Friday, August 17, 2018

Telling Bess’s story

Seattle Opera's two Bess singers: American soprano Angel Blue, left, and British soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, right 
By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor 
Without conflict, there would be no opera. This is an art form that often relies on the anguish of its characters (among other emotions, like love) in order to tell a juicy tale, whether it’s Porgy and Bess, La bohème, or Madame Butterfly. The difference with Porgy, however, is that, unlike stories depicting 1830s Paris or Japan at the turn of the 20th century, the conflict we see in Catfish Row, including the abusive relationship with Crown and Bess, hits a little closer to home with American audiences in 2018. Considering the real-world themes of domestic violence, addiction, and more, Seattle Opera reached out to our two Bess’s: Angel Blue and Elizabeth Llewellyn to understand more about what it’s like to tell this powerful and affecting narrative.

Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy). Philip Newton photo
Tell me about your character, Bess:
“In the novel, Porgy by DuBose Heyward, Bess knows that she’s deeply flawed and makes some bad decisions. But she has extraordinary self-awareness. From her interactions with Sportin' Life, we can work out that she had previously worked as a prostitute, and it would be convenient to stereotype her as a slut, but I don't see her that way. She simply gets on better with men. She would rather hang out with the crap players than with the ladies. She also has a powerful, almost magnetic personality. In the novel, she is described as someone who could simply give someone a look and they wouldn’t dare mess with her. I would like to bring some of these elements in to the way I play Bess.”
Elizabeth Llewellyn

Elizabeth Llewellyn as Bess. Philip Newton photo
“Because I’ve historically sung Clara, I have not cared for Bess. But now, through portraying Bess, I see that she is truly not a bad person. She’s actually incredibly caring. Bess uses her assets to get by. She’s beautiful, outgoing; but she’s also incredibly insecure. Porgy and Bess is set in the segregated South, and there are many themes tied in to this: abusive relationships, gambling, judging others (as seen through Serena), religiosity in the Black community. All of this goes into who Bess is. And when we were staging this show, we had many discussions about how to make these characters real and relatable. I am doing my best to provide an honest telling of Bess’s story. I hope the character of Bess provides more awareness and encourages us all to take action if we see or experience abuse in real life.” - Angel Blue

[ For a list of hotlines, resources, and more, please visit the Washington State Coalition Against Domestic Violence here.]

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Bess) and Kevin Short (Porgy). Philip Newton photo
Bess’s struggles with addiction and abuse are important elements in the journey of her character. Tell me more. 
“Bess is a victim in that she is bound to Crown emotionally. They are a team; she’s relied on him, they have relied on each other, and at this point, she has no other source of income, (although she’s been the one managing the money). She wants to get clean and start a new life. But we know from real victims of abuse that leaving is often not so easy; feelings of guilt can come into play, and believing that they don't deserve any better. She tells Porgy, ‘I know Crown’s going to come back for me. And I know I’m going to have to go.’” - Elizabeth Llewellyn 

Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy). Phlip Newton photo
“Bess is addicted to drugs, and to Crown. However, many people have addictions, whether it’s to alcohol, drugs, food, or even social media. Bess is a real person, and the struggles she has, to a certain extent, are things many of us go through. In fact, I had a friend in college who struggled with alcoholism, and unfortunately, he ended up being asked to leave. I have seen firsthand how addictions can impact people. It’s humbling. When I portray Bess, I respect what she is going through. I do not judge her. Everyone has the ability to fall into some kind of trap or downward spiral.” 
- Angel Blue

Do you approach Bess any differently than your other roles?
“I approach Bess in the same way that I approach my other roles such as Cio-Cio-San, Tosca, Elsa, etc. For me, there’s a danger of this piece being presented as something with a lot of luggage rather than what it actually is, a story about humans. Madame Butterfly is about a 15-year-old who has to grow up very quickly. Tosca is about two young lovers who try for a weekend getaway and it all goes wrong. One is based in Japan at a particular time in its history, the other in Rome at a time when someone like the chief of police would have wielded a lot of power. But these are all human stories. It’s the same with Porgy and Bess. This is not simply a Black story, or an American storyit’s a human story. Of course, this story (like the other two) has a cultural and historical context. The early-20th-century setting in America is central to the understanding of the U.S. historic and current racial difficulties. I don’t want to disregard those themes of the Black American struggle for justice. But I think for any opera to live, it has to be understood, not just by that country or that group, but by everyone. Personally, I would have been interested to see the version of Porgy and Bess in Budapest [Staged by The Hungarian State Opera, this production featured a predominantly white cast]. Whilst there would have obviously been some key differences, the human story being told would probably have had quite a few similarities to the Porgy and Bess we know.” - Elizabeth Llewellyn

Elizabeth Llewellyn (Cio-Cio-San) and David Danholt (Pinkerton) in the Royal Danish Opera production of Madame Butterfly
At the end of Act I, Crown comes for Bess, and there’s quite a physical struggle between the two of them. Crown sexually assaults Bess by caressing her in ways that she clearly does not want. At the end of the scene, Bess pulls Crown toward her with his belt and kisses him. How did you create this scene with Stage Director Garnett Bruce and baritone Lester Lynch (Crown)?
“The physical challenge of a scene like this is that we’ve still got to be able to sing! There were quite a lot of discussions on how to make sure everyone was comfortable with where we had to go with this scene emotionally and physically to make it believable; and we left it deliberately vague as to how much of this was consent/participation and how much is abuse/coercion. Lester Lynch is a gentleman and a really lovely colleague. As performers, it takes a lot of trust to be able to let someone invade your personal space while acting in a scene like that.” - Elizabeth Llewellyn

A candid photo from Angel Blue's Instagram! Angel says: "This is my first time singing Bess and it is a fantastic role to sing! @seattleopera holds a special place in my heart, and these 3 wonderful men are making my job so much easier by working with me to create an unforgettable character in Bess. What an honor! From left to right they are Choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, Director Garnett Bruce and Maestro John DeMain." 
While holding space for victims of abuse who may not want to see a scene like this, can our discomfort ever be a good thing?
“Yes. Because our discomfort can stretch us. It can helpfully make us stronger. My reality in the Crown/Bess duet is that Lester is not actually being forceful with me. We’re singing together. But what Bess is experiencing is a reality for some people. We should have an awareness of that.”
- Angel Blue

What do you hope people get out of this story of Bess, Porgy, and the people of Catfish Row?
“This piece is about people making the best of their life. I think that’s one of the biggest messages. Look at our set: You see poverty. You see holes in the wall. However, you also see happiness. You see hardworking people. Porgy has a hard life, but he continues to strive to be positive. When the hurricane happens, people still welcome Crown, the villain, in to shelter. To me, Gershwin's work shows humanity at its best. The message is that there’s always hope.” - Angel Blue

Seattle Opera presents Porgy and Bess. Jacob Lucas photo

Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess plays now through Aug. 25, 2018. 
Tickets and info: seattleopera.org/porgy
#SOPorgy

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Black Artists and Activists Reflect on Porgy and Bess

Seattle Opera's production of Porgy and Bess runs from Aug. 11-25. 

By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor

It’s a source of pride. It’s a source of stereotypes. The Gershwins’ opera means so many different things to different people.

Dominica Myers will never forget her first Porgy and Bess.

It was 1995, and she was a 21-year-old theater major. Between being one of few Black students on her college campus in central Washington, and having been raised in primarily-white spaces, Myers was accustomed to not seeing herself reflected in the world around her. So when her mom saved up to purchase a single Porgy and Bess ticket for her daughter, it was far more than a fancy evening at the Seattle Opera House; it was a precious gift that Myers would never forget. A homecoming.

“My mom had told me that, because she was white, there were things in life I would experience that she would never be able to understand. And vice versa.” Myers said. “She could have afforded OK tickets for the two of us, but instead, she sacrificed and saved to buy me the best seat she could afford. She wanted her daughter to be able to see herself onstage.”

Porgy and Bess was not the only loving gift like this from mother to daughter. Myers received tickets to shows where her Black American heritage was celebrated onstage, from Sweet Honey in the Rock a cappella group, to Alvin Ailey’s Revelations. These experiences helped crystallize Myers’ own identity as an artist of color.
Left: Sweet Honey in the Rock  is an award-winning a cappella performance group rooted in African American history and culture. Right: Alvin Ailey's Revelations uses African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs and holy blues to explore "the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul" through dance. 

 Later, as a professional actor and playwright with Robey Theatre Company, Myers got her own experience performing in an all-Black ensemble, which she describes as an experience unlike any other: “For those of us who can trace our ancestry to slavery, it’s almost like there is a longing for home in your DNA. This is the power of our togetherness in an all-Black cast; we don’t have our history, but we have this moment together right now.”

Today, Gershwin's lush melodies still conjure Myers’ first Porgy and Bess, where the set of Catfish Row opened up like a magical book to reveal world-class singers of color. It was an experience that proved to her that Blackness and grand opera can go hand-in-hand.

 But now, 23 years after first seeing the opera, the feeling of home is not as simple. After all, this work about people of the African diaspora (the Gullah community of South Carolina) was created by storytellers of European ancestry.

“Having worked with Black writers, Black producers, and Black history, it’s opened my eyes more to question aspects of Porgy and Bess,” Myers says. “While appreciating the Gershwins' creation, people must understand that the African American musical tradition is rooted in our own history of oppression. So now, when I hear gospel music in a show like Porgy and Bess, I think, ‘Wait a minute! That’s stolen!’ As the Gershwins’ story about Black culture continues to be widely celebrated and produced, actual Black composers such as Scott Joplin and Shirley Graham Du Bois are still not having their works presented regularly.” 
Shirley Graham Du Bois (pictured with her husband W. E. B. Du Bois) was a Black playwright, musicologist, writer and activist. Despite, her husband's wide acclaim, her works have often been overlooked. 


COMPLICATED RELATIONSHIP 

Myers is not the first, nor the last, in the Black community to have a complicated relationship with Porgy and Bess. It’s a work as celebrated as it is criticized; beloved for iconic melodies such as “Summertime,” and denounced for cultural appropriation and stereotypes. Sidney Poitier didn’t initially want to play Porgy in the 1959 film version because he found it offensive to African Americans. (Later, he told Oprah in an interview that it was the one role in his career that he regretted.)

Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge in the film
  Porgy and Bess. The film was deemed
controversial and has never been released on
VHS or DVD. 
At the height of the Black Power movement, social critic Harold Cruse described Porgy and Bess as “the most contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western world.” It was not simply the opera’s minstrel show clichés or white paternalism that Cruse was commenting on, according to Kathy Peiss in the article titled, “The Most Contradictory Cultural Symbol Ever.” 

Rather, Peiss writes, “it was the way the opera worked to exclude African Americans as cultural producers and to deny their ability to represent their own collective identity … Gershwin’s work was a museum piece, representing a Jim Crow world in the process of being overthrown.” 

It’s important to acknowledge Porgy and Bess’s historic contributions to equity, too. When the show opened in the 1930s, George Gershwin’s decision to cast Black people was racial progress in a time where white actors still frequently performed in blackface. Before the Civil Rights Movement, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown refused to perform as the title characters in Porgy and Bess until the National Theatre in Washington D.C. removed its “whites only policy.” Black people, for one week at least, sat alongside white people at the National Theatre, until the touring production packed up and left, and the house re-segregated once again.

What may have been considered as empowering to Black Americans in popular art and entertainment in the past is different now, more than 80 years later.

In 2018, Beyoncé made history as the first Woman of Color to headline Coachella, Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize, and the movie Black Panther provided a much-needed new narrative: the story of an African nation that was never colonized and is the most advanced civilization in the world.
Left: Beyoncé performing at Coachella last year. The performance was a landmark occasion, as she was the first Woman of Color to headline the main stage. She continues to break barriers: given control over the September issue of Vogue this fall, she hired the a Black photographer to shoot her cover--for the first time in the magazine's 126 year existence.  Center: In 2018, Kendrick Lamar's album DAMN. won the Pulitzer Prize for music. He is not only the first rapper, but also the first artist outside of jazz or classical to win the award since it was opened to musicians in 1943. Right: Black Panther, depicting the land of Wakanda, where the Black society is far more technologically advanced than the rest of the word, provides an alternative narrative than typically depicted in pop culture. 

Considering American culture and society today, is Porgy and Bess a work that helps move Black representation in the arts forward? Or does this opera perpetuate problematic patterns and stereotypes?

Depending on the Black artist, activist, scholar, or audience member one might ask, the answer may be vastly different. One thing that remains constant, however, is that Porgy will never fit into a simple box. It’s possible to appreciate, even love, a work of art while understanding its limitations. And Porgy and Bess, with its powerful offering of Black representation onstage and its roots in a less-evolved America, represents a perfect example.


THEMES TO WRESTLE WITH 

ChrisTiana ObeySumner, an Afro-Latinx activist and Social Impact Consultant for Seattle Opera (who uses they/ their pronouns), was first introduced to Gerswhin’s opera hearing their grandmother sing “Summertime” growing up.
ChrisTiana attends Seattle Opera with
friend, John. Philip Newton photo

“‘Summertime’ is a hauntingly beautiful song, and the person who sings it holds the archetype of the strong Black woman,” ObeySumner said. “My grandmother did a good job conveying the spirit of the song.” For ObeySumner, watching Porgy, however, is a painful experience “because it’s seeing my community through the eyes of white people.”

 At the same time, Porgy offers a chance for reflection. It’s an experience that hopefully, will make the viewer think more about race and intersectionality in the United States. It’s a piece bearing many truths that still have meaning today.

“For example, the way the Black community interacts with the police,” ObeySumner says. “The violent relationship with Bess and Crown in the context of #MeToo. The way people in the Black community can be ostracized or looked down upon, or even the way people with disabilities are sometimes treated, like Porgy.”

The music is breathtaking. The cast is top-notch. But this is not an opera that one should view in order to escape, ObeySumner said. It’s an opera for those in the audience to “embrace their own discomfort.” 


CERTAIN PLACE AND TIME 

Donald Byrd has never created dances for Porgy and Bess. However, the Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater (who was nominated for a Tony for The Color Purple and won a Bessie for The Minstrel Show) says he probably would.
Byrd choreographed the Broadway revival of The Color Purple, another production about the experiences of a Black community, however this story is written by an African American woman, rather than a white man. 

“There are certain things I recognize about the piece that are problematic, but that doesn't mean it’s wrong to put onstage today, it just means there are certain challenges,” Byrd says. “It’s a piece from a white perspective on a Black community. I would see my job as an opportunity to add authenticity of a certain time and place.”

Additionally, at the center of the the opera are relationships that Byrd describes as true and heartfelt, the results of Black people being marginalized and trying to find ways to survive. He describes Porgy as an earnest attempt by white storytellers to paint a sympathetic picture of the Black community. And even though he doesn't find Porgy to be entirely politically correct, he says that shouldn't be the goal of art.

“I’m the type of person who likes to sit in the theater and have a whole internal monologue with myself: What’s working? What’s pushing my buttons?” he says. “I don’t mind being in a place where the problematic nature of a work is staring me in the face—I would welcome that because it reminds me that I am alive. I am emotionally, physically, and intellectually alive.” 


THE IMPORTANCE OF REPRESENTATION

Despite who created it, many members of the Black community have taken ownership of Porgy and Bess and made it their own, including American tenor Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life). Smith continues to perform his signature role of Sportin’ Life all over the world (in 15 different productions, more than 500 individual performances, and 13 countries, to date) because, in interactions with both cast and audience, he’s observed the transformative power of Gershwin’s opera firsthand. 

Smith, who looks forward to directing Porgy and Bess in the future, knows that this piece is not the be-all and end-all of Black representation in opera. But right now, it continues to provide opportunities to many Black artists like himself, artists who are inspiring a new generation in this art form.

Smith during rehearsal with conductor John DeMain. 

“When I do inspirational talks in schools, I arrive with my locks down,” Smith says. “I arrive with my jeans on, looking very urban, I don’t tell the kids what I do. And then suddenly, I break out into song, and you should see their faces! They don’t know how to interpret it! They’re laughing. They’re applauding. They’re seeing someone from their own community singing opera!”

Room for Chemistry

Mary Elizabeth Williams will sing the role of Serena in Seattle Opera's upcoming production of Porgy and Bess.
By Jessica Murphy Moo

This Porgy and Bess marks a “first” for soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams. Certainly not her first time at Seattle Opera. She has been performing here since 2000 when she was a member of the young artists program.

Not her first time performing the role of Serena. She has been performing this role for more than a decade. (She won the “artist of the year” award for her riveting interpretation of the role here in 2011, pictured below.)
Williams performing with Gordon Hawkins
in the 2011 production of Porgy and Bess.
And not her first time performing with several of the singers in this cast. She describes Porgy and Bess as something of a reunion for many Black American opera singers.

It is, however, the first time she will be returning to a company to reinterpret a role she has performed there before.

(Read, lucky us.)

But we shouldn’t expect a repeat performance from Mary Elizabeth Williams. She doesn’t work that way. For her, a role, a production, an interpretation comes from the individuals in the room. And with a perceptive performer such as Williams, that dynamic—that chemistry— really does change for every production and every night.

THE PREP
That said, she comes to her first rehearsal prepared, and her preparation doesn’t change from role to role. She goes back to the original text. In this case, she plans to read Heyward’s novel Porgy for the third time. As an English major, language and context are her starting points. She thinks it’s important to understand the period of a piece and perhaps a librettist and composer’s “cultural limitations.”

She would approach a modern work in the same way. “Even in our own time,” she says. “I was born in 1977, I am Mixed Race, and I have a limited understanding. Everyone has a limited understanding. We all do.”

She then immerses herself in that world, and schedules a voice lesson via Skype with her beloved voice coach with whom she has been working for 20 years. “I need a voice lesson at least as often as I have a haircut,” she says.

THE SPECIFICS
When she meets her fellow artists, that’s when her interpretation starts to focus on the details. “My job as an artist is to tell the story through the lens of Serena and to be as specific as possible. I give myself a backstory with the other people on stage with me. Something real. This is my way to avoid turning into a caricature.”

She once gave Serena a backstory in which she had been an educated woman, a teacher who had aspirations but who had been disappointed for years. Life had not gone her way. She once performed with a Robbins (Serena’s husband) who could soothe her fiery rhetoric by flirting with her. This shift in the marital dynamic changed how she portrayed Serena, and it also fed into the character’s animosity toward Bess.
Williams during a rehearsal of Porgy and Bess.

For Williams, a lot of the dynamic between characters is physical. “I’m aware. I’m a tall person. I take up a lot of space. From early on I have been aware of my body and the effect it has on other people. That awareness of a physical connection—positive or negative—helps me onstage to tell stories, whether I’m singing or not singing.” In Porgy and Bess, she usually uses her height as part of her domineering attitude toward Bess, but she and Angel Blue, who are friends offstage, are about the same height, so that’s something they’ll figure out in rehearsal.

LANGUAGE
In order to make sure she can be in tune with the onstage dynamic, Williams has a rule for herself. She never takes on an opera if she isn’t comfortably fluent in the language. Then she can understand not only her role, but what all the other characters are saying around her. She is fluent in English, Italian, and French, and she is studying German for a role she has coming up in 2020. (She could only tell me it was “a role” in the Ring. Guesses?)

Learning other languages was part of what drew her to opera in the first place. She had one year singing in a touring Showboat, but she found she missed learning other languages and she missed some of the rigor of the classical repertoire. She had realized her passion, and Seattle Opera and another emerging artist program at the Opéra National de Paris were next steps on her path to a professional opera career.

REALITY CHECK
Of course the road to success usually isn’t easy. Williams had grown up in Philadelphia singing in a church choir with her parents—her late father’s nickname was “Bass”—and through that experience she met a lot of professional singers who were working hard to make ends meet. She went into a life in the arts with her eyes open. “I knew it wasn’t for the faint of heart,” she says.

For many years she had to follow the work. “I was tumbleweed. Wherever the job went, I went. I had no roots. I had inflatable furniture, so I could deflate and move on." How’s that for metaphor?

But it seems that hard work was worth it because she has firmly established a highly successful international career, particularly as a Verdi soprano. Of course  Seattle Opera is always happy to see Mary Elizabeth Williams. She has performed here as Leonora in Il trovatore, Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart, the title role of Tosca, and Abigaille in Nabucco, and she was one of the select singers invited to perform at the 2014 retirement celebration honoring Seattle Opera's second General Director Speight Jenkins.
Williams has performed in many productions at Seattle Opera in the past. From left to right: Leonora in Il trovatore, Queen Elizabeth in Mary Stuart, Tosca in Tosca, and Abigaille in Nabucco.
RULES MADE TO BE BROKEN
And that philosophy she has about waiting to see the chemistry of a cast? Of being ready but waiting to see what story she and another cast member might tell? That philosophy seems to have worked in her personal life as well.

About four years ago, she almost canceled a gig to sing Aida in Palermo, Italy. She had been sick; she was exhausted and felt she needed a break. “My agent said, ‘You cannot cancel. Just suck it up and go.' My whole life changed.”

Why? The Italian tenor Lorenzo Decaro,who had signed on as Radamès, would become her future husband.

“I did everything I said I would never do!” she says. She told herself she would never date anyone she was working with. And she told herself she would never date a tenor. “But it worked!”

The couple tries to perform together when they can, and they live in Milan, Italy. Her days of inflatable furniture are in the past. “Now in Milan, I have a home,” says Williams.

Of course she always has a home here at Seattle Opera, too.

Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess plays at McCaw Hall Aug. 11-25 at McCaw Hall. 
Tickets & info: seattleopera.org/porgy

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Podcast: JOHN DEMAIN Introduces PORGY AND BESS

Maestro John DeMain made his Seattle Opera debut in 1987, conducting The Gershwins' (R) Porgy and Bess (R) the first time the complete opera was given in Seattle. Between his day job as Music Director of the Madison Symphony, in Wisconsin's capitol, and conducting engagements elsewhere, DeMain has returned to conduct in Seattle several times, including every Seattle Opera performance to date (including the upcoming ones!) of Porgy and Bess.
In this podcast, which includes musical illustrations from Seattle Opera's 2011 performances, DeMain discusses the work often called "the greatest American opera" with Seattle Opera Dramaturg Jonathan Dean and even tells the story of how America's opera companies retrieved Porgy and Bess, which had been simplified to make an easier-to-produce musical, starting with the bicentennial celebrations at Houston Grand Opera in 1976.

Porgy and Bess Meets Kids and Race


By Gabrielle Kazuko Nomura Gainor

Prior to this August’s Porgy and Bess, Seattle Opera is excited to be collaborating with an organization that joyfully empowers parents and kids to talk about race. Jasen Frelot, Executive Director of Kids and Race, sat down with Courtney D. Clark, Seattle Opera School Programs Manager, music teacher, and singer (who’s performed the role of Bess).

Moving into the future, Seattle Opera hopes to use each opera it mounts as a vehicle for discussion about issues of our time, particularly, surrounding identity, race, gender, class, and more. This August, we’re engaging with a variety of voices from the Black community, as we attempt to spur larger conversations about how Porgy and Bess resonates in the 21st century.

Courtney and Jasen, both artists and educators, discuss Porgy and Bess within the context of Seattle’s largely white progressivism. Is it necessary to prepare your kids to see work that might be considered dated or offensive to some? What’s the impact of experiencing an opera where only the Black performers have a voice? Dive into the conversation to learn more below.

[This interview has been condensed for clarity. You can listen to the full, half-hour podcast here]

INTRO:

JASEN FRELOT, host:

What up, freedom fighters? This is your friend Jasen Frelot of KidsandRace.org. I am so excited to have, probably, our biggest guest ever, Miss Courtney Clark.

We’re here talking about Seattle Opera’s production of Porgy and Bess. And this is not the Los Angeles production of Porgy and Bess, this is not the Atlanta production of Porgy and Bess, this is not the Chicago production of Porgy and Bess, this is the Seattle production of Porgy and Bess.

COURTNEY: At the best level, in my opinion, that it’s ever been produced.

JASEN: Really?

COURTNEY: In my opinion.

JASEN: Tell me about this!

PORGY REHEARSALS: Angel Blue (Bess) and Alfred Walker (Porgy). Philip Newton photo


COURTNEY: This Porgy and Bess is being treated like any other opera. We auditioned each cast member, just as we would audition each cast member for La Boheme or Il Trovatore. We did not bring in a traveling company. We gave it the same attention that we give any other opera.

JASEN: So, was this with all local artists?

COURTNEY: No, we’ve got some artists who are at the top of their game right now (from all over the U.S. and internationally as well), and that is unheard of.

JASEN: Drop some names, drop some names.

COURTNEY: We have Angel Blue, for one. Derek Parker. Jermaine Smith, Kevin Short. Lester Lynch. These are some really big names in opera. Not big names of African Americans in opera, but in opera period. This, in my opinion, is the level that Porgy and Bess should always be performed.

JASEN: And I’m assuming that it’s not.

COURTNEY: No, because a lot of opera companiesit’s sadbut from my experience, in the South, they are, generally, drowning in whiteness. It seems like there’s perception that there are no, I guess, qualified People of Color in the community, or they don’t want to take it onor they don’t think people will want to buy tickets to see it. You have to spend money to get the quality. You have to pay these wonderful people, who are at the top of their game, who are gracing the Metropolitan Opera’s stage, in order to get a quality work.


SINGERS AT THE TOP OF THEIR GAME: Brandie Inez Sutton (Clara in Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess) was praised by The New York Times for her role as Cio-Cio-San when she performed with the Martina Arroyo Foundation training program. Sutton announced on her website recently that she will soon be joining The Metropolitan Opera artist roster.

JASEN: Yes.

COURTNEY: So, they are passing on a cheaper way of presenting the production, in my opinion.

JASEN: So they’re not diving fully into the process. They’re trying to have their cake and eat it too?

COURTNEY: Pretty much.

JASEN: You see this a lot. And I commend Seattle Opera for not doing this, but you see this a lot with white people who are trying to have a diversity initiative, quote unquote. They do it half way, and then blame the Black people when it doesn't work.

COURTNEY: Or when it’s murky and it’s not right and you’re a singer in graduate school who can’t take it; you get up and leave because you know it’s not on the level that it should be on.


SEATTLE - A 'RACIALLY ENLIGHTENED CITY'?  A picture of a Seattle public school classroom in 1994. "Few Seattleites seem to be aware of the large role our city has played in re-segregating America’s schools. In 2007, courtesy of a suit brought by a group of predominantly white Seattle parents (Parents Involved In Community Schools v. Seattle School District), the Supreme Court dealt a huge blow to education equity when it declared U.S. schools could not seek to achieve/maintain integration by taking account of student race. - Sharon Chang, Time to shed the ‘progressive mystique’ and confront racism in Seattle; Seattle Globalist. Read more HERE .

JASEN: And amen to that, amen to that. I mean it’syou know what, that reminds me. I’m going to tell a story. It’s a little bit off subject but I think that it will fit. At my first ever anti-racism workshop (that I attended), I threw a chair and walked out. I was so disgusted by how I was minimized there. How I was told about what my experiences are from, you know I don’t even think that the person, the main presenter was a Black person at all, I think it was a white woman. I was so upset that I threw my chair and walked out. I think that experience is part of why I started Kids and Race and why I made Kids and Race the way that it is. And why it’s so important that Black voices are telling their own stories. And allowing those stories to be complex and complicated.

COURTNEY: Absolutely. Because that is us as a people.

JASEN: We are a complex and complicated people.

COURTNEY: We just are. We just are.

JASEN: And we all have dealt with this oppression in a different way.

COURTNEY: Mhmm. We have.

AN OPERA FEATURING ONLY BLACK VOICES

JASEN: Gabrielle is here with us today, she is also with Seattle Opera, just she’s off mic, but Gabrielle and I were talking a little bit earlier about how different Black people have different experiences and different takes on how Porgy and Bess should be represented. So I want to honor those takes now.

Cast members of Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess in rehearsal. Philip Newton photo


COURTNEY: Okay.

JASEN: And speak into it. People say that Porgy and Bess is problematic. That there’s minstrelsy in it. That it’s racist in a lot of ways. The way that the language is used, the vernacular, that that is a racist vernacular. That people should not be listening to it anymore, I would guess. I don’t know. What do you say to that?

COURTNEY: Oh, please. You know, first of all, what I think is profound that a lot of people recognize about the work, Gershwin incorporated several white characters in the opera. And, they are there to be as racist … But one thing I love about what Gershwin did is that none of (the white characters) were given singing parts.

JASEN: Wow.

COURTNEY: None of them were given a voice. And I think sometimes we need to look, we need to infer a little bit, on why they weren’t given a strong vocal line. Why weren’t they given a lament? Or a song that showcased a power? And so, I disagree. I think at one point, Porgy and Bess, throughout the years, had to have progressive Blacks. It had nuances of what minstrels made them feel like. It reminded—

JASEN: Yes, sort of reminded them of the past.

COURTNEY: And it kind of got to the point where they didn’t want to have anything to do with it. They didn’t want to see it. It’s like Gone With the Wind, you know. No one wants to see it, but when they finally see it, they realize this is whoI mean I can pick out about five people in my family to put up on that stage to represent half of those characters.

JASEN: And this is what really gets my goat about calling a depiction of 1935 culture a stereotype of minstrelsy is that it spits in the face of the people whose story this is representing … it spits in the face of the people who have worked their entire lives to be up on that stage.

COURTNEY: You’re right.

JASEN: And to say that those people are being minstrels, or stereotyping is a complete disservice to their agency.

COURTNEY: It is.

HATTIE MCDANIEL IN GONE WITH THE WIND: "To achieve stardom in this era, black actors such as Hattie McDaniel, who played Mammy in 'Gone with the Wind,' had to feign intellectual dullness, hiding their true intelligence and feelings from whites. The Jim Crow-rooted struggles that accomplished black artists, athletes and intellectuals confronted gradually diminished over the next half-century, as the civil rights movement pushed the federal government to remove the legal barriers that had made African Americans second-class citizens." - Fred L. Johnson III, Why black culture thrives alongside rampant racism; Washington Post. Read more HERE.   
JASEN: Yes, let’s say this first: intellectually, I don’t agree. Emotionally and spiritually, it infuriates me.

So, the Internet—I implore you, I implore you, if you don’t love Porgy and Bess, if you don’t have a true and deep love of the work, and a respect for the artists depicting that work, then just don’t write about it.

COURTNEY: Right.

JASEN: —coming from a place of love, you know, by all means state that critique. But if this is coming from a place of wanting to get attention for finding something wrong with Seattle Opera, then I would bite your tongue, I would bite your tongue. Because it seems like this Black woman, that is sitting in front of me today, is very proud of that work.

COURTNEY:
I’m so proud of it. And also, I’m right out of the classroom and if I could just see my students, I could see introducing this work to my fourth and fifth graders. And letting them know that you’re going to experience bullying, you’re going to see addiction first hand, you’re going to see the way relationships shouldn’t always go. You’re going to see people make decisions, but mostly, one thing that is beautiful about Porgy and Bess, it showed how the people in South Carolina, how they had to live. Black people in general. Yes, we focus on the Gullah, but Black people as a whole, that is the way they lived: in those shanties, in those holes. It showed how they made a living by selling strawberries and crabs and begging on the street. But at the end of the day, even though it looked like a hole in the wall, they had community.

KIDS AND PORGY

JASEN: Let’s talk about children. So, I think it’s clear from our conversation so far, that both of us would be proud to show children Porgy and Bess. I’ve got two children, a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old. I would be proudwell, maybe not when they’re this young, but when they’re 8, 9, 10 years old, I would expose my child to Porgy and Bess. I would allow my kid to see it and experience it without a lot of commentary from me. For white parents bringing their children to this opera, what would you recommend, if anything?

A photo from a Kids and Race workshop. 

COURTNEY: As a parent for either race, but for white parents, I would specifically—believe it or not, the children are more advanced than the parents are today … They know what’s going on. You may not believe it, but they know what’s going on. And all they need is a safe place and they will show you what they know. That’s coming from the music teacher. But what I would share, and suggest, is to not so much focus on the good, the bad, the ugly, but encourage your children to be critical thinkers.

JASEN: Yes.

COURTNEY: To have an open mind.

JASEN: Yes.

COURTNEY: Give them an opportunity to feel comfortable about approaching them on subjects or things that they see. But mostly, guide them so that they know that even though this was written in 1935, that some of these social issues onstage are ones we’re still dealing with.

(You can say):

“Talk to me about where you may have seen bullying.”

“Talk to me, son/daughter, where you may have thought you were a little intimidated by seeing those police officers walking in.”

Give your child the tools to be able to cope. And then be able to take that experience onstage and ask questions about it. What does drug addiction look like in my family, my community? We’ve got crack on the streets. We’ve got cocaine in our white community.

IMAGES OF NW AFRICAN AMERICAN MUSEUM: A photo from the exhibit,  "Posing Beauty" by Lauren Kelley; a young attendee at the NWAM Jazz Brunch, and a photo of the museum gift shop which includes children's books such as "Happy in our Skin," "Crafting with Feminism," "A is for Activist" and "Black Heroes of the Wild West." Jasen Frelot, Executive Director of Kids and Race, says nurturing a child's sense of racial justice doesn't stem from "preparing" them to see Porgy and Bess. He suggests instead that parents are conscious of the various arts and cultural institutions that their children get to engage with for a range of Black, Brown and immigrant-community perspectives. 


JASEN: So, let me repeat back to you what I’m hearing. Having a conversation with your kids about all the racism that they are going to, quote unquote racism, they are going to see during Porgy and Bess, that doesn’t help the kid.

COURTNEY: No it doesn’t help. You’re pushing it on them.

JASEN: The best thing that you can do is to allow your kid to experience it. Talk to them about what they saw in the piece.

COURTNEY: Let them talk to you.

JASEN: Oh gosh. Almighty yes, do we need to let our kids talk to us.

COURTNEY: Give them the courage to speak up.

JASEN: Yes.

COURTNEY: Give them a platform to debate and feel comfortable with their parents.

JASEN: Yes, yes. And don’t shut them down if you hear them saying—

COURTNEY: Something you don’t like.

JASEN: The quote, unquote wrong thing by our, you know, white progressive Seattle standards. Like, we can listen to our kids and listen to the brilliance that is going to come spilling out of their mouths. There’s a lot—


'I LOVE PORGY. BUT I ALSO WANT MORE BLACK OPERAS.'  The conversation about Black narratives and Porgy and Bess continued on July 28 with Breaking Glass: Hyperlinking Opera & Issues. A key takeaway from this forum was that every time the opera world presents one production of Porgy and Bess, the industry should mount at least two productions created by a Black composer or librettist. Panelist Naomi André, author of Black Opera: History, Power and Engagement shared both her love of Porgy, as well as her desire to see opera companies mount X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X, Margret Garner, Charlie Parker's Yardbird, and many other Black operas. Ariana Buck photo

COURTNEY: The children are our future.

JASEN: This was so much fun. So much fun. Now Courtney, at the end of every podcast we end it with a synchronized “fight the power,” okay? So ready?

COURTNEY: Oh!

JASEN: One, two, three.

COURTNEY: Fight the power that be!

JASEN: Fight the power!

Learn more about Kids and Race at kidsandrace.org


Friday, July 27, 2018

Melinda Bargreen's Take on Porgy and Bess


The mainstage season at McCaw Hall kicks off with a beloved American classic: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess, Aug. 11-25. The show depicts the life, death, love and hope in a Black community in 1950s South Carolina. Photo by Philip Newton.
A longtime trusted voice among Seattle Opera audiences, Melinda Bargreen has been writing about music for local and national publications for four decades; she is also a composer, and the author of 50 Years of Seattle Opera as well as Classical Seattle.
By Melinda Bargreen

Porgy and Bess is a marvel: an iconic, one-of-a-kind work of musical theater that still is commonly considered the greatest and most successful American opera. It’s also an opera full of ironies: a story about life in a hard-scrabble Black community in South Carolina, it was written and composed in the 1930s by three white men who had spent little or no time in that region. Its music, that rich and utterly singable collection of arias and ensembles, was the first and only opera composed by George Gershwin, a Jewish New Yorker who would die two years later at the age of 38.

Critics have called the opera “arguably the most important piece of American music written in the 20th century,” and over the years its casts have drawn some of the world’s most distinguished African-American singers (an early international tour starred Leontyne Price with Cab Calloway). Along the way, though, Porgy and Bess has had its share of ups and downs: it has been shortened and altered, performed as a musical with a pit band and as an opera with an orchestra. During the Civil Rights era, the libretto and plot acquired uncomfortable overtones of “Uncle Tomism” for many, and Black singers became wary of taking on the roles because once they had sung in Porgy and Bess, they were more or less stuck in that repertoire.

Now, however, opportunities for African American opera singers are considerably more numerous. A great soprano like Angel Blue, who will sing Bess in Seattle Opera’s opening-night cast, is sought after in Europe as well as in the U.S., and is perhaps best known for two roles in La bohème (Mimi and Musetta). It doesn’t hurt that she’s very beautiful as well: Blue was “Miss Hollywood” of 2005. Last time she appeared at Seattle Opera in Porgy and Bess, it was as Clara (singing the show’s most famous aria, “Summertime”). Now she is back at McCaw Hall in the leading role of Bess, alternating with the British soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, who has a major career in Europe with much heavier repertoire: Elsa in Wagner’s Lohengrin, and the title role in Puccini’s Tosca.

Angel Blue (Bess, Porgy and Bess) is a former beauty pageant winner (Miss Hollywood and Miss California) and BBC broadcaster. Sonya Garza photo


Opposite Angel Blue in the role of Porgy is Alfred Walker, a powerful bass-baritone who made an unforgettable impression here in the 2014 Tales of Hoffmann (following his 2008 company debut as Orest in Elektra). Singing the four Hoffmann villains, Walker displayed not only his vocal heft, but also his considerable versatility; now, as Porgy, he will need to show a more vulnerable side. He alternates in the role with the equally versatile Kevin Short, whose repertoire extends from Monteverdi and Mozart to 20th century classics, and who has sung in major opera houses from New York and Chicago to Houston and Los Angeles.

Expect some major show-stealing from Mary Elizabeth Williams, who brought down the house in Seattle’s last Porgy and Bess in the small but pivotal role of Serena (a role she has sung in such major opera houses as Milan’s La Scala). When she sang “My Man’s Gone Now” in Seattle Opera’s 2011 production, The Seattle Times review said: “Every once in awhile you hear a singer whose big aria hits you like a punch to the solar plexus; in this show on opening night, it was soprano Mary Elizabeth Williams, whose Serena was both vividly imagined and brilliantly sung. Her performance of the haunting “My Man’s Gone Now,” all passionate intensity and beautifully produced power, rocked the audience back in its seats. Williams is a former Seattle Opera Young Artist who has gone on to a growing international career, and it isn’t hard to see why she is in demand. She produces enough energy on the stage to light up a city’s power grid.”
Mary Elizabeth Williams as Serena with Gordon Hawkins (Porgy) in Seattle Opera's 2011 production of Porgy and Bess.

As the villainous Crown, Lester Lynch reprises a role he first sang for Seattle Opera in 1995 – 23 years ago. His repertoire extends well beyond Porgy and Bess to the title role in Verdi’s Rigoletto, and another epic evildoer, the wily Scarpia in Tosca.

Jermaine Smith will sing a role with which he has been long associated: Sportin’ Life, whom he called “a bad guy but also a charmer” in a Chicago interview; Brandie Sutton, in her Seattle debut as Clara, will have a great opportunity to make her mark with “Summertime”; and Jake will be sung by Derrick Parker (he has sung Porgy at Chicago Lyric Opera to considerable acclaim, and is also acclaimed for Baroque repertoire performances).
Jermaine Smith has performed the role of Sportin' Life more than 500 times in 15 productions.  
The Porgy and Bess conductor is John DeMain, who has conducted all three of the previous productions of the Gershwin opera in Seattle Opera’s history: in 1987, 1995, and 2011. His 1976 recording of this opera won a Grammy Award. DeMain is especially famous for his conducting of new operas (including the world premières of Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place (1983), John Adams's Nixon in China (1987), and Michael Tippett's New Year (1989). His much-lauded New York City Opera production of Porgy and Bess was televised on National Public Television’s “Live from Lincoln Center” series, earning an Emmy nomination for “Outstanding Classical Music & Dance Program.” No wonder DeMain is considered the “go-to” conductor for this opera: he has conducted more than 350 performances of Porgy and Bess throughout the world. It must engender a great feeling of security in the cast to have DeMain’s supportive expertise in the opera pit. He has seen singers triumph and fail; productions that are imaginative and shows that are rudimentary. This is a maestro who really “knows the score.”

Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess plays at McCaw Hall Aug. 11-25 at McCaw Hall. 

Tickets & info: seattleopera.org/porgy

Breaking Glass Panelist: Naomi André

Naomi André will participate in the Breaking Glass forum at McCaw Hall on July 28.

Seattle Opera continues its conversations on race and equity through Breaking Glass: Hyperlinking Opera & Issues. The free forum, part of a larger national tour, is curated and produced by the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York. Following the meaningful community conversations surrounding Seattle Opera’s Madame Butterfly in summer 2017, and right before Porgy and Bess in 2018, Seattleites can get a view of race and equity in opera on a broader, national scale outside of the Pacific Northwest. Breaking Glass opens the door to a frank conversation about how art is produced in an increasingly diversified America, who has the right to tell whose story, and what roles social justice plays within the artistic mission of an opera company. Tazewell Thompson and Paige Hernandez, will talk about their new operas commissioned by Glimmerglass, including Hernandez’ “hip-hopera” and Thompson’s story of a Black family whose son is shot by police. University of Michigan professor Naomi André (author of Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement) will explore the changing face of opera from the creation of new work to the casting of roles. With his long-time, Grammy-winning association with Porgy and Bess, Conductor John DeMain also joins the forum.

Naomi André is Associate Professor in Women’s Studies, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and the Associate Director for Faculty at the Residential College at the University of Michigan. She received her BA in music from Barnard College and MA and PhD in musicology from Harvard University. Her books, Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera (2006) and Blackness in Opera (2012, edited collection) focus on opera from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries and explore constructions of gender, race and identity. Currently she is completing a monograph on staging race and history in opera today in the United States and South Africa. Link to her full bio here.

In Breaking Glass, we’re going to tackle issues of race and equity in opera. Why do you think this conversation is so important to be having in the opera world right now?

There are so many reasons! In operas like Aida, Otello, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Porgy and Bess, issues of race and ethnicity often come up to the surface. With the increase of popularity in The Met: Live in HD (the broadcast of Metropolitan Opera productions across the world into movie theaters), there’s been more of an emphasis on the visual aspects of performance. You can see so much. Before the 1990s, there was less pressure to be physically beautiful in a mainstream sense; opera singers were glamorous whatever their body size. Audiences had opera glasses for super-titles and translations (which were not standard as they are now). Going to the opera was more of a mystical and aural experience; you either knew what was going on beforehand as a fan or you waited patiently to figure it out. But now, opera is much more open to new-comers and the super-titles and visual emphasis are great for the connoisseurs also. However, with more of a focus on the visuals, a singer’s physical appearance, and thus, race, inevitably come up.
The Met: Live HD allows people across the country to experience world classes performances from the comfort of their local movie theater. The upcoming season with include productions of Aida and Samson et Dalila.

 Also, we live in a time where, particularly since Obama’s presidency, discussions of race and the African-American/Black experience have become more mainstream. We have learned—particularly in 2012 with the tragic death of Trayvon Martin—that there are different vantage points coming out now. On the one hand, there’s been this transcendence of African Americans with individuals such as Eric Holder (former Attorney General) or Barack Obama, and many others in prominent positions. And yet, we’re seeing cell phone pictures and videos of how brutality continues. Now in 2018, we are rethinking Emmett Till’s murder at the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. We are looking back at issues of racism and injustice, and we are trying to work through them.


WHAT’S CHANGED?: Left: Emmett Till and his mother, Mamie Till. Right: Trayvon Martin and his mother, Sybrina Fulton. While the dates of their murders are separated by more than 70 years, both young men (and numerous other Black victims) have forced America to confront its history of racism and injustice that continues to this day.
What does representation mean to you?
As mentioned, visuals have become an important part of opera in terms of who is playing what part. But also, representation goes beyond what’s onstage. It involves, not only who are seeing, but who are we not seeing. Whose stories are being told and whose are missing? What stories do we yearn for? Who are the people behind the scenes? Who’s on the board of directors? Who’s in the pit and in the orchestra?

Considering opera’s problematic and at times racist past, why are you passionate about this art form?

The long answer is that today, there are more operas about Black life and the Black experience through composers such as Anthony Davis (who wrote X, The Life and Times ofMalcom X and Amistad), the opera Margaret Garner was created in part by Toni Morrison as the librettist with Richard Danielpour as the composer. Another example is The Summer King, about Josh Gibson (a Black baseball player who is thought to have hit more home runs than Babe Ruth), a power hitter and catcher who thought he was going to integrate baseball. There are many others: We Shall Not Be Moved (composed by Bernard Roumain with the libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph) about the 1985 MOVE Bombing in Philadelphia, I Dream (by Douglas Tappin) about Martin Luther King Jr.’s life, D.J. Sparr Approaching Ali (based on Davis Miller’s memoir of being a white admirer of Muhammad Ali and their in person meeting), Champion about welterweight fighter Emile Griffith (composed by Terence Blanchard),….the list of operas about Black subjects by black and interracial compositional teams is growing. It shows that the opera stage is becoming an important place to showcase black talent and stories through a diverse range of composers, librettists, and singers on stage. 


BLACK OPERA: From l-r: Champion, an opera based on the life of welterweight prize fighting champion Emile Griffith co-commissioned by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis and Jazz St. Louis. Margaret Garner, with libretto written by Beloved author Toni Morrison, is loosely based on actual events in the life of runaway slave Margaret Garner, and starred Denyce Graves in its 2005 premiere. Lawrence Brownlee stars as the legendary saxophonist in the opera, Charlie Parker's YARDBIRD. OperaCréole performs Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, which, created in 1911, tackles the issue an issue that was close to the composer’s heart: the education of former slaves and their descendants.
On the American stage, there’s this difficult legacy of minstrelsy with stereotypical characters such as the Buck (a large Black man who chases after white women), the Jezebel (an oversexualized temptress), the Sambo (a docile, lazy slave loyal to his master). But from the late 1980s to the present, we’ve been starting to see stories that are actually really positive. Now, there’s a movement for reinvention, for writing our own history. It’s very exciting.

The other, shorter answer about why I love opera, is that my mother was a singer who attended Julliard. A high coloratura. I grew up singing with her in church, and I grew up hearing that distinct sound—my mom’s sound—that I later learned was part of an operatic tradition. The leap into listening to and enjoying the operatic voice was not a tough jump for me; it was always familiar.

Sometimes, conversations about race and equity—especially where we the opera company are trying to take ownership of harm we’ve caused, can elicit criticisms such as, “You’re trying to make everything politically correct” or “You can’t please everybody.” Neither of these are necessarily the goal, though. From your view, what should the goal be of conversations of race and equity in opera?

I see the goal of these conversations as creating more comfort and safety for all people. Opera is one of the real treasures on the planet. You get to dip into another world. I think this art form is just the bee’s knees! Yes, I know that sounds corny, but I’m trying to show that it’s a cool, artful, fun, and relevant genre for today that everyone (regardless of race, education, or background) should be able to experience and be given the opportunity to fall in love with. Not everyone will love opera, but many will find it wonderful, if they just get in the door. I’m a big believer that we should try to share opera with a lot of people. In these conversations, we’re saying, these riches are not just for wealthy old people. They’re for everyone.

Seattle Opera is presenting Porgy and Bess, an opera you’ve studied extensively. In the past, you’ve stated that, “Is this opera racist?” isn’t a helpful question to ask surrounding Porgy and Bess. What questions should we be asking about Gershwin’s opera?

I would ask, how does race have meaning in this work? How did it have meaning when Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935? How does it have meaning today?

What does it mean to be Black in 2018? A nice way to look at it is there’s no one way to be Black. There are 35 million ways. I don’t mean to imply Blackness and race don’t matter. Cornel West (political activist and Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University) who is known for being controversial, but he has many trenchant and important ideas. His book (Race Matters, Beacon Press 1993) addresses morality and race and what it means over a century after the Civil War. This is still a necessary question today: How does race matter? To me it seems that the horrors of the past are still part of our legacy: slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, hoses on people, redlining housing communities, people not feeling comfortable inviting Black colleagues to dinner or lunch. I’d like to think that the arts allow an escape and means of building bridges across cultures. The arts can help us feel that things could be different. One thing I love in studying the Harlem Renaissance is that you see a generation—the first born free after slavery—thinking, “How can we be seen as fully human?” W.E.B. DuBois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Katherine Dunham and others—they all realized that the arts were something that we, Black people, can share with others, including with white people. We can tell our story through poetry, through music. We can show that maybe we’re not so different from you.
DuBois, Locke, Hughes, Hurston and Dunham are all Black artists who used their talents as a way to tell the story of their experiences and livelihoods.  

How will Porgy and Bess change and resonate in the 21st century?
I know folks, Black people in particular, who want Porgy and Bess to be minimized and fade into the background. I find it very challenging to teach Porgy and Bess today. My students study this work, and they don’t understand the context of the 1930s—all they see is the harmful stereotypes by today’s standards. I say, “It’s wonderful that you’re noticing these things,” but there’s more to Porgy and Bess than that negative side. Perhaps I see it differently because I’m older than my students. I remember situations in my life that remind me of what I see in the opera; being afraid of how you’re going to be treated or perceived, for example.

The Breaking Glass forum will address how social justice should be incorporated in the artistic mission of an opera company and how opera can be used as a vehicle to stimulate discussions about equity and diversity. The forum precedes Seattle Opera's production of Porgy and Bess, one of the most popular, yet controversial, American operas of all time. Photo: Porgy and BessThe Glimmerglass Festival, 2017 © Karli Cadel
I differ from my students, because I see an amazing wonder in Porgy and Bess. I’ve come to know the larger context well by studying other things Gershwin has written and his larger community that included black composers William Grant Still and Will Marion Cook. I’ve done research on the Heywards; Dubose wrote the Porgy novel in 1925 and his wife Dorothy adapted the novel into the play Porgy in 1927; both were influential as the Heywards worked with George and his brother Ira Gershwin to create Porgy and Bess. There was also an important collaborative element with the performers who rehearsed and interpreted this work on stage. What they were doing in their time, this amazing interracial collaboration, is extraordinary. So I hope that Porgy and Bess doesn’t go away. I also think Porgy and Bess should not be the only opera with many Black people onstage. I want more composers like Anthony Davis and performers of color to be part of opera’s present and future. There needs to be a balance.


During Breaking Glass, you’re going to discuss “who has the right to tell whose story?” At Seattle Opera, we talk a lot about cultural appropriation (last summer, we did Madama Butterfly). Whether it’s Porgy and Bess or Madama Butterfly, there’s a history of people who are perceived as exotic or faraway by white standards being used as subjects for art-creation. What thoughts do you have on cultural appropriation? When is it harmful? Can cultural appropriation ever be a good thing?
This is a complicated question. On the one hand, I respect the desire to pay homage to another culture. But I would advise working with people from that culture on the inside who can say, “This feels comfortable. This doesn’t.” What can you do to honor the people you’re referencing? It’s wonderful to celebrate and learn about other cultures. But it must be done with care, knowledge, and respect.

Any last words?
Yes. I see opera as a space of liberation and activism. I’m also fine with operas that are, essentially museum-pieces that preserve tradition. I love museums. I want opera to do the classic repertoire, but let’s also have the Malcom X opera, and more.


Breaking Glass: Hyperlinking Opera and Issues
Saturday, July 28 at 10:30 a.m.
Nesholm Lecture Hall at McCaw Hall
FREE Event!


For more info and to RSVP to Breaking Glass, click here.


Not able to join this event in person? No problem! This event will be livestreamed and more details will be available soon.


Please note: If you are planning on attending, there will be substantial road closures around Seattle for the Torchlight Parade.
The development of Breaking Glass: Hyper-linking Opera & Issues has been funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Opera America Innovation Grant and Repertoire Development Grant.