"Porgy and Bess" has been controversial and beloved since its 1935 premiere —- heralded as "the great American opera" by some, reviled by others as "the most degrading act ... perpetrated against colored Americans of modern times."
Based on a play set in the slums of old Charleston, the opera's composer and lyricist, George and Ira Gershwin, specified that African-Americans had to portray the men and women of Catfish Row. They didn't want white actors in black-face —- a popular entertainment at the time —- portraying the troubled and noble community or singing Gershwin's Gullah-inspired songs. These epic tunes, from "Summertime" to "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," have been absorbed into the canon of American classics.
Seventy years after its premiere, in 2005, the Atlanta Opera first performed "Porgy and Bess"; the quality of its chorus for that production caught the attention of a French opera company, which led to a rare invitation.
Today, 30 members of a specially assembled Atlanta Opera Chorus depart for Paris, where they'll join a new "Porgy" production at the city's fabled Opera-Comique.
For the Atlanta Opera, gaining artistic and financial momentum after its move to a new venue in Cobb County, it's a bold first step onto an international stage.
For the 30 choristers, it's as much a story of ambition, community and cultural heritage as juggling the logistics of six weeks away in Europe.
Read the story of the Atlanta Opera's "Porgy" chorus. Page K6
GIVING VOICE TO "PORGY AND BESS"
"I'd hoped to sing 'Aida' one day. ... In Paris, we'll be ready for whatever open auditions and opportunities we can find. I'll be carrying my resume and my 8-by-10 glossy photos, just in case."
PAMELA DILLARD, voice teacher, Spelman College
"After [chorus master] Walter [Huff] asked me to come back for this, I had friends in New York who told me, 'You don't want to get on that "Porgy" train.' "
GREGORY CALDWELL, New York-based freelance singer and writer
"In Paris, I'll sing in the chorus and be [in the small role of] a craps shooter. I studied with [celebrated baritone] William Warfield. ... In 'Porgy,' he'd make the room tremble, you felt an awesome power in that music, a unique power."
J. ROBERT ADAMS, voice teacher, Clark Atlanta University
"If this very hard-working chorus sets a standard, it's up to [Atlanta Opera] to keep the group assembled, be ready for other invitations that will come our way after Paris."
WALTER HUFF, Atlanta Opera chorus master
"I take ownership of 'Porgy' because it's a community that sings it. I've done 'Porgy' on five continents, done it with a lot of the same friends. I've been on Catfish Row in Jerusalem and Catfish Row in Taipei."
VALERIE HAMM, Metropolitan Museum shop clerk, Phipps Plaza
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