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Performance Sun Oct 17 2010

Porgy and Bess: The "Great American Opera"

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South Shore Opera Company of Chicago in Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess, a story set in rural South Carolina in the early 1900s, has been described by many as perhaps the composer's greatest work. Despite being mired in controversy (many felt it depicted African-Americans in an unfavorable light), the opera still claims legendary status in the American cultural landscape. Here, Cornelius Johnson, Music Director for the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago and Music Instructor at Olive Harvey College, talks about the musical impact of the opera and its importance in American arts and culture.

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess is deemed by many as the "Great American Opera"--why do you think this work has made such an impact on our culture?

For one, it is one of the only pieces of its time that allowed African-American artists the opportunity to perform. There have been debates about whether it showed positive images; however, it was so much more positive than other things were during that time. Musically speaking though, the music in it is really beautiful and has memorable melodies that people have held on to.

Although over 70 years old, this opera deals with social issues such as poverty, substance abuse and racism, which are of course, still prevalent today. Did that have an impact on why you became involved in this project?

I don't know if I thought about it in that regard; however, with the South Shore Opera Company of Chicago, we were endeavoring to do a piece we felt people could identify with. It's also a piece that can help bring generations together.

How so?

For example, on "American Idol," Fantasia sang [Gershwin's] "Summertime." Some of the younger folks didn't know that it came from Porgy and Bess, but the older folks knew that. Good music lasts. That's why I love it.

In this production, you double as "Sportin' Life," one of the main characters, and you also serve as the music director. Describe the vision you had for both roles.

Well, we are only doing a concert version--not the full, theatrical version with a set, props, and things like that. So with my approach, the emotion of the story will still be there--it'll just be a more intimate setting with a chorus and singers portraying the meaning and feel of the music. There will be some theatrical presence, but we'll focus more on the music.

Some might say it is challenging to bring opera to an urban audience, despite a story like Porgy and Bess--one that is for and about people of color--do you agree with that?

I think it's the genre of opera and classical music, period. I teach music appreciation in an urban setting and sometimes, I face the concept that opera is not for black people or for folks from a certain socioeconomic status. Many of my students have become more interested though, and after they take my course, they tell me they now listen to opera or might even turn on Channel 11 and catch a performance.

So it's all about finding a way to introduce it.

Yes, and exposure is a factor, too. But I say opera is for anybody who enjoys it. It's not as hard as it seems, though. You have to introduce it in different ways. You may not be able to grab them based solely on the music, but you might be able to grab them in other ways.

Describe your vision musically--will it be traditionally Gershwin? Will it have a modern twist?

The performance will be a fairly traditional and classic concert because we are doing a specific arrangement. The singers themselves will play around with the melodies a bit, but there won't be like a rap inserted or anything. And we are excited to have Chicago's Keith Hampton Singers with us. They will provide the ensemble portion of the show.

Tell us a little about the cast.

Everybody is from Chicago. We are proud that these singers have grown up here, attended Chicago Public Schools and things like that. There is a rich Chicago connection here.

What do you hope the audience takes away from the performance?

I hope they enjoy the experience--the music is so beautiful. And for the children who may attend, I hope it inspires something.

Inspiration is always a good thing.

Yes, it is. Porgy and Bess is a wonderful American musical work that is significant and has launched the careers of many African-American artists. It's a great American piece that should be respected and seen for what it really is.

Porgy and Bess will run Friday, Oct. 29 at the South Shore Cultural Center, 7059 S. South Shore Dr. Show time is 7pm; tickets are $25 and can be purchased online. Contact 773-684-8514 for more information.

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Opera saz / October 18, 2010 9:44 AM

Sounds like an inspired contemporary production. Hope it can make its way over to UK shores.

Rebecca Hyland / October 18, 2010 1:55 PM

I love Porgy and Bess, it's the sort of thing my dad listened to. I saw a full production at Arie Crown Theater as a kid.

LaShawn Williams / November 1, 2010 7:13 PM

Wow! Joelle Lamarre, one of the members of this production, just sang The National Anthem at the Bulls' home opener--niiiice!

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