'Porgy and Bess' to Paris

International stage awaits local chorus

For the past five months, Atlanta Opera chorus master Walter Huff has been preparing 30 choristers to sing George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" in Paris. Some of the younger singers hope it's a life-enhancing event, maybe a career break, certainly a peek into the international opera scene. For the veterans, a trip to Europe is just another "Porgy" payoff.

Right now though, the chorus is hung up on a single word: Jesus.

A hurricane has just ravaged Catfish Row, the Charleston slum that distills the often-repeated American theme of tragic innocence. The line "Jesus is walkin' on da water" surges with intensity from the group, but Huff has them sing it again and again.

"I don't want to hear hissing at the end of 'Jesussss,' " he insists in a gentle, elementary-school teacher way. "Make that crisper, clip it off at the end so you don't blur it into the next word."

He conducts it in two karate-chop motions, and the choir responds with precise diction: "JEE-SUHs."

This level of detail —- articulating the texts to support musical values —- is what might soon earn the Atlanta Opera Chorus international praise.

The Paris performances, an invitation from the venerable Opera-Comique, will be the first step onto an international stage by the 29-year-old Atlanta Opera. It comes on the heels of an artistic and financial turnaround, sped along by the company's successful move to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre this past season.

It's a historic moment, too. According to Opera America, a New York trade organization, this is the first time an American opera chorus has performed under the auspices of a European company.

The 30 choristers depart today for Paris. They'll spend the next two weeks rehearsing on stage and in costume. Opening night is June 2.

Who are the choristers? They range from college students to voice teachers to experienced opera singers who have performed leading roles. All but one live in Atlanta. One is an AirTran flight attendant. One works for the IRS. Another is a private nursing assistant. All have theatrical or stage experience, in a range of singing styles.

Benjamin Polite, a baritone, teaches music in the Atlanta public schools and hopes this "Porgy" can be a springboard to help him open a choir school. Mezzo Pamela Dillard, who teaches at Spelman College, sang the title role in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of "Carmen" a decade ago. Soprano Adrienne Walker, a voice major at Spelman, will arrive in Paris a little later than the others: she's got her senior recital to sing this week.

All the singers are African-American, a stipulation for North American productions by the Gershwin Foundation, the opera's copyright holder, following the composer's wishes from the 1935 world premiere.

Three-quarters of the choristers have some connection with the Atlanta University Center, the historically black colleges that include Spelman, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta —- a major reservoir of black talent in America.

And most of the "Porgy" singers have sung it before, in Atlanta or elsewhere.

An achievement

In 2005, the Atlanta Opera staged "Porgy and Bess," a long-belated company premiere. Huff's chorus is typically only about a quarter African-American, however, so for "Porgy" he recruited new members to fill the ranks and then polished the whole group.

In performance, the chorus earned extravagant critical praise. The AJC's review (by this writer) called it "a tight, focused, impassioned unit." The review caught the attention of the Opera-Comique administrators, who had been scouting America for the best available "Porgy" chorus. After watching a videotape of the show, the Parisians invited the Atlantans as guest chorus for its new production.

" 'Porgy' is a big sing for a lot of us," says Lenna Turner, a mezzo. The chorus part, she says, "is loud and forceful and constant and you have to be in shape to get through it all. It's a lot of difficult singing."

When Turner was offered a new job in December, as a vice president at SunTrust Bank, she accepted —- on condition that she could take time away for the opera.

"I could get another job," she told herself, "but not another opportunity to sing this opera, in that theater, in that city."

In fact, leaders of the Atlanta Opera are working to keep such opportunities coming.

General director Dennis Hanthorn calls the Opera-Comique's invitation "an acknowledgement of Atlanta's tremendous choral heritage. We're expecting it to advance the name of Atlanta Opera, in a step toward recognition as a national company. We can be seen as the new ['Porgy' chorus] standard."

For many companies, the biggest expense and artistic headache about producing "Porgy" is hiring a special chorus and preparing them in Gershwin's folk-inspired idiom. For this production, the Opera-Comique will pay the Atlantans a small stipend and provide lodging. Delta Airlines donated the plane tickets.

With other European and American offers a serious possibility, Hanthorn says, there's a justification to maintain a standing "Porgy" chorus, ready to sing anywhere. It wouldn't be a money-maker for the company but could seriously boost its reputation.

To that end, a trip to Paris to impress some 20 big-money Atlanta Opera donors had been scheduled, with Hanthorn escorting them to the June 2 opening. The weak dollar, however, scuttled that plan.

Getting ready

It's a Wednesday night, one of the final rehearsals before the chorus' departure. Huff is at the piano. The mood is jubilant. Five months ago, each of the chorus members could sing the printed music, but there was little cohesion or focused intensity. Tonight there's both a lethal edge and a humanity to their singing, and they feel empowered by it.

"The choruses demand so much personality," says Huff. "It can be pristine, but it can't be too emotionally out there —- there's so much content. I'm always surprised when you hear ['Porgy and Bess'] dismissed as second-rate. Listen to this group and it's clear the opera demands as much respect as any other choral masterpiece."

They're heading into one of the opera's highlights. "It Ain't Necessarily So" is the cynical anthem of the drug-dealing villain, Sportin' Life, a nattily dressed Satan slithering through Catfish Row's fallen Eden.

Huff, who can't sing, had typically groaned out Sportin' Life's lyrics as the chorus echoes his words and adds "Wadoo-Zim bam boodle-oo" and other group-scat inflections. Suddenly, Huff recalls that Edwin Cotton, a Morehouse graduate in the regular Atlanta Opera chorus, covered Sportin' Life in a student production.

"Come up here and do it for us," Huff instructs.

His fellow choristers cheer and hoot him on. Cotton stands by the piano, looking timid at first. But once the music starts he doesn't hold back, writhing and dancing as he sings. The chorus' back-up cries are instantly electrified. Morale soars.

Everyone in the room knows this is unbeatably powerful singing. Everyone knows it's the reason they were invited to Paris.

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