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Singing Praises 

Longtime opera vocalists welcome a landmark production of Porgy and Bess to New Orleans.

Occasionally, mezzo-soprano Shirley Stewart wonders whether she's been dreaming the whole thing. "I still have to pinch myself that the New Orleans Opera Association is doing Porgy and Bess," says Stewart, standing in her music classroom at Albert Wicker Elementary School, located near the intersection of Bienville and Galvez streets.

Yet this opera -- the first-ever locally produced version of Porgy and Bess -- is a sure thing. Rehearsals began in August for Stewart and the 60 other members of the chorus. The New Orleans Opera Association slated George Gershwin's great American opera -- with its now-famous numbers "I Got Plenty of Nuttin'," "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "Bess, You is My Woman Now" -- to close out its 2001-2002 season.

"The last time Porgy and Bess was done in New Orleans was 18 years ago at the Saenger Theatre, and it was a tour show," says Robert Lyall, general director of the New Orleans Opera Association. "In this case, we are producing it. We rented the sets, I cast the production, and we're using our chorus."

The opera, based on DuBose Heyward's 1925 novel Porgy, portrays the people of Catfish Row, a working-class black community in Charleston, S.C. Gershwin, after spending much time in that part of the country, felt that the voices of black singers best matched the vocal colors he had in mind for this opera. Today, the composer's estate continues to mandate Gershwin's original wishes that every production of Porgy and Bess must have an all-black chorus and cast, with the exception of a detective and a few other designated roles.

Some chorus members, like bass Joshua J. Walker, have been anticipating this production for a long time. Walker, standing across town from Stewart in his Neighborhood Gallery on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, says that a New Orleans production of Porgy and Bess is something that he's waited on ever since he first joined the opera company 16 years ago. "This is a special piece," Walker explains, "because Gershwin wrote it particularly for African Americans and he made the stipulation that it is to be performed by African Americans."

Tenor and Charity Hospital physician Kirby Green, who plays Peter the Honey Man in the New Orleans production, echoes his colleagues' sentiments. "Many, many of us are relieved to see that the opera company is showing this piece," says Green. For decades, he notes, Porgy and Bess wasn't widely staged in the United States because "people here didn't speak the words classical music and African Americans in the same breath."

Shirley Stewart was only in fourth or fifth grade when she accidentally came across the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on her family's radio dial. "I didn't know what it was," she says now, "but it was so pretty."

She fell in love with the music and soon had her ears glued to the radio every Saturday at noon, when Texaco would once again present the Met's live broadcast. There weren't many other 10-year-old opera fans in the St. Bernard housing project, she says, but there were student tickets available through New Orleans schools and so one day she nabbed a ticket for Puccini's Turandot.

That day, her dad dropped her off and she virtually ran into the theater, thrilled to be there. "I can still remember," she says, "when the stage opened -- that spectacular color and sound." She was spellbound, she says, and so she went home that night and talked and talked about the opera. Finally, she says, her dad had heard enough. "I remember his exact words," she says. "He said, 'Give that girl something to go to sleep.'"

She tells this story in the midst of her Wicker school classroom. It's filled with colorful art and posters and finished examples from her acclaimed jazz-quilting project, which all at one time hones math skills, illustrates jazz rhythms and repeated patterns, and teaches about the role of quilts as recorded history and as integral signs and symbols within the Underground Railroad.

Stewart came to this classroom and to SUNO, where she also teaches, via a degree in elementary education from Xavier University. In 1974, after graduating from Xavier -- where she also studied voice -- she got her first teaching job and signed her first official contract with New Orleans Opera. At the time, she was one of two or three blacks in the opera company.

Today, about one-quarter of the New Orleans Opera chorus is black. For this production, those performers will be joined by former members of the Moses Hogan Chorale, professional singers from all over the region, and local teachers, faculty members and students from Xavier, Dillard and Loyola universities. Louisiana native Chris Nance will conduct the piece.

As with any New Orleans Opera production, the principals are brought in from out of town, in this case from New York, where Alvy Powell (Porgy), Marquita Lister (Bess) and others just finished starring in a New York City Opera production of Porgy and Bess.

Stewart marvels at how big this show is -- "It's like Cecil B. DeMille or something," she quips. Then she sighs. It's obvious that Stewart still finds opera as intoxicating as she did nearly 40 years, when she first turned that dial and heard the Met coming over her parents' radio. "I've never lost that feeling," says Stewart. "There were times at the New Orleans Opera when I felt like a spot in the milk, but I didn't lose the drive."

Stewart is a nonstop evangelist for the opera. She has recruited a number of her students to play supernumeraries (or "supers," non-speaking walk-on parts). Several years ago, she enlisted several of her nieces and nephews to be part of the chorus in a production of Carmen. At one point, she even persuaded two of her brothers to be supers -- Egyptian guards -- in Aida. They were game for the idea but became less enthusiastic when they found out that their costumes were, as she describes with a chuckle, "basically a collar and a diaper."

As she speaks, Stewart sings a few bars of this and a few lines of that. "Give me Puccini, give me Verdi, give me Gershwin," she says. And Porgy and Bess? It falls into a separate category altogether.

"Gershwin kinda just outdid himself on this one," says Stewart. "And for me, having done every major work -- from Puccini to Wagner and back -- it's exciting to sing something that not only is part of America but also part of my history. This is the one time that the stage director won't have to tell me how to act."

Dr. Kirby Green has lived in New Orleans since 1971, but he grew up hearing classical music in his home in Baton Rouge. There were other singers in his family, he says, most notably his aunt, Lenora Lafayette, who was a very famous lyric dramatic soprano.

Like other classically trained singers of her era, Lafayette -- after graduating from Juilliard and winning both the Rosenwald Prize and a Fulbright scholarship -- traveled overseas to make a career there. "It was only in Europe that she could practice classical music," says Green. "That was unheard of back here in the United States."

Lafayette left for Europe when she was 25 and won wide acclaim during the 1950s for productions like Puccini's Madama Butterfly, a big success at Covent Garden, home of London's Royal Opera. Lafayette made history, says her nephew. "She sang in some of the best houses in Europe, and in many of them she was one of the first African Americans to set foot in the door."

The color barrier at the Metropolitan Opera in New York wasn't broken until 1955, when the great Marian Anderson sang in Un Ballo in Maschera there. By the mid-1960s in New Orleans, black singers were beginning to be part of the chorus and were singing a few supporting roles.

But no black vocalist would sing a major role at the New Orleans Opera until 1976. In November of that year, soprano Annabelle Bernard, who had grown up on Gravier Street, was brought in from West Germany to star in a local production of Giordano's Andrea Chenier.

In the 1950s, Bernard had told a Stars and Stripes reporter why she had no plans to leave Berlin. "I would eventually like to return to the States," she admitted, "but there's so little opportunity there if you want to sing opera. And if it means staying in Europe to sing -- I stay."

Bernard spent her childhood at 2120 Gravier St. and first performed publicly at the Fourth Baptist Church, Fisk Elementary, McDonough 35, and Xavier University. Under the strict tutelage of Xavier music-department head Sister Mary Elise Sisson, Bernard won a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music, where she received her master's degree in 1956.

Bernard then headed to Europe to study, and within a few years was asked to join Deutsche Oper Berlin -- the Berlin Opera. She made her debut there as Aida, a role she had first sung at Xavier and would, at one point, end up singing 32 times during one season.

For the next 40 years, Bernard remained in Berlin and sang with Deutsche Oper. In 1970, she even received the title Kammersangerin, a West German honor awarded to few singers.

Bernard's fame did not go unnoticed in the United States. In 1962, Jet magazine put her on the cover, hailing her as the "newest Negro opera star." In 1976, after the New Orleans Opera brought in Bernard to sing the role of Maddelena in Andrea Chenier, Xavier awarded her an honorary doctorate. And several years later, after she had made an appearance at Carnegie Hall, the New York Post wrote, "[Bernard] has a creamy beautiful voice, easily produced and like an angel's ... why she has not sung here is mind-boggling."

To Bernard, the reasons seemed clear. When asked why didn't return to the United States, now that she had achieved stardom in Germany, she once answered: "I didn't want to lose what I had; I didn't want to end up working at Woolworth's."

Two years ago, Bernard retired from the Berlin Opera and returned home to New Orleans. She donated her papers to the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University and now volunteers her time at Xavier, teaching her students music, of course, but also professionalism, discipline, and optimism. "Sometimes," she explained in a recent interview, "sometimes you have a terrible experience of racism. [But if] you just walk half a block further, there are people willing to give their life for you."

Dr. Kirby Green says that his involvement with this production goes beyond the music. "Because of Porgy and Bess," he says, "I am more aware that there are personal human stories behind everyone who comes through this [Charity Hospital] emergency room. And that in spite of it all -- the drugs, the violence, and the gambling -- these are still people who care about each other and people who have a deep-seated religious belief."

Porgy and Bess was not always considered a positive influence. During the years following its 1935 New York debut, the opera was seen as a work that did nothing but perpetuate stereotypes.

Green explains: "The characters in Porgy and Bess were not looked at in the African-American community as good roles for black singers because of all the violence and the drugs and the gambling. It again cast us in a very unfavorable light."

Here was a work that featured two murders, a sexually unrestrained and drug-addicted heroine (Bess), a drug dealer-hustler (Sportin' Life), and a crippled black man (Porgy) who must spend the entire show crawling on his knees. Plus, the dialogue and lyrics are written in the Gullah dialect, which results in lines like "Dere's a boat to New York to-morruh an' I'm goin'." Duke Ellington, after seeing the production, had said that it was time to put an end to Gershwin's "lamp black Negroisms."

Yet, says New Orleans Opera's Robert Lyall, Gershwin's themes are firmly in the opera tradition. "It's no different in many respects than a work like Cavalleria Rusticana, which we also hold up as one of the greatest verismo operas, 'verismo' meaning realistic. The lives that are represented there, dirt-poor peasants living in a little Italian village, they have affairs, they have duels for revenge. Opera is often a slice of life -- a slice of low-life.

"On the other hand," adds Lyall, "one of the things in American culture that we look back on with regret is the whole issue of slavery and generations of black poverty. Yet here is an opera that uses that as subject matter."

By the late 1950s, when the Samuel Goldwyn movie version was being cast, Harry Belafonte refused to play Porgy because he found the role demeaning. The cast eventually included Sammy Davis Jr., Dorothy Dandridge, Pearl Bailey, and -- as Porgy -- Sidney Poitier, who hesitantly took the role but has always regretted it. Even three decades later, when he received a tribute from the American Film Institute, Poitier refused to include clips from the movie.

And so, from that time until the mid-1970s, the opera Porgy and Bess would gain fame and attention almost exclusively in European opera houses. That changed in 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera mounted a Tony Award-winning revival of Porgy and Bess. In 1985, 50 years after its New York debut, the show received a warm homecoming with a Metropolitan Opera production. Ironically enough, Gershwin's great American opera had played in Milan, Italy, at the world-renowned opera house La Scala, long before it had been seen on the stage of the Met.

Joshua J. Walker sees the controversy over Porgy and Bess as history. "We realize that times have changed," he says. Walker explains that, in his role as gallery owner and as a musician, he believes that artists are "history recorders." Which means, he says, that artists remind us of the past by what they put onto canvas or paper or into song.

"Our role from there," says Walker, "is to see that as art that documented the people who went before us and what they had to deal with. If we don't like something about that time, we need to do something so that it won't be repeated.

"When I see Porgy and Bess," he says, "I see a masterpiece that should go on and on." The work is timeless, he adds. "I don't see too much difference between the opera and what goes on today. We, as black folk, still are being subjected to certain things."

It's also a funny opera, says Walker. "Just like in daily life here, when some guy, you may not know him from Adam, he comes across the street cracking jokes and everybody laughs and then he goes on about his business and you go on about yours."

Walker, who moved to New Orleans nearly two decades ago, grew up in Savannah, Georgia, singing gospel -- "my family were Baptist people," he says. When he entered college, he shifted to classical and received a major in voice.

In his view, the most intriguing aspect of Porgy and Bess is the music itself. Take the song "Summertime," for instance. "When you hear 'Summertime,'" says Walker, "you're hearing a condition. It's a laid-back situation. It's not so much about being in poverty, it's a situation where it's summertime and everything is chill. That's the impression I get."

Walker says that Gershwin has skillfully laid bluesy jazz within an operatic structure. Which makes sense to him. "Look at Porgy -- with everything coming down, it seems like he could have the blues real easy. And Bess -- she's caught between Crown and Porgy -- that's a classic blues situation."

He thinks that this work demonstrates that opera and jazz are not far apart -- a perspective, he says, that seems obvious once you think about it. "Being that New Orleans had one of the first ongoing opera companies in the country and being that jazz also originated here, it seems to me like there's already a relationship there," he says. "They both tell stories; it's just how they're interpreted."

Walker also believes that Porgy and Bess, just by virtue of its existence, provides direct links to the local black community. "Because the story is something we, as black folk, can relate to. There are black folks shooting dice and gambling. We say, 'Umm, yeah I know about that.' Or we can say, 'I knew that was going to happen.' But here George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward wrote it. You think -- how can they relate? The fact that they did write it says that none of us are that far apart."

Ultimately, says Walker, as much as Porgy and Bess embraces race, it also transcends it. When it's boiled down, he says, the story is about things that every single one of us can understand: "a woman torn, a man possessed, and the whole community involved."

click to enlarge cover_story-3144.jpeg
click to enlarge Physician and opera singer Dr. Kirby Green is playing Peter the Honey Man in the local production. 'Because of Porgy and Bess,' he says, 'I am more aware that there are personal human stories behind everyone who comes through this emergency room.' - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • Physician and opera singer Dr. Kirby Green is playing Peter the Honey Man in the local production. 'Because of Porgy and Bess,' he says, 'I am more aware that there are personal human stories behind everyone who comes through this emergency room.'
click to enlarge New Orleans native Annabelle Bernard spent her entire opera career in Europe, but was featured in the United States on a 1962 Jet magazine cover. - AMISTAD RESEARCH CENTER AT TULANE UNIVERSITY
  • Amistad Research Center at Tulane University
  • New Orleans native Annabelle Bernard spent her entire opera career in Europe, but was featured in the United States on a 1962 Jet magazine cover.
click to enlarge Porgy and Bess performer Shirley Stewart recalls when, as a child, she first came across the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on the radio. 'I didn't know what it was,' she says now, 'but it was so pretty.' - TRACIE MORRIS/YOUNG STUDIO
  • Tracie Morris/Young Studio
  • Porgy and Bess performer Shirley Stewart recalls when, as a child, she first came across the Metropolitan Opera broadcast on the radio. 'I didn't know what it was,' she says now, 'but it was so pretty.'
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