Weekly Wire
Metro Pulse First Time for Everything

By Adrienne Martini

APRIL 19, 1999:  Every day, amidst bellowing street preachers, busy TVA drones, and harried young parents, Market Square in downtown Knoxville is also adrift with some other, mostly invisible people. There's a bearded, tanned man, clothed in everything he owns, who leans up against the solid brick buildings and talks to them. An older woman grinds her gums as her wispy hair dances and her skirts flap in the wind. A young white guy looking clean and collegiate—sane, really—curses and makes obscene gestures at passers-by, his wild eyes betraying his inner demons.

Perhaps someday, some great local writer will install him- or herself on a Market Square park bench and try to capture the wild color of this neighborhood's denizens. Or, perhaps not. It's been done before, not in Knoxville but in Charleston, another small Southern city whose own flamboyant characters resonate through not only the South but the entire world every time Porgy and Bess is performed. Porgy, which started from novelist DuBose Heyward's humble musings about a Charleston street beggar, has become the quintessential American opera, with a rich history and unique blend of jazz and classical forms.

But this George and Ira Gershwin creation is not without its controversies, both logistical and sociopolitical. Technically, the opera requires trained African American singers, an orchestra, and a couple of choirs. Oh, and a stage big enough to hold over 200 people and a theater proper big enough to house thousands.

Beyond these considerations, there is also an ever-present racial uneasiness that lurks beneath the surface of this opera. All of the songs are written in the low country Gullah dialect, which, while historically accurate, makes the characters sound like crude, insulting stereotypes of how whites believe African Americans should sound. Take, for example, this line of dialogue: "Crown cockeyed drunk, he can't tell dice from a watermelon..." It's hardly a line that would make it onstage in the politically correct 1990s.

The history of the show, however, makes it a slice of American culture. The opera took almost a decade to produce and had to fight public perceptions about race every step of the way. Porgy and Bess is also one of those shows that everyone feels they know, but really don't, once they are pressed for details. "Summertime" is a classic, yet more wonderful music and characters exist beyond this lovely lullaby (for a detailed synopsis of the plot, refer to the sidebar).

"It is undoubtedly one of the most dramatic operas in all of opera," gushes KSO conductor Kirk Trevor. "There are two murders, two drownings, and one baby—who gets serenaded with that great song 'Summertime' by three different women." When you push the plot aside, though, there are meatier matters lurking. More important to us, in pre-millennial Knoxville, is figuring out how much Trevor and the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, who are producing the Knoxville premiere of this opera, owe to the modern sensibilities of this community, who may (or may not) blanch at this show's bleak and somewhat insensitive portrayal of former slaves living in poverty in 1920s Charleston.

It's almost impossible to think about some of the larger racial and class issues without first looking at the development of this uniquely American work. The story of Porgy and Bess' creation alone reads like a slightly scandalous movie-of-the-week, replete with prejudice, a murder, and heart.

The saga started in Charleston, circa 1924. DuBose Heyward, a former insurance salesman turned writer, read a report about a crippled beggar named Samuel Smalls, known to hang out on King Street and for the noxious goat that pulled his cart. Smalls had just been arrested for shooting at (but missing) one Maggie Barnes. "Just think of that old wreck having enough manhood to do a thing like that," Heyward said to his sister as he clipped out the item and placed in it his wallet, where it would rest for a few months.

As it turns out, Smalls had been up on a similar charge a few months before but had been given a suspended sentence. The police were only able to apprehend Smalls after chasing him and his cart through a grimy area of town called Cabbage Row, which would transform to Catfish Row in Heyward's fertile imagination.

Charleston in the '20s was a scruffy little city that had not yet been cleaned up and gentrified. "There was about the city," writes a visitor of the time "an aura of slow and beautiful death, a mellow decay in houses and streets." With this gracefully disintegrating town as a backdrop, Smalls' seedy crime became an idea that haunted Heyward and he began writing what would eventually become the novel Porgy.

The novel, however, never would have been published had it not been for events happening 1,000 miles from Charleston. A movement was afoot—the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, bringing to whites the works of Langston Hughes and the rhythm of the blues. This new artistic energy had spilled over into the Great White Way. Broadway was king, with John and Ethel Barrymore, Fanny Brice, and Will Rogers as the king's court. People were reading Edna Ferber, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Most notable, however, was the Klan attack on black actor Paul Robeson (one of the very first African Americans allowed on-stage in New York City; roles before this had been played by whites in blackface). Robeson had the role of a black man married to a white woman in Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings and paved the way for other talents of color like Evelyn Ellis, Frank Wilson, and Percy Verwayne, who would later star in the stage version of Porgy.

Despite the fact that this section of American culture seemed primed for Heyward's tale of a black beggar who gets caught in a tangle of a loose woman's affections, the novel was still a glimpse into a world that seemed exotic and strange to the readers—which perhaps led to its rise in popularity. The New York literati yearned for a glimpse into a new, unique world. Heyward biographer Frank Durham comments that "Catfish Row, a slum courtyard almost touching the life-giving and death-dealing ocean, is a microcosm, a Negro world only rarely invaded by the white man, and its cast of characters, dominated by the 'secret law,' emerge as a vivid collection of individuals."

This vivid collection would soon be brought to the stage by the Theatre Guild, the premiere production company of the time. The Guild's work was legendary and the great George Bernard Shaw was the cornerstone of their seasons, rounded out by works from Strindberg, A.A. Milne, and Ferenc Molnár. Unfortunately, the Guild was developing a reputation for only producing European playwrights and shunning the scripts of American hopefuls, which was really not far from the truth.

That is until Heyward sent in the dramatization of his Porgy, a script treatment that had actually been written in secret by Heyward's wife Dorothy. The Guild decided to slate it into their 1926-27 season and the show, with a largely black cast, ultimately made the career of director Rouben Mamoulian (who was often referred to as "the mad Armenian"). Initially, though, it opened to rather lukewarm and patronizing reviews, like that of a New York Times critic who called it "ruder, franker, coarser than it is between book covers," which was chalked up to the actors whose race "expressed those qualities of human nature."

The Heywards, after this review, were called in to work on revisions, but by the time they had finished three days later, the show was selling out, standing room only on every night. James Weldon Johns, a leader in the NAACP, praised the show: "In Porgy, the Negro removed all doubts as to his ability to do acting that requires thoughtful interpretation and intelligent skill. [The play] loomed high above every Negro drama that had ever been produced...it carried conviction through its sincere simplicity." On his recommendation, people came in from Harlem in order to support and celebrate Porgy, which ultimately ran for 367 performances.

The splash that Porgy made captured the attention of George Gershwin, who by this point had already made quite a name for himself as a composer and all-around man-about-town. His Rhapsody in Blue had taken the country by storm and his musicals, like An American in Paris and Oh, Kay!, were all the rage on the boards. He had already attempted a musical that fused popular music and jazz called Blue Monday, which failed miserably. One night, Gershwin decided to read himself to sleep with Heyward's book and, instead, "read himself wide awake" and wrote to Heyward at 4 a.m., in the hopes that they could collaborate on a musical version.

But it wasn't that easy. Despite continued talks with Gershwin about their collaboration, the Great Depression intruded, leaving all of the country scrambling for work. Heyward, in need of cash to support his growing family, sold the rights to Al Jolson, who planned to star in a musical comedy version of Porgy—in blackface, which appalled the Heywards, but they had little choice.

Gershwin, however, was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in 1930 to produce a uniquely American grand opera. His choice was Porgy, but he knew that it would never fly, given that the Met was strictly segregated and would never allow African Americans on-stage. For three years he searched for another story that suited him, but he kept returning to Catfish Row. In 1933, Gershwin and Heyward announced that they would produce a "folk opera" based on the book on Broadway—not the Met—with an all-black cast.

Finally, after years of work by Heyward and Gershwin (with brother Ira along, polishing up the material) and several research trips to Charleston, Porgy and Bess opened at the Alvin Theater, again to mixed reviews. Despite some of the problems with the libretto, like the recitatives being dull and inconstant (they were eventually changed into passages of spoken dialogue, calling into question the show's status as a traditional opera), the opera still broke new ground and fused together two distinct forms of music.

"Because Porgy and Bess deals with Negro Life in America," Gershwin said, "it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in the opera, and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing, and the irrepressible high spirits of the race. If doing this, I have created a new form, which combines opera with theater, this new form has come quite naturally out of the material."

Little did Gershwin know how popular his work would become; he died in 1938 of a brain tumor, long before his work reached the lofty status it would soon have. Porgy and Bess would travel around the world, starting at the Danish Royal Opera in '43 and visiting Milan's prestigious La Scala in '55. Along the way, it would pick up such notables as Leontyne Price, William Warfield (who almost went lame during the run), Cab Calloway, Maya Angelou, Robert Guillaume, Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., and Pearl Bailey.

Still, it would be 10 years before the word "nigger" was removed from the libretto, 40 before it would play in its birthplace of Charleston, and 50 before it would grace the stage of the Met. In the '50s it fell out of favor, given its seemingly stereotypical views of Gullah blacks and its use of the regional dialect. But it came roaring back after a 1976 production by the Houston Grand Opera and has been on a stage somewhere ever since.

Soon, it will be Knoxville's turn to have this great slice of America's history on its own stage, produced by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Kirk Trevor—a kinesthetic conductor whose 10 years with the symphony have been marked with a move away from the traditional symphonic work by the "3Bs" (Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach) to more modern conductors, like Gershwin. The production of this concert version (meaning that there will be no costumes or sets and only light movement by the singers) has been an enormous undertaking, which, in Trevor's opinion, has been well worth the effort.

"The main reason I wanted to do Porgy," he says "is that I love the opera more than anything else. But this season is Gershwin's 100th anniversary season [based on Gershwin's birthday last summer] and the anniversary gave me a good reason to take a much more careful look at the feasibility of actually doing it. It is an enormous undertaking and takes a lot of logistical planning, since so many people are in the opera."

Trevor isn't kidding. Over 200 people will be on the Civic Auditorium's stage: 14 soloists, three different African American choirs, the orchestra, and Trevor himself. And the company has only one week to put the whole thing together, opposed to the traditional three weeks that it takes to mount a traditional, fully-staged production of the opera.

Fortunately, both for logistics and Knoxvillians' ears, the KSO acquired a Porgy and a Bess who are Met stars and intimately familiar with the piece. Terry Cook will play Porgy and Priscilla Baskerville, whose rich voice you could almost float on, will play Bess. She's been down Bess' block before.

"Both concert and production," says Baskerville, "it seems like I've sung Bess a couple of hundred times. But it's probably only a hundred or so," she adds with a laugh. "Seems like a lot, though."

'The problems of getting this concert on-stage have been enormous," says Trevor. "First was getting a large black chorus from three different states together, finding hotel rooms for everybody, and cutting down the opera from its unwieldy and generally unnecessary four-hour length to a manageable two-and-a-half—without losing any story line. Physically putting the cuts in the orchestra material took my staff, including my daughter when she was here two weeks ago, about 60 hours of work. Then, we had to build an orchestra and chorus staging that would allow room for entrances and some movement and interaction between the 14 different characters in the opera—otherwise, without costumes, the audience forgets who is who."

The biggest challenge, perhaps, is one that your average audience member would never consider. KSO had to acquire the rights to do Porgy and Bess, which are still owned by the Gershwin estate—who are very particular about who does what with their intellectual property.

"They have attorneys and accountants and all these various different people that you have to ask every little question of," says Angela Shockley, KSO's general manager and person in charge of budgeting and the bottom line. "We got this contract many, many months ago and knew in advance the licensing fees and royalty payments. Some of these are based on your sales figures; there's quite a complicated formula. Of course, you want to minimize and they want to maximize what you're going to pay them in order to do this.

"We budgeted with all of this in mind. But at the same time, some of what might be larger expenses on another big production, like lighting and sound and those sorts of things, are not so huge here. The expenses we've gone over on would be basically importing the choirs.

"I imagine," she adds in a voice that sounds oddly like Susan Sarandon's, "that we're going to end up a little over budget, but we've also gone back and reprojected our sales numbers with some forecasting information and based on what sales are doing right now. I think that we're going to come out really good on it. It's a once in a lifetime thing and people will come to see it for that reason. And it's the first time ever in Knoxville."

The opera itself seems to be a perfect fit for this town, given the similarities in setting, and it is a surprise that it has not been performed here before 1999, over 60 years after its birth. Perhaps Knoxville audiences weren't ready for it before now and it has taken the growth of KSO since Trevor's arrival to prepare them. In his 10 years, the budget has increased from $500,000 to over $3 million. And the KSO has been constantly challenging its audiences, adding performances like that by harmonica virtuoso Robert Bonfiglio, while simultaneously growing and developing its base with the Pops series, which has included well-known favorites like Ray Charles and Rosemary Clooney.

But even though there may now be enough people in town to support such a large production, are they ready for one that has such a complex, somewhat controversial history? Porgy and Bess' potential to offend African American audience members is great, given its stereotypical portrayal of 1920s black life (in fact, a reference to the characters eating watermelon was not removed until Pearl Bailey asked to take it out of the film version in 1959). There is also the potential that prejudice will color the way a white audience will view the work, particularly in a year that saw the horrific, racially-motivated dragging death of a black man in Texas.

"Will Porgy raise eyebrows on the racial issue?" Trevor queries. "I certainly don't expect it to. I hope that all of Knoxville will embrace it as a masterpiece of American music. Some may have trouble with it being an opera about African-American life, written by a non-African American—but Puccini wrote an opera about Chinese life in Turnadot, and about Japanese-American relations in Madame Butterfly and Puccini was an Italian. I think we must just admire the skill with which Gershwin has fused these various musical elements together.

"I hope that all of Knoxville will come together and celebrate a great American legend, both the man Gershwin and his greatest creation, Porgy and Bess."

Despite Trevor's cheerleading, Baskerville, who has traveled all over the globe with Gershwin's creation, responds a bit more guardedly to the question of audiences and their response to the work.

"People's hearts don't change quickly," Baskerville says. "Times have changed—we have performed in the South now and we've done it in areas where they would not have allowed it, like the Met. I like to think that things have really, really changed. But there are a lot of things in the opera that, for the time it was originally written, the vernacular was such that we expected it."

As Baskerville continues, she slows and seems to pick her words with great care. "But over the years, it's become like 'it's not politically correct to say this or that or the other.' I think we're trying not only to not offend the African American performers, but also not to entertain the thoughts of some of the people in the audience.

"You have to be aware that at the time it was written, we were in a different place—everybody was in a different place. I like to think we've grown away from that, but I'm sure things are going to still be controversial to people whose hearts have not changed. I'm not ashamed of it at all. It's just the way times were."


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