October 14, 2009 / 11:59 AM / 11 years ago

Long way to get there: new "Porgy" set in Soweto

LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The role of Porgy, the crippled beggar in “Porgy and Bess,” has always been hard to pull off as he changes from grump to lover, but a Cape Town Opera version opening in Britain this month sets him a Herculean challenge:

To get back his Bess, Porgy has to make his way from Soweto to New York City...in a goat cart.

No problem, though, for Ntobeko Rwango, the opera company’s 31-year-old bass baritone who alternately will sing the role of Porgy and his arch nemesis, the evil Crown, in George Gershwin’s depiction of the squalid, murderous yet loving life in Catfish Row, South Carolina, transported to South Africa.

“It’s a story of courage, it’s a story that shows anything is possible,” Rwango told Reuters over a scratchy phone connection from South Africa.

He and the rest of the company were rehearsing for the opening at the Wales Millennium Center in Cardiff on October 21, followed by Southbank Centre’s Royal Festival Hall in London Oct 26-27 and finishing up at the Edinburgh Festival Theater.

This is not the first time the Cape Town Opera has regaled Europe with its take on what is often ranked as THE great American opera, with its treasure trove of tunes including “Summertime,” “Red Headed Woman” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” that became pop, jazz and even classical recital standards after the opera had its premiere in Boston in September, 1935.

“Full of grand emotion,” “powerful and energetic” were phrases the German press used to describe a Cape Town Opera production of “Porgy and Bess” in Berlin last year.

But Europe, to use a colloquial expression that could — but doesn’t — appear in the opera, ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.

This all-new production, having its premiere in Britain, moves the opera from the outskirts of Charleston to Soweto. It replaces the black fishing village’s shacks with a building that has been “hijacked” by black squatters and changes the setting from the segregated American south to apartheid South Africa.

“We’ve said, ‘Let’s imagine for a moment that this is 1960s South Africa and let’s imagine that the police have this kind of power over us’,” Michael Williams, the Cape Town Opera’s white general manager, said.

“Let’s imagine that we’ve hijacked a building and we’re living here and of course it gives the work a different edge.”

Lyrics are lyrics, though, and after Sportin’ Life spirits Bess off to New York, where he can live the high life while she walks the streets, Porgy still ends the opera looking for her.

“That makes Porgy’s quest even more monumental — he’s leaving from Soweto to New York and that’s a helluva journey,” Williams said with a laugh, adding that despite “some anachronisms,” the transfer to South Africa works well.

“I think we’re entitled to do that, there’s nothing wrong with it and I think it adds an interesting take on it,” said Williams, who has been with the company since apartheid was abolished and has seen it survive — and even thrive — under the “rainbow coalition” of multiracial South Africa.

And what work better to embody multiracial and multiculturalism than a black opera, full of soul, gospel and jazz tunes, written by two Jewish brothers, the composer George Gershwin and his lyricist brother Ira, with a libretto by DuBose Heyward, who wrote the book on which the opera is based?

Over the decades, controversy has raged about whether two Jewish guys from Brooklyn could write a “black” opera, and whether it is not in some way denigrating to blacks, but that argument has been rebutted resoundingly — mostly by blacks.

A magnificent Houston Opera version with an all-black cast in the 1970s quieted the doubters that this is a great work, and a great opera. Before that, jazz trumpeter Miles Davis made the opus cool as only he could in his “Porgy and Bess” LP of 1958.

Not to mention that “Summertime” may be one of the best known American tunes of all time, with covers by everyone from Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Sarah Vaughan and Sam Cooke to, more recently, Angelique Kidjo, Nina Simone and Peter Gabriel.

Now Cape Town Opera chimes in with an updated African version that one of its lead singers, Ntobeko, says isn’t about race, color or creed — it is about being human.

“For this opera, and its music, it doesn’t matter if you’re white or black or yellow,” he said. “Anyone can relate to ‘Porgy and Bess’.”

So even though it’s almost 75 years since the Boston premiere, “Porgy and Bess” is back again, by way of South Africa. How modern and global is that?

Writing by Michael Roddy, editing by Paul Casciato

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