Porgy and Bess began as a novel by DuBose Heyward that depicted life in Charleston’s fictional Catfish Row. The life of hard work, triumph and folly in the cotton fields and on the shrimping boats was amazingly brought to life by George and Ira Gershwin, and the returning production at Lyric Opera of Chicago does not disappoint.
The “American folk opera” received a warm welcome upon its debut on the stage at the Lyric where Jermaine Smith (Tenor), Eric Owens (Bass-Baritone), Adina Aaron (Soprano) and Eric Green (Baritone) took on the iconic roles of Sportin’ Life, Porgy, Bess and Crown respectively. It is hard to believe that their classically trained predecessors would have received anything but a warm welcome upon the plays debut in NYC in 1938. Yet it wasn’t until 1976 that this seminal work was accepted into the operatic lexicon as the masterpiece we recognize it to be today.
The Lyric production boasts sets that transport us to South Carolina’s Gullah country where the book’s author was raised. The sets are glorious even in their sepia decrepitude, only to be brought to life when the exotic and erotic Bess steps on stage with her red hair and vivid orange dress. The songs are seminal and forever etched in our memory. Among them “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing”, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin, and “Bess You is My Woman Now”.
The play opens with Clara (Soprano Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi) singing the memorable “Summertime”. In this scene we are first introduced to Sportin’ Life, a role now synonymous with Smith, who has performed it in more than 150 productions in theaters around the world including in Germany, France, Spain, Germany, Oslo, japan, Norway and Austria. Says Smith of the role, “How can you not like getting the chance to play the bad boy, yet I don’t play him as one dimensional. He’s a bad guy but he’s also a charmer.”
The St. Louis native says he had lots of role models to pull from in his portrayal of Sportin’ Life. “I grew up around pimps and drug dealers, many of them my family members, Smith says. My cousins were some of the funniest people you’d ever want to meet, yet they were totally transformed when they hit the streets at night.” Smith credits his Mom with making sure he was the first in his family to graduate and he tells a wonderful story of how he came to embrace opera despite not growing up as a singer.
“I was at school playing around in the halls making fun of the way opera singers sing by imitating them, he says. One of my teachers heard me and told me I should join the Artist-in-Training (AIT) program offered by the Opera Theater of St. Louis”. That was almost 25 years ago and the once computer science and math major has been riding the wave of operatic success ever since, counting among his first vocal coaches the world- renowned Denise Graves.
Asked if the seminal work continues to have relevance today, Smith is unequivocal in his belief that it does. One of the pivotal scenes in Porgy and Bess is the hurricane that claims the life of key characters Clara and Jake. Smith says performing the piece post Katrina he came to understand how nature can destroy lives and more fully understood how people’s emotions are tied to natural disasters.
And in 2008, when Barack Obama was elected President of the United States it brought home for him the meaning of hope. “No matter what’s going on your life you can be the underdog and still achieve,” Smith reflects. Porgy changed when Bess came to live with him and likewise he brought out something in Bess because she had someone who loved her as a person. That is the kind of transformation hope can engender.”
Despite international success Smith has had his own tragedies to overcome. His father was incarcerated for most of his life and it was not until he was released about seven years ago that they had even spoken. Smith relates that his father called him to tell him how proud he was of him after finding out about his success on line. “ He said he could die knowing that I was doing well,” Smith relates. Smith learned his father’s backstory and that he was rightfully in prison for murder, but he explained to him it happened because he was avenging the death of a friend. The two made plans to reconnect, but before the meeting his father succumbed to street violence at home in St. Louis. “I was more than upset, says Smith, but I found solace in knowing that my father knew I’d done well in my life.”
Smith says of his character Sportin’ Life, “The devil doesn’t come with fire and brimstone, he comes as sweet as can be, otherwise he’d never claim any souls or get anyone to sign on the dotted line.” These are hard won lessons for Smith, the father of an 11 and 13 year old, that have meaning much beyond the stage.
Sportin’ Life appears to have the last laugh in the production when he spirits Bess away to New York after many disastrous twists and turns for her and her beloved Porgy, yet I can’t help thinking a sequel is in order. Don’t we all want to see if Porgy can actually best the slick, street hustler to win back his beloved? After 79 years we can hope can’t we?
Porgy and Bess plays through December 20. Visit http://www.lyricopera.org/#sthash.hdqZAtme.dpuf for details.
Photos by Todd Rosenberg
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