love, a better life, God and Jesus—and falling into evil—gambling, drinking, racism, promiscuity, prostitution, pimping, drug dealing, cocaine (“happy dust”), abuse, and murder. The ending is ambiguous. For all this, it is said that the show is born from a love of black people.

The star performer was Gordon Hawkins (baritone) as Porgy, paired with Lisa Daltirus (soprano) as Bess. Among my favorites were Angel Blue (soprano) as Clara, Jermaine Smith (tenor) as Sportin’ Life, and Mary Elizabeth Williams (soprano) as Serena.

And how exciting would it be to play in the ~60-piece Seattle Opera Orchestra? That must feel so special and so fun! For Porgy and Bess, there were three trumpeters: Justin Emerich, principal, Vince Green, and Brian Chin. Emerich is former solo/first trumpet with the Canadian Brass and is now a faculty member at the Cornish College of the Arts. Green is on the faculty of Western Washington University and often performs with the Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle Opera, and the Seattle Symphony. Chin teaches full-time at Seattle Pacific University and is principal trumpet at the Tacoma Symphony Orchestra.

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