Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Checking in with Chris Alexander

Chris Alexander is directing back-to-back productions at Seattle Opera this year: our recent Die Zauberflöte and, coming up next, Porgy and Bess. (It’s not unheard of for a director to stage two shows in a row for Seattle Opera; Alexander did so himself, in the 06/07 season, with L’italiana in Algeri followed by Don Giovanni, and the next season Stephen Wadsworth directed Der Fliegende Holländer in the summer and Iphigénie en Tauride in the fall.) I touched base with Alexander the other day when he came by our offices, and found out about his recent adventures, traveling and researching Porgy and Bess in the Deep South.

Chris, I hear you just got back from Alabama and South Carolina. Tell us about your trip.

Yes, I went to the wedding of Tomer Zvulun [stage director of last fall’s Lucia di Lammermoor] in Birmingham, Alabama, where his wife Susanna grew up. It was an impressive, touching wedding, very lovely. There were both a rabbi and a preacher—they made their own ceremony. And of course, lots of music.

Then I took advantage of being in the South, and drove all the way to Charleston, South Carolina, where Porgy and Bess is set. It’s a long trip, it took nearly 9 hours. But I was very curious to see where Porgy and Bess was written and where the story takes place. It was fascinating.

What were you hoping to find or discover while in Charleston?
I was hoping to find as much as possible of the Charleston of DuBose Heyward’s time. Heyward first wrote the novel, Porgy, in 1925, and later made it into a play (with his wife Dorothy) and the opera (with George and Ira Gershwin). Catfish Row, in the fictional versions, was based on a place called Cabbage Row, just down the street from where Heyward had his house. I was curious what Cabbage Row is all about…it’s basically a yard with three houses surrounding it. Of course today it’s completely different than what it was in the '20s. The name comes from the fact that in those days, most of the people who lived there sold cabbage in a nearby market. One of the real-life inhabitants was this disabled beggar, Sam; Heyward read a newspaper story about him being arrested, and that’s where Porgy and the idea of the goat-cart came from.

DuBose Heyward's house.

I found Charleston itself absolutely beautiful. It’s charming, it’s like an outdoor museum of the architecture of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America. I want to go back there with my wife, because of the incredible architecture. You can walk through those buildings for hours. In terms of its beauty, it was way beyond my expectations. Everything is different, today, the Church St., the Cabbage Row; but you can get a sense of how narrow and dark it was in that row, with these three-story buildings all around it. The fictional version is a bit romanticized; the water, for instance, is farther away in real life than you expect.

Today, tourists enter the old "Cabbage Row" through this gate, marked with the name made famous by the opera.

Inside the row.

But the heat! It was in the 90s, and everyone said that that was a cool spell; usually by this time of year everything is starting to get dry. And the atmosphere of the market, the vendors…that’s where I immediately said, “This is the world I’m looking for!” I was walking through the market and heard a piano, and sure enough somebody was playing at a café; and then somebody else picked up a clarinet and they improvised a little duet. It was totally impromptu, and it reminded me of the original opening of the opera (in our version, which is the standard one performed today, we begin with “Summertime”). I did find that the interaction between white and black, in the population, there’s a different setup in the way people treat each other than what I’ve gotten used to here in the north.

Speaking of the atmosphere, and the interactions between ethnicities, what’s our game plan for dealing with the residual dialect that’s in the opera’s libretto?
We have an excellent dialect coach, Judith Shahn of the UW Drama School, whom I met earlier this spring. Heyward wrote an approximation of the Gullah dialect, and that got simplified for the opera libretto; but it’s important, and during the two days I was in Charleston I heard it. In the market, talking to people, discussing the city and things. The language makes a shift, I heard it even listening to the radio on my drive there. It’s wonderfully melodic. And of course it ended up in Gershwin’s music.

Photos by Chris Alexander

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