On the arts: Making an opera a source of pride for Charleston -- and Pittsburgh
June 26, 2016 12:00 AM
Spoleto Festival USA
The Philip Simmons Home and Museum in Charleston, S.C., was decorated with West African designs for the Porgy Houses project. The project featured the homes of influential African-Americans in Charleston, in coordination with the new Spoleto Festival production of Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess." Mr. Simmons, a celebrated blacksmith, died in 2009.
Julia Lynn Photography
Jonathan Green, the visual designer for Spoleto Festival USA's production of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess," spotlighted Charleston's iron-working tradition.
Julia Lynn Photography
Catfish Row is the main center of activity in Gershwin's opera "Porgy and Bess," produced by Spoleto Festival USA.
Negro Leagues catcher Josh Gibson will be the subject of Pittsburgh Opera's world premiere "The Summer King," set for the 2016-17 season.
By Elizabeth Bloom / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
CHARLESTON, S.C. — The paint on the house was peeling, the metal deck railing rusting. Were it not for the red diamond designs stamped onto the structure and a small descriptive placard in front of it, I might have passed it by, unaware that I was stumbling upon one of the city’s cultural treasures.
This structure was the home of celebrated Charleston blacksmith Philip Simmons, who died in 2009. Behind the structure was his workshop, which has been turned into a museum.
The diamonds marked Mr. Simmons’ home as a so-called Porgy House, “chosen for their significance in African-American history” in Charleston, according to the project’s website.
Celebrating its 40th season, the multidisciplinary Spoleto Festival USA had put much of its institutional heft behind a new production of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” which is set in this city. The Porgy Houses featured the same West African design motifs that appeared in Spoleto’s production, so operagoers and non-fans alike could stumble upon them.
The historic homes were just one example of the ways the city, the festival and the opera had meshed into one artistic whole. While in Charleston for a music critics conference centered on Spoleto — which was staging “Porgy” for the first time — I was impressed by this fusion between place and art, and I wondered what Pittsburgh could learn from it.
Jonathan Green, the visual designer for the production, was well-equipped to reimagine this familiar opera for the recently completed Gaillard Center. The Charleston-based artist, who grew up in a Gullah community, accepted the opportunity to design it, he told Charleston Magazine, “under one condition: that I could do it from the perspective of Africans who came to this country like everyone else.” The costumes and sets displayed colorful West African designs, depicting “Porgy” through the eyes of an immigrant community.
Mr. Green also told this story with a distinctly South Carolinian perspective. The Charleston ironwork that Mr. Simmons forged and that appears throughout Charleston featured prominently in the production. Several local church steeples were included in the scenery, including that of Emanuel AME Church, the African-American church where nine people were shot and killed a year ago.
As a tour guide explained to me, nearly every institution in Charleston had created programs around the Spoleto production. Libraries and museums held exhibits of art and other opera-centric materials, such as the piano Gershwin used to compose the music and the handwritten manuscript of DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy,” which inspired the work. A free simulcast made the live performance available to viewers who didn’t snag one of the sold-out tickets.
Walking tours took visitors to “Porgy” sites throughout the city. On one such tour, organized for the conference, we walked past the area where Sportin’ Life would have caught his boat to New York and visited Cabbage Row, also known as Catfish Row in the novel and opera.
Per Gershwin’s stipulation, “Porgy and Bess” must star an African-American cast. The music is largely inspired by African-American musical traditions, including that of the Gullah community on James Island here, which the composer visited.
To that end, Spoleto made extra efforts to include the African-American community — which tends to be underrepresented in opera audiences — into the festival’s “Porgy” activities. Members of the cast sang in local African-American churches, a spokeswoman said, and one performance was dedicated to the memory of Ethel Lance, one of the victims of the Emanuel AME shooting, who had been a custodian at the former Gaillard Municipal Auditorium.
As I explored the city and stumbled upon the various connections between Charleston and “Porgy and Bess,” the Pittsburgh Opera production of Daniel Sonenberg’s “The Summer King” came to mind. Pittsburgh Opera’s first world premiere (April 29-May 7, 2017, at the Benedum Center) will chronicle the life of former Negro Leagues star catcher Josh Gibson (portrayed by Alfred Walker), who played for the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords. Much of the opera is set in Pittsburgh, including at the famed Crawford Grill in the Hill District, providing an opportunity to dig into the distinct Pittsburgh-ness of this work.
General director Christopher Hahn said it’s too soon to delve into details about designs and surrounding events for “The Summer King,” but Pittsburgh Opera has several collaborations in the works. The company, he said, plans to partner with entities such as the Pirates, the Josh Gibson Foundation, the African-American church community and others to promote the opera and connect with communities it may not have deep inroads with.
What’s more, Pittsburgh Opera will devote much of its educational programming to “The Summer King” and will present the work for its annual student matinee. Mr. Hahn said there is already a large demand for tickets and expects that performance to sell out. “We’ve never experienced this advanced interest for a piece, so people are really jazzed to know about it,” he said.
Certainly, Spoleto benefited from the fact that “Porgy and Bess” is already a beloved opera with familiar music. Pittsburgh Opera, on the other hand, is trying to galvanize local support for a new work by a lesser-known composer. The operas may be different, but the approach taken by Spoleto — to make this new production of “Porgy” a source of pride for Charleston and a reflection of that city — is well worth considering.
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