Black Voices in Response to PORGY AND BESS

Black Voices in Response to Porgy and Bess

“What’s the next evolution for Porgy and Bess? I’m hoping new grounds are broken. Black Panther showed Africans Americans in a positive light. The director was African American. I would love if Porgy and Bess could represent more opportunities for African Americans, not simply onstage, but as directors, conductors, choreographers, and stage managers behind the scenes.” – Jermaine Smith

Members of Seattle Opera’s Porgy and Bess; © Philip Newton

An Opera with Many Meanings

Porgy and Bess is a source of pride. It's a source of stereotypes. It means so many different things to different people. Seattle Opera interviewed Black artists, scholars, activists and community members to learn more about the nuanced discussion that's surrounded Gershwin's opera since its 1935 premiere.

Jermaine Smith

Jermaine Smith is an American tenor, closely associated with the role of Sportin' Life. He's performed this part in 15 different productions, more than 500 individual performances, and 13 countries, to date, including at the Sydney Opera House, Glimmerglass, Teatro San Carlo, Tanglewood Music Festival, and with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. August 2018 marks his second Sportin’ Life performance at Seattle Opera. Smith’s other operatic repertoire includes the title role in Joshua's Boots (world premiere at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, revival at Kansas City Lyric Opera), and various roles in Treemonisha (Opera Theatre of Saint Louis). He has made numerous appearances with the St. Louis Symphony. Smith is an alumnus of the New England Conservatory of Music and University of Missouri-St. Louis.

Read our first interview with Jermaine Smith in 2011.

Seattle Opera is trying to lean in to the various perceptions—both positive and negative—regarding Porgy and Bess. As someone so close to this work, what do you think?
We’re in a time where peoples’ negative perceptions of Porgy and Bess can sometimes be an issue. On one side, the opera is seen as perpetuating stereotypes. But on the other side, you have to know the history of Porgy and Bess: When Gershwin wrote the piece, he was creating a platform for African Americans—a platform where we could be onstage and be heard. Porgy and Bess created an avenue for performers. Outside of Porgy, African Americans were not being hired. Leontyne Price got her start by playing the role of Bess. That was a catalyst for her career. This amazing voice was heard, in part, thanks to Porgy and Bess.

Porgy can lead to other opportunities in opera. I’ve been asked to do house auditions at major opera houses after I performed Sportin’ Life. There’s no other opera like it. For anyone who says, “But that’s behind us and it’s not needed,” I beg to differ. I have heard leading Black opera singers talk about how this art form does not have an equal playing field. So, if you take away Porgy and Bess, a lot of singers would lose their platform for performing, or for entering into opera.

Talk to me about the impact of an all-Black cast.
It’s phenomenal to see something of this magnitude. Have you ever seen an all-Black La bohème? No, you can’t see that today. You don’t usually get to see a stage full of African Americans performing this art style of music at its highest quality. Seeing and hearing this should open the mindset of anyone who doubts the abilities of the minorities. On the other hand, we have African American singers staying away from Porgy for fear of being typecast.

I’ve made a career of Porgy and Bess and playing Sportin’ Life. People say—you can’t do that. Why? I’m OK with what I’m doing. I give credence to the art of opera, and to my singing through Porgy and Bess. I don’t sing like any other Sportin’ Life. While I take inspiration from Cab Calloway—from that jazzy style—I’m also singing legit; as I would with any other leading tenor role like Rodolfo or Alfredo. I take the singing in Porgy and Bess seriously, and I give credence to the gift that I have.

What’s been your experience in the opera world?
Sometimes I walk in to the opera house, and the patrons say, “Who is that?” Like they have already pre-judged me. They don’t know that I’m a singer. Afterward, I walk out, and they’re applauding.

I have no shame in who I am or where I come from. I come from the Inner City. I was the first to graduate in my family. There were a lot of drug dealers and gang bangers in my community growing up. My mother did all the things she could to keep me from all of it. And now, I make a living playing one onstage. The irony of that! That’s funny.

And you don’t have an issue with playing the purveyor of “happy dust”?
Unfortunately, from my point of view, the way that Sportin’ Life and others in Catfish Row live is sometimes still a reality. I think rather than talking about perpetuating stereotypes, we should ask how we can acknowledge what we see in Porgy and Bess. For example, Bess and Crown’s relationship within the context of the #MeToo movement. How do we deal with it? How do we bring these issues to the forefront?

Tell me about your work inspiring young people today.
Today, when I do inspirational talks/sings in schools and universities, I arrive with my locks down, 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! It’s like “Wow! Where are you from? Are you from here? Are you from Africa?” No, I’m African American! They’re laughing. They’re applauding. They’re seeing someone from their own community singing opera! I want them to know that you can do something different. You don’t have to be a rapper or an athlete. Your environment does not define your outcome.

With that said, you also don’t have to sell your soul. This is why I’m not embarrassed or ashamed to talk about where I come from.

For kids, sometimes seeing is believing. When Obama became president, this offered the young African American child the chance to see that, yes! We, Black people, can become president.

Did you know that Obama was elected when I was performing in Porgy and Bess? I was in Chicago. We were all in the green room—all of us in that Porgy and Bess cast—we were in the green room watching the news. I felt like I was with family. And when the results were announced, we cried together. We looked outside, and saw the streets filled with people marching and in celebration. We went outside and joined in.

How do you perceive your journey as an opera singer today?
I am a performer. I’m not just an opera singer; I’m a working singer. I'm willing to do any role that is offered. I enjoy performing in it. I love it. It’s one of the things I do naturally, because I love making people laugh, and I love entertaining. Never dare me to do anything, because I don’t have an embarrassing bone in my body.

What’s the next evolution of Porgy and Bess from your perspective?
I’m hoping new grounds are broken. Black Panther showed Africans Americans in a positive light. The director was African American. I would love if Porgy and Bess could represent more opportunities for African Americans, not simply onstage, but as directors, conductors, choreographers, and stage managers behind the scenes.

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Donald Byrd

Donald Byrd is the Artistic Director of Spectrum Dance Theater. The TONY nominated and Bessie Award-winning choreographer, formerly led Donald Byrd/The Group (1978–2002). This critically acclaimed contemporary dance company was founded in Los Angeles and later based in New York. Donald Byrd/The Group toured extensively throughout the United States, and internationally. Byrd has created more than 100 dance works for his own groups, as well as for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dance Theater of Harlem among others.

What was your first experience with Porgy and Bess?
My first experience was seeing the movie with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge (premiered in 1959). I was 8 or 9. At that time, the movie was fairly new and I think I may have seen it in a theater. As a Black child in the South, any presentation of Black people in film would have been of interest to me. Porgy and Bess gave me a chance to see an all-Black cast in a Hollywood film, produced for a broad audience.

Have you ever choreographed it?
I have not.

Would I choreograph it? Probably. There are certain things I recognize about the piece that are problematic. That doesn’t mean bad or wrong—it just means the work presents certain challenges. It’s a white perspective on a Black community. My job would be to add authenticity to it, that also represents a somewhat “true” depiction of a certain place and time. At the center of the story, is something real: these relationships are true and heartfelt—the result of Black people being marginalized and finding creative ways to survive. Characters like Sportin’ Life, for example, have existed in the Black community, and versions of Sportin’ Life exist now. I feel that there is an earnestness in Porgy and Bess. It’s an earnest attempt by white people to tell a sympathetic story about Black people.

How does Porgy and Bess make you feel today? Does the work reinforce stereotypes?
It depends on what you define as a stereotype—that Black people sing and dance?! To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s a stereotypical representation. A theatrical production is not a documentary, so there’s always going to be some broad stroking of certain characters and situations. I do think that the Bess character, especially as portrayed by Dorothy Dandridge can sometimes represent the tragic mulatto stereotype. (The tragic mulatto is an archetypical mixed-race person who is sad, or even suicidal, because they fail to completely fit in the "white world" or the "Black world"). Throughout the work’s history, I believe that light-skinned women have specifically been chosen at times. A more light-skinned Bess creates a character that’s sympathetic and desirable for white men.

In your view, are there aspects of Porgy and Bess to celebrate?
Well, Black opera singers have told me, “If a company is presenting Porgy and Bess, I know I will have a job.” It’s an opportunity to work and to be seen. Hopefully, they will be considered for something other than Porgy and Bess in the future.

In classical European art forms, Black and Brown people are often absent, or presented as problematic tropes. With that said, how have you used dance to create more nuanced Black narratives?
Well, I’m not a spokesperson for Black people. I am one voice among millions. I have some things to say, but it’s not my job to create works about Black people for white audiences. What I can do is to point out, or to underscore, how Black people have been treated—how injustice has been directed toward us.

In Black households, we have said in the past that we must know everything about white people in order to exist in society. Through my dances, I might point out how white privilege has oppressed Black people in order to create some awareness, and hopefully, some responsibility. With that said, I’m not trying to make white people feel guilty.

What does it mean to create art in a city that’s predominantly white, and tends to think of itself as progressive and “woke”?
It’s not woke—I find Seattle, and white people in these progressive communities—to be problematic. Sometimes they can feel fascistic to me, like they are very concerned with being right. There are assumptions made about woke-ness when it’s not true. In some ways, we need to acknowledge and be transparent about when programming (like, within arts or cultural institutions), is for white people. White people tend to be resistant to discomfort; to the perception of being called out. If you actually want to get beyond your current thinking, or be able to have some more nuanced thinking, you must get used to being uncomfortable.

Who are some of your favorite Black artists today making work in our community?
C. Davida Ingram, a visual artist, is quite remarkable. She works at the Seattle Public Library. I am also interested in the work being created by the dance artists Dani Tirrell and Jade Solomon Curtis.

What happens when audiences can actually see Black and Brown bodies onstage?
If it’s an opera other than Porgy and Bess, it does a lot.

If it’s just Porgy and Bess, it doesn’t do much. The minute you have Black people in Tosca and La bohème, then it becomes challenging for white audiences. The minute you go to see a Black or Brown body starring in a ballet of Sleeping Beauty, you can confront audiences (and the status quo). My family started going to the opera because of Leontyne Price. But for us, it was always more impactful to see her in traditionally European parts.

Can we still enjoy works like Madame Butterfly and Porgy and Bess—works that contain racial tropes? What’s needed (Conversations? Context? Updating?) in order to do so.
I can still enjoy them. But I’m able to enjoy them as a historical reference point. It’s a little bit like “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and the book’s use of the word “nigger.” People take one look at that word, and they say, “Ban the book! Ban the book!” But that is how Black people were treated and represented at a certain time. You can enjoy these performances if you’re willing to understand the history. However, I want to see how the director handles material that’s dated or offensive. What choices are being made that demonstrate awareness?

For example, I saw a production of The Mikado by Jonathan Miller in London. He made a really terrific choice: Because the operetta is really about Europeans, not about Japanese people, all the performers were in European dress. It was a comment on Victorian society. And it was done in a smart way. The director was providing new layers for his audience.

Another example is a Madame Butterfly I saw in Scotland. It really worked for me, because all the Asians were played by Asians. It pointed out the callousness of Pinkerton; how white people have treated people of Asian ancestry. I liked it a lot.

The Broadway production of Porgy and Bess was interesting. It did take out a lot of the stereotypes. Whether Porgy is being done as an opera or as a musical, the structure still feels a bit like a musical to me … I don’t know. Perhaps I enjoy Porgy and Bess because I like sitting in the theater and having a whole internal monologue. What’s working? What’s pushing my buttons? I don’t mind being in that 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.

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Kendra Smith

Kendra C. Smith is a native Texan, born and raised in Dallas. Professionally, she works at Boeing in the Commercial Airplanes division. In 2017, Kendra graduated from the United Way of King County’s Project LEAD Program, a leadership training program that prepares highly qualified People of Color to serve effectively on nonprofit boards. Before completing the program, she was voted onto the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle board and later joined the Open Arms Perinatal Services Board.

Kendra is a proud member of Junior League of Seattle and the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle Guild. In April 2017, she was elected President of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle Guild. Kendra earned a dual degree in International Business and Japanese Studies from Dillard University, and a Master’s in Business Administration from Pepperdine University.

What was your first experience with Porgy and Bess?
The first time I saw it, it was a musical in London in 2006. I went to visit my best friend and I met her soon-to-be husband. We went to see it at an off-Broadway type musical theater house. So, it’s been awhile. It was fantastic. I love musicals, especially musicals with People of Color at the center. Seeing People of Color on stage, dancing and singing and performing. It was pretty awesome.

Can we still enjoy some of these works that present problematic racial tropes like Madame Butterfly or Porgy and Bess for example? Is it possible to love something while understanding its limitations?
Oh, definitely. This piece has a lot of history with it. Songs that people know and love, such as “Summertime” come from Porgy and Bess. I think we should celebrate shows like Porgy and Bess and The Color Purple, and any type of narrative that is showing some part of history. By challenging theater groups to find fresh new ways of telling our story, and having theaters be open to that, is the next step.

I don’t think these type of performances should go away just because they could be perceived as controversial. If anything, its a chance to show the younger generation what’s going on. We have to be able to accept that, to face it, and say let’s talk about it. Why was it this way back then? If anything, it’s good conversation.

How often do you feel yourself represented in fine art forms like the opera?
I would have to say probably not often enough. I did get to see Aida at Seattle Opera and I have to say, I was a little disappointed because I’d always heard about Aida but finally going to see it and not actually seeing a Black woman perform the role was a little disappointing here in Seattle. So, I would say no, I don’t see myself reflected. I mean, I see it in spaces that are built for us, that are Black-owned, Black-run, where people being very intentional about representation. I try to support groups like that as much as possible.

Many opera companies and symphonies are at a moment in time where they are grappling with how to make their art more equitable for People of Color. In your opinion, what will help to make for a more equitable future?
I think more transparency on how the leads, actors and performers are selected and chosen. Maybe a public forum on how to get into these spaces. I have friends that are actors and actresses and they are usually picked for more stereotypical roles, or the sidekick type role. The fact that others don’t see us as lead material, or that we could not carry a show, or that people will not come and support. I think that is there was more transparency, it would help the community.

I know you are involved with the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle as Guild President, why are you passionate about the organization?
I joined the Urban League of Los Angeles almost 10 years ago as a young professional, which is an auxiliary of the affiliate. Basically the volunteer arm, doing the community service, doing professional development for myself and for others and mentoring. Once I became a part of the Los Angeles Urban League, I also became a part of the National Urban League Young Professionals. I met a dynamic group of young professionals across the state and would go to conferences. So as my career transitioned me to different cities, I moved to D.C. and became a part of the Urban League there. After that, I moved to Seattle. The Urban League has been a part of my life and my development. It’s a worthy organization. It’s a historic organization that has been around for over a hundred years doing the work for the people, whether it be in housing, education, work readiness. It’s just a part of my DNA at this point. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing in my life or at my job, I’m always going to be a volunteer. I’m always going to be a part of the organization. I’m honored to be on the board now and serve as the Guild President, which is another auxiliary volunteer arm. It allows me to partner with organizations like the Seattle Opera and bring meaningful events and activities to our members and our supporters.

Why do you think it's important to get folks at the Urban League involved with different experiences such as arts programs like the opera?
Well like I said, we volunteer with students in the community and we volunteer with individuals that need second chances, or maybe just a first chance. So exposing students to different cultural elements just makes a better, more well-rounded person. I love that we can do this, be like we are going to go support Seattle Opera and Seattle Opera is going to support us and then develop a closer relationship. Then, from there, as the Seattle Opera works on their diversity and equity work, you have a group, an organization that is well established, how about tap into us and say, “We’re thinking about doing X, Y and Z. What are your thoughts?” Or, “How do we do better?” Or, “How do we diversify a little bit better?” Maybe we tap into your base of supporters and members and clientele that you are providing services to. It just allows for great community work, basically.

And, more than just seeing the show, I want young people to ultimately be able to engage more deeply--like seeing the creation of the backdrop or the backstage realm--that could be a career path for someone who might never have known this was an option. “Oh wow, I could work for Seattle Opera? I don’t have to be a singer or writer, I could be a stagehand or set designer” or whatever it may be. So bringing these opportunities to light is also important. I’m hoping this moves into a great partnership moving forward.

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Dominica Myers

Tell me about your first experience with Porgy and Bess.
It was 1995; and being performed at the old Seattle opera house. This Porgy and Bess was a touring production (rather than a Seattle Opera performance). At the time, I was an undergrad. My mom, a working-class welding supervisor, sacrificed and saved in order to purchase one ticket for me. Today, this experience reminds me of my relationship with my mom (who has since passed away). It also reminds me of a time of awakening in my life. Seeing Porgy was powerful. And it wasn’t the only time my mom did this. She made sure that I saw Alvin Ailey’s Revelations at the Paramount, and Sweet Honey in the Rock (a cappella group). It was really important to her.

Why was it so important to your mom that you saw the Black American experience onstage?
My mother was white. And I am Black. Of course, today some people with a white mom may identify as Mixed Race. But in my generation, if you were half Black—you were Black. I’ve always been a Black woman.

When I was a girl, I remember one day, my mom sat me down and we had this conversation. She said, “I’m a white woman. And someday, you’re going to be a Black woman. There are going to be times when I will not understand your experience—and vice versa.”

My mom wanted me to be able to see myself onstage. At that time, the world I was in was predominantly white. I was also raised in traditionally white spaces. My mom wanted me to have a sense of belonging. She wanted me to have an understanding of my Black heritage.

Rather than afford two OK tickets for the two of us, she saved up to buy one amazing ticket for me, so I went alone. I didn’t mind. I’m glad that she did that. There’s something that happens when you’re with a white family member—it’s like you have to appease their whiteness. Of course, my mom never made me feel that way. However, I’m grateful that she gave me the space to be able to discover myself. And I did.

What did seeing Blackness onstage impact you in the long run?
Moving forward to my own stage career, I had the opportunity to be part of an all-Black cast. It was a production of For the Love of Freedom Part III, which is an epic, three-part trilogy. It was about the 18th century Haitian revolution and Henri Christophe, a former slave, who led the successful anti-slavery and anti-colonial insurrection against French colonial rule. There were 30 of us in this cast: Black people from all parts of the diaspora: There were a couple Haitian people, African American, Caribbean ... We all had to learn Haitian accents. Being a little lighter, I played the “mulatto” characters. This was at the Robey Theatre Company (a Black-theatre company) in Los Angeles. So the timing for me to see an all-Black cast, and then actually getting to be a part of a Black cast myself, was really special. Being in an all-Black cast was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will never forget.

How does it feel to be in an all-Black cast?
For those of us who can trace our ancestry to the Middle Passage—to the transatlantic slave trade—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.

How did this experience, where your identity felt honored as a theater artist, contrast to being in white-led theater spaces?
As an undergraduate student, I was in a theater department that didn’t produce the opportunities for me to delve into Black works to the degree that I really needed to. The scene work we did in class was by Noël Coward, or other white playwrights. As I got older, I moved to LA in my late 20s, and was involved with Robey Theater Company. I was working in their playwright’s lab and writing material myself—working with a group of Black writers—and we were writing the stories of our generation by us, for us. We were writing, in addition to performing in For the Love of Freedom. There is something to Black material being handled, and performed from a Black point of view.

How does your experience as a theatre artist influence your feelings regarding Porgy and Bess today?
First and foremost, I enjoy the music of Porgy and Bess. I enjoy our world-class principals and choristers. I don’t want them to be overlooked. Our cast at Seattle Opera is incredible. I never want that aspect to get lost. However, I have worked with Black writers, Black producers, Black history, and the Black experience. And this has opened my eyes more to question Porgy and Bess. I know that Gershwin wanted to write something great; something uniquely American, and that he spent time with the Gullah community in South Carolina. But I’m not able to have a conversation about what his intentions were. So while I appreciate Porgy and Bess, 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!” This is a story about a Black community created by folks of European and Jewish ancestry. As Porgy continues to be produced and celebrated in the opera world, The Gershwin Foundation benefits. In the meantime, the families of Scott Joplin, Shirley Graham Du Bois, and other Black composers and librettists—are not earning royalties. Works created by Black people are not produced frequently in major American opera houses. I question that. I question the history of what gets produced in opera, and why.

You are an equity leader at Seattle Opera who has not been afraid to challenge the status quo. In the past, you’ve brought up how Seattle Opera should present works written by Black composers. I know that Treemonisha by Scott Joplin is a favorite of yours. Tell me more.
In Treemonisha you see a young woman becoming educated. You see love of community, and a family that’s together—not a broken woman running off with this man or that man. And, by the way, Treemonisha was written a few years before Porgy and Bess. Did George Gershwin see that?

As a Black artist and leader, why choose to work in a historically white art form?
There’s an amazing person in my life who passed away last year, G. Valmont Thomas (an iconic Black actor in the Northwest who gave his last performance, with cancer, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival). He had been a special person in my life. When the opportunity came up to work at Seattle Opera in admin, not as an artist, I called him because I wasn’t sure if it would be the right move. I asked his opinion and he said, “I love opera. I think this would be great.” Thinking back on that, his opinion meant so much to me, that I said yes. I think back on that conversation. I don’t think I ever saw into the future about what this could be for me. What it means for me to work at Seattle Opera. I get to work among artists, and to be a change-maker in an area I never thought possible. There are so many days where I am bumping my head against a wall. However, given the direction that the opera wants to go—and being a part of the equity team—if I am seeing something that doesn’t look equitable, or that looks offensive or problematic in terms of our company’s cultural competency, I can speak the truth here. And I will continue to say it until I really feel heard and understood. You can throw stones from outside. But, as frustrating as it can be, the inside is where real change happens.

Why do you love opera?
Opera is enormous, it’s so big. I know we’ve delved into more intimate spaces through our chamber operas. However, I find it exciting how big opera is. It’s audacious. It’s huge. Just look at the amount of people involved in having to put together a production. There’s no one-person opera—it takes all of us.

You were recently promoted to Associate Director of Administration, where equity is a central component of your work. Tell me about how you will help Seattle Opera become more equitable.
I’m looking forward to getting really specific with this company on how we can center equity across all departments, and to also look at our relationships with the community. I will ensure that we are mindfully centering equity with measureable goals and outcomes. I look at the work Oregon Shakespeare did in centering equity. They made it a priority for every single a department a few years ago. For example, I remember seeing a job posting for hair and makeup people who must have experience working with African American hair.

Opera companies across the country are embracing equity, too. And in fact, equity was the main topic of the last Opera America conference. I want to see equity in action. Not just in discussion.

Going back to equity and how it fits within Porgy and Bess, I want to say that I think Porgy and Bess should still be produced. Absolutely. But we should also look for opportunities to produce works by Black composers. We must feature the work of Black directors and Black designers. It’s not enough to simply have Black people onstage. We must remove barriers so that People of Color can enter places not traditionally inclusive of us, and that includes in leadership roles.

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ChrisTiana ObeySumner

[The text below is by Gemma Wilson of City Arts and can be found in its original form here. You can read Seattle Opera’s interview with ChrisTiana ObeySumner, which details their broader work with Seattle Opera.]

ChrisTiana ObeySumner took the summer off of classes—they’re getting a Master’s degree (their second) in public administration at Seattle University—to work more and read books, one of which is the dictionary. Why? To color code words that have implicit racial connotations, whether positive or negative. The laborious process seems a fitting encapsulation of ObeySumner’s insatiable intellectual appetite. They love thinking and learning and talking and sharing—storytelling is the basis for all their work as an equity consultant, whether sharing their own stories or eliciting others’. In early 2018, ObeySumner was hired as the social impact consultant for Seattle Opera, which this month kicks off its 2018–19 season with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

How do you start social impact work with an arts organization that focuses on opera, often a huge institutional ship with a lot of “canonical” work?
I’ve said this before, but I really believe that if Mozart and Verdi and Beethoven and Bach were alive today they would support social equity in these spaces, because I believe that all art forms, but especially the opera, is extremely socio-political. There’s no way you can make me believe these people wrote these librettos with these messages simply because they wanted the music to sound pretty. Listen to the lyrics. Listen to what they’re saying, how they’re saying it, what the characters are trying to convey and the interpersonal connections between them. No matter how old [a piece] is, it has themes that can be applicable throughout time.

What kind of themes do you mean?
Like this Porgy and Bess. You think about Crown and Bess’s relationship. Maybe it was trying to convey a different message when Gershwin was interpreting his observations of the Gullah Geechee people. Today, though, that relationship feels applicable to the #MeToo movement, especially as we start to hear more of what I always felt Tarana Burke originally meant, which is an eternal pandemic of sexual assault toward women and femme bodies. And there are certain cultural complications that happen within certain communities, especially communities of color.

As someone who also can say, “me too,” I’ve had those experiences where, in sharing my experience or frustration or fear or trying to report, it’s been minimized or completely dismissed because they’re like, “You can’t call the police, though, because it’s a black man.” Then you have to choose between taking care of yourself or taking one for the culture.

When Bess falls in love with Porgy—which also goes into this ableism situation, right?—at first, people see this inequitable relationship—What would a woman like this want to do with a man like that? And Crown insists—assaults, really—Bess into continuing to be with him. That was seen more as the norm than Bess being protected in her choice of having a relationship with Porgy. That what’s beautiful in the opera. There’re socio-political messages or socio-cultural messages that can still be applied to the lives we live today, but as a society I think we’ve become artistically and intellectually lazy.

How so?
We’ve come to a place where we want to passively consume information. I don’t believe that the arts should be consumed passively. I wish for the days when you go to an opera or musical or a symphony or fine arts gallery and go looking for the message. It’s not about watching the movement or seeing the color or hearing the music. But feeling the music, having a connection with the movement. Or having this critical view of the art piece where you’re saying, “What is this telling me about myself? What is this telling me about my society? What is this telling me about my world? Where was that person in their space when they made this?” I think we’ve lost that.

Art is a universal language we all share, but we have not been very equitable in how we’ve allowed it to be celebrated in the larger discourse of what it means to be human people. Indeed, we haven’t even settled on whether or not we’re going to allow all humans to be considered people.

If there’s two sides to every story, there’s really six. And I guess this is like my life’s passion: I wanna know the stories. Why are humans? I just wanna know.

Do you find that organizations often want something more prescriptive? Like, just tell us how to fix it?
Across the board, especially right now, folks are used to working toward equity reactively and not preemptively. If you’re going to do this work, you need to do it preemptively. This needs to be work that you, as an organization, bureaucracy or corporation say, “We as a people, as a larger organizational narrative, have decided that we are no longer going to perpetuate the historical, systemic and institutional racism that has continued to plague our society.”

Some people look around and say, “Oh crap. There’s nothing but white people here. We should probably do something about that.” And that’s OK, to do it reactively. But I ask folks all the time what their core “why” is for this, and it’s important for this work. Why do you want to do this? The answer I don’t accept is like, “I read this Robin DiAngelo book and it was great.” I’m like, that’s great. Why, though? While it’s important for white allies to not center themselves in the narrative of the racial justice movement, it’s important for them to have some sort of personal connection to why it’s important. If they don’t have a story, they’re not really an ally. They’re an ally as a noun, or maybe even ally as an adjective. But they’re not an ally as a verb.

Breaking down an institution into its component human parts must be scary for institutions, especially in places where you’re supposed to check your personal life at the door. How do you break down resistance to bringing your full humanity to work?
It’s fighting against individualism that was put in place by the enlightenment. Honestly, I feel like the enlightenment period was the worst possible thing that could have happened to humanity. [laughs] The problem was it gave us this false sense of security, that we operate within this discreet vacuum of positivism, and it’s not true.

So, whether you’re for-profit, public sector or nonprofit, your actions and your organization’s actions, your personal intrinsic narrative and organizational narrative and everything that happens in that space is affecting someone that you’re not seeing somewhere. It’s important for you to understand that to be equitable. To be socially equitable is to understand your space and your place and your impact on this larger interconnected machine that is society.

We want to move about in the world knowing that we are as altruistic and empathetic as possible; that we are reducing our harm towards communities outside of our in-group and that we are doing our due diligence to make sure that we preserve society as much as possible.

In order to do that, we have to break down the core: who are the individuals in your organization? How did those individual narratives come up with the departmental narrative and how did those departmental narratives come up to an organizational narrative? And how does that organizational narrative interplay with the sociocultural narrative outside of the organization? That is really what’s important to do. Underneath this huge umbrella are all those constructs of race and gender and socioeconomic status, history, all these certain things. But at first, it’s the most important to do that. Without understanding the why and the impact of it, you’re not actually doing the work. You’re just performing it.

Where you fall in the ever-present art conversation of: When should something—a play, an opera—just be retired? Should they ever be?
You can’t be scurred is the best way to put it. [laughs] Don’t be scurred. But you have to take a risk, and that risk is being brutally transparent and honest about what it is. Like Porgy and Bess, this white dude decided that for three months he was gonna go vacation in a black community and watch them, like a creeper, and then decide from his own paradigms and frameworks what that society meant, and created an entire narrative based on these people’s lives.

You don’t have to throw out Gershwin, but you have to talk about it. When you talk about it from that space, then that’s when you start to go into the art form and look at it more actively. You start to think about what pieces of this are reflective of where we came from, and how black folks were storied in the early 20th century? What pieces are the social stereotypes of dominant culture towards black culture today? And how much of this did Gershwin actually see?

It is shining a light on some Black cultural issues. Especially living in my body, there are some things within Porgy and Bess where I’m like, “Yeah, we need to talk about ableism in the black community,” as a person with a disability. You know? We need to talk about that. We need to talk about size-ism. We need to talk about colorism. We have to talk about misogynoir. We have to talk about the jezebel archetype, the mammy archetype. We have to talk about how we as a community sometimes can ostracize. We need to talk about where they were living. We need to talk about the slums. We need to talk about what we’ve done as a country to put folks into those slums. We have to talk about red-lining, public housing, the New Deal. We have to talk about what happened with the GI bill. We need to talk about what’s happening now with both the income and the wealth disparity. We need to talk about the fact that for every $100 of wealth that a white family holds, black families only hold $5.04.

We have to talk about these things because all of that are messaging that has happened and continues to happen today. And yes, [Porgy and Bess] is written by a white man about black people. Yes, from an anthropological standpoint, three months is nowhere near enough to know about this culture to the point where you’re writing this production that has lived in perpetuity.

And there are stories there, messages there, lessons there that we can still glean as long as we aren’t scurred and we talk about it openly and for what it is. We’re not romanticizing it. It’s not just a beautiful stage and music. It is telling a story, implicitly and explicitly.

People like to talk about how this conversation around equity is new. It’s not. Ever since damn near the Crusades, people have said, “You know, what you’re doing is not cool, man. You’re coming in here and telling us that we’re wrong and trying to kill us, and maybe you should just go back to Spain or England or France or Italy or whichever crusade you’re from and leave us alone.” That has always happened. This is not a new concept.

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Breaking Glass: Hyperlinking Opera & Issues

The discussion on Black Representation in opera, including Porgy and Bess, continues with panelists from the Seattle Opera/Glimmerglass forum Breaking Glass:

Kids and Race

Additionally, Seattle Opera has teamed up with Kids and Race, a Seattle-based organization that cultivates socially responsible and culturally aware children using fun, dynamic, age-appropriate curriculum. Click below to hear a discussion between Executive Director Jason Frelot with Courtney D. Clark, Seattle Opera School Programs Manager and opera singer who has performed the role of Bess.

Read the blog post >  Listen to the podcast >

Porgy and Bess Cast #SOHuman

#SOHuman is Seattle Opera’s social media storytelling series inspired by Humans Of New York.

Alfred Walker

How did you start singing?
"Our college had a chorus, and a good friend of mine was interested in auditioning. You see, there were quite a few cute girls in the chorus (every time I tell this story, I’m kind of embarrassed!). I auditioned for the choirmaster, and I think I only got in because they needed lower voices. The choirmaster asked, 'What voice type are you?' and I said, 'A tenor!' That’s how little I knew about music. He said, 'You don’t sound like a tenor.' We started vocalizing and I started screaming. I think I sang a low C, and he said, 'You’re definitely not a tenor, you belong in the bass section.' From then on, I started voice lessons with Phil Frohnmayer, a Professor of Voice at Loyola University. He said, 'You don’t know how to sing at all, but I think you have a world-class voice.' When I finished with my psychology degree, I decided that I was going to pursue opera. My family thought I was nuts. Phil actually took me through years of studying. I did the Young Artists Program at The Met, but he’s been my only teacher and a real father to me."

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Antonia Darlene

What would the audience be surprised to learn about you while you're performing onstage?
"One surprising thing to learn about me is that I am the proud mother of four beautiful children. I’ve actually been in three different shows while pregnant; one show didn’t end until I was well into my third trimester. My first audition at Seattle Opera, I was nine months pregnant and I had a contraction in the middle of my song! The accompanist was nice enough to start over for me, and thank goodness he did 'cause I booked the show! I have worked in the arts as a performer for 14 years now, and I absolutely love what I do. One of the trickiest things I have is juggling taking care of my kids. So many people believe the misconception that once a woman has children, she must stop performing, but I disagree. I have two 7-year-olds, an almost 2-year-old, and an almost 1-year-old. I currently reside in Portland, Oregon, and my partner and I split the kids between us so that we can juggle care for them more easily. My aunt and cousin, and my amazing mother, help us with care—we have an outstanding village behind us supporting us in every way! And now, my sweet little kids are following in my footsteps! My daughter is in the final round of a callback for the 5th Avenue Theatre's Annie. My son is auditioning for a movie. My 1-year-old sings Disney tunes in the car as loud as she can, and my 8-month-old hums herself to sleep. We are family of musicians, and I can’t wait to see what my little artists do."

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Arlando Smith

You're an actor rather than an opera singer. How does performing in Porgy and Bess compare to your work in theater?
"As an actor working in Seattle, I haven't been around this many Black people before. It’s great. It's different from any other theater work I’ve done here. It’s really lovely to be in this setting, getting to know everyone. Also, the size of everything in opera is mind-boggling. Even if you are working in the big performance theater, a straight play has a cast of 12. Or perhaps twice that, if it's a musical. But this show has about 50. It’s staggering. I’ve been performing since high school. I went to an arts school, so, growing up, I was also interested in pursuing visual art as well. However, my teachers were like, ‘Ok, but we really think you should go into theater.’ I wasn’t interested until I failed my art class. One of my teachers sat me down and said, ‘This isn’t for you. You have so much energy.’ And in my mind I was thinking, ‘Theater is only for freaks and weirdos.’ However, I decided to give it a try, and the very next semester, I received an “A.” My teachers weren’t being mean. They saw something in me.”

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Bethanie Willis

Why is it important to see Black narratives in opera and musical theater?
"Because most of the time, people of color are not represented in a positive light. Most of the time, like on the news, in movies, or in TV shows, the narrative is essentially that people of color are ‘less than’ compared to the rest of the population. We are portrayed ‘less’ intelligent. ‘Less’ well-spoken. ‘Less talented,’ And so forth. In opposition to this, when positive narratives about people of color are put forth to the public, we can start to break through those preconceptions that we have learned from birth. Through these operas, musical theater performances, etc., we can start to accept people of color as equals in every light."

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Cheryse Mcleod Lewis

"Throughout college and grad school, performance anxiety was one of my biggest challenges as a singer and performer. It was so bad in college, that there was a time when I would literally burst into tears after every solo I sang in our voice department performance class. It was so frustrating to feel like I sang so well in the practice room, yet had trouble with my confidence in front of an audience. Well, many years and lots of tears, bible verses, prayers, and performances later, I can say that my issues with performance anxiety have gotten a lot better. I am a more confident singer, performer, and person than that college student so many years ago. I think the key to getting to the other side has been focusing on gratitude (being thankful for every opportunity to share my gift, whether on a huge, amazing stage like McCaw Hall or at an elementary school or retirement community), and not comparing myself or my career to other people. We all have our own unique musical path, and when we realize that, we are free to be confident in the special gifts that we each bring to the world. Every time I am on the stage at McCaw Hall in a Seattle Opera production I think, 'Wow, Cheryse, you are blessed to sing and perform for a living. Just like that college student so many years ago had hoped for. You are living the dream. Twirl, honey, twirl!'"

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DuWayne Andrews Jr.

"I am half black and half Samoan. My mom is from American Samoa and my dad, who's African American, is the local one. Because of my dad, I grew up playing jazz with my saxophone. I honored my mom's side by doing Polynesian dancing. Whether it was Bach or James Brown, there was always some kind of music in my house. And I have always been drawn to the performing arts (from the time I was 18-months-old and would sit up and watch The Nutcracker!). As a kid, I began singing with my school and church choirs. In 6th grade, I started playing the alto saxophone. In high school, I got in to musical theater, and in college, choral music. In 2011, I received word that Seattle Opera was holding auditions for Porgy and Bess. Performing in that production was a very exciting experience. Now, I have been thankful to be part of this unique take on Aida, and to be performing in Porgy and Bess once again this summer. In terms of what continues to inspire me as an artist, I'd say that my family is what keeps me going. My parents have done so much to get me here. Also, I have a 3-and-a-half-year-old niece who is the best niece an uncle could ask for. Seeing her look up to me keeps me going."

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Ernest C. Jackson

"I took an un-traditional route to becoming a professional singer. I started singing at church around 11. My stepfather encouraged me to expand my knowledge of music from gospel and R&B, to learning classical music. He wanted me to become part of the Philadelphia Boys Choir & Chorale. With help and preparation from a well-known musician in the area, I auditioned and got in. That’s when I was bitten by the opera bug. As teenager, I attended a music magnet school where I received formal training in music theory. Upon graduation, my parents encouraged me to go to college for something other than music. Unfortunately, I took this advice to heart. After three years, I dropped out of college and started working for Prudential Financial. I worked there for close to 10 years before being laid off. That’s when I knew I had to sing. I had to start putting myself out there more, and going to more auditions. Thankfully, during those years, I was able to pay for all my lessons and coaching sessions out-of-pocket. Most of my knowledge of being an opera singer was attained through reading Opera News, studying great singers of the past and present, attending lectures/masterclasses, and religiously going to concerts and operas. If I didn’t have the collegiate background, I had to figure out a way to attain the knowledge needed to have lasting career. In 2014, I was hired as a chorister at Lyric Opera of Chicago for their production of Porgy and Bess. I was so excited; I didn’t even care that I wasn’t singing a role. I was just thankful to be part of the production. To my surprise, I was ultimately offered the opportunity to cover for the role of Nelson. I got to go on twice during the run, including for the radio broadcast. When you're humble and grateful, the sky is the limit."

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Judith Skinner

“I enjoy Porgy and Bess so much, not just for the beautiful music, but for the sense of community it brings with it. This is truly an ensemble piece. To share the stage with so many talented people of color from various backgrounds and parts of the world coming together for the common goal of bringing this amazing work to life ... what more can one ask for? In a country today that is often at odds with race, all of that is put aside once we take that stage. For those few short hours, we are able to transport, not only ourselves, but our audience. We are able to show our talent to its full potential. For those few short hours, we are not just seen as black, but as true artists: well-trained, and educated in some of the most prestigious universities in the world. We are seen as human beings."

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Kevin Short

Porgy and Bess is a source of pride. It's a source of stereotypes. It means so many different things to different people. What does this opera mean to you?
"Porgy and Bess represents all the things you've referenced, as do many great opera. Something that makes Porgy different—at least for American, English-speaking audiences—is that the story is more direct. Unlike La traviata or Carmen, Porgy and Bess does not have the foreign languages or faraway time period to soften the 'moral shortcomings' of its characters. Yes, some people say it shows negative characteristics of Black folks. Well, I think if you look at any community, there will be characters who represent both negative and positive aspects of that group. In Porgy, you have Jake and Clara [sung by Brandie Inez Sutton and Derrick Parker]: the upstanding couple; a husband and wife dreaming of sending their son to college. Porgy, my character, is a strong-minded, salt-of-the-Earth, faithful man. And the other people of Catfish Row, such as Serena, Robbins, Mingo, Annie, Maria, Daddy Peter, Jim, Nelson, etc. are all quite admirable, hardworking people. Bess has redeemable qualities, and is one of the more sympathetic characters in my opinion. In this opera, you see her try—she just comes up woefully short because she's struggling with addiction. Sportin' Life and Crown are the only people in Catfish Row who are truly on the negative side of the ledger. But even Crown selflessly risks his life; he runs out into the hurricane and tries to save Clara. Ultimately, for me, Porgy and Bess is the great American opera. It offers a slice of life from a certain time, a certain place, and of a certain community of Black folks. And though these folks may have little education or exposure outside of their world, I see dignity and strength in their simple, uncomplicated lives. Ultimately, Porgy and Bess is one of my top 5 most loved operas."

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Linda Callecod

Proudest moment as a singer?
"I have so many proud moments as a singer, primarily because I choose to celebrate every step forward, every opportunity that presents itself, and every obstacle I’ve overcome. Right up at the top, however, is the letter I received inviting me to participate as a chorister in Porgy and Bess. I was so nervous during the audition; it had been such a long time since I’d last performed, that I didn’t think I’d even be considered. It was a dream come true. Significant. Noteworthy. Awesomely wonderful! My life as a singer began in Detroit (Motown), where I grew up. My family always sang. We sang at family gatherings, at church, on road trips – anytime we were together. Singing was as natural as walking and talking for me, and today, I am inspired to sing by beauty. When I see a brilliant sunset or sunrise, for example, I hear music in my head; with it, I hear myself singing – sometimes aloud, sometimes inside. The rhythm of the ocean crashing against rocks or caressing a shoreline is music. I am awed and amazed by the beauty of God’s handiwork and the splendor of His creation. This is my inspiration for song and for singing!"

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Marlette Buchanan

Why is it important to see People of Color onstage in opera?
"Representation, authenticity, multiple ethnicities and races exist in society, so why not on stage?! I am looking forward to performing in Porgy and Bess because of the lush harmonies of Gershwin and getting to perform in a piece that presents a small portion of Black culture."

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Mary Elizabeth Williams

"I have always felt, in every work I sing, that communicating emotion is my primary job as a performer. I will be completely honest that, most of the time, I actually cry real tears when I sing "My Man's Gone Now," because the music carries me to place of legitimate grief. I have always been able to sing and cry at the same time, thank heaven; with all the sad roles I sing, I end up crying onstage quite a bit! I have never lost a spouse, but I have many emotional memories from my life that I draw on to sing the role of Serena: for example, the waves of physical pain that would come over me in the months following my father's death. I remember the extreme juxtaposition of emotion; I could laugh at a happy memory of him and 30 seconds later be dissolved in tears. I remember being angry he was gone. I remember feeling a rush of gratefulness that he had lived such a good life. I try to use these experiences as an emotional blueprint, because I think grief is a universal and animal experience to which we all can relate."

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Samantha O'Brochta

How did you become a singer?
"I've been opening my mouth to sing ever since I was a child. My school did a musical every year, and it was my favorite time. The year after the made-for-TV 'Cinderella' came out starring Brandy and Whitney Houston, my school decided to put up the show. I wanted so badly to be the Fairy Godmother. Up until then, I had only been in the chorus; I was very shy and didn't like to be out front with the focus on me. But that role that I had seen Whitney Houston perform was speaking to me. I told my teacher that I could do it. Once it was established that I had some pipes, it was clear to me that I needed to be singing as often as possible. Music became a very important part of my youth, and I did as many musicals in my hometown as I could. I also started taking opera voice lessons in high school. All of this led to me auditioning for Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess in 2011, and creating a career as a performer. Works that star People of Color, such as that 'Cinderella' or Porgy and Bess, provide important moments of representation. All young people need to be able to see themselves onstage and in the media. Having a role model can make or break a person's drive to pursue their dream. When there's a lack of diversity, it can feel like there's no place for you. Today, art forms like opera or theater now include artists who, at one time, could have been denied opportunities based on skin color. I think the diversity of stories being told onstage is so exciting."

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Michael Wansley: Porgy and Bess Chorister

Michael A Wansley (a.k.a. Wanz), a Grammy-winning musical artist and graduate of Central Washington University's music program returns to Seattle Opera in the chorus of Porgy and Bess!

Watch: Wanz leads Porgy Choristers in singing an Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" >  Watch: King5 TV Wanz Segment >


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