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Stage Preview: Operatic appeal of 'Porgy' endures

Thursday, April 12, 2001

By Jane Vranish, Post-Gazette Dance and Music Critic

When George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" made its New York debut in 1933, it ran for 124 performances and inspired an ongoing debate over its musical merits. Was it musical comedy or opera?

 
 
"Porgy and Bess"

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 8 tonight and tomorrow; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $25-$49.50. 412-392-4900.

   
 

Today the debate has been settled. It has become a cottage industry, touring the world for years and thrilling audiences with its masterful operatic strokes. Today it arrives in Pittsburgh at Heinz Hall.

But the road back to a "Porgy" as Gershwin conceived it, and its unprecedented popularity, was a long one, involving detours and winding, uphill grades.

The premiere included a number of cuts to trim the opera down to Broadway length. Perhaps songs like "Summertime" and "Ain't Necessarily So" kept "Porgy" in the minds and hearts of music lovers. But a 1940s revival, featuring further cuts, produced a two-act version with spoken dialogue.

During the '50s and '60s and the struggle for equal rights, "Porgy and Bess" was rarely performed, except for a notable touring production to Russia. Many blacks were offended by Gershwin's portrayal of their race.

It wasn't until 1976 that Lorin Maazel made the first uncut recording, commenting that "Gershwin's compassion for individuals is Verdian, his comprehension of them, Mozartean. His grasp of the folk-spirit is as firm and subtle as Mussorgsky's, his melodic inventiveness rivals Bellini's...."

Houston Opera's subsequent production confirmed its return to greatness. Peter Klein, the producer of this touring production of "Porgy and Bess," remembers it well and went to Europe with the Houston production.

So when a colleague approached him in 1991 to bring "Porgy and Bess" to South America, he took the suggestion seriously and approached a Gershwin agent. Coincidentally, Pittsburgh's Civic Light Opera was preparing a production under Charlie Gray, so Klein came to town to see it.

Impressed, he set the wheels in motion. "This American classic had never toured," he says. "And that's what I do for a living." So Klein met with three Gershwin heirs to discuss the possibility.

"I did the research and approached 25 or 30 theaters," he recalls. "They were unanimously enthusiastic. You never get that response -- usually it runs about 25 or 30 percent. The writing was on the wall."

The popularity of "Porgy and Bess" has never stopped, and it has subsequently toured the world continuously for nine years. In fact, Klein is optimistic that this production will sell its millionth ticket here in Pittsburgh.

He offers two reasons for its staying power: "First of all, the music is so beautiful, so moving, so rich. And the story really keeps you on the edge of your seat. It is filled with love, hate and drug abuse, but good prevails. I think the spiritual power of Porgy carries the play forward."

"Secondly, it's a good production with good singers," he continues. "The set has open planks and open surfaces with five or six levels. And the sound is exceptional because specialized microphones from Japan are built inside the set on the floor."

Some of the cast members actually have forged their careers with the company and worked their way up from the ensemble. Mark Anthony Hall is such an example and now shares the role of Porgy.

This American classic played well in Israel, Australia and Japan (with super titles). It appealed to enough people to have averaged 92 percent overall attendance (6 percent of the population of Alaska saw it in Anchorage).

"It does have legs," Klein remarks. "We have plans for the next 25 years. I can't tell you what will happen after that."



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