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:

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