Double casting adds depth to Atlanta Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess’

Musa Ngqungwana, center, as Porgy in the Glimmerglass production of “Porgy and Bess.” Contributed by Karli Cadel
Musa Ngqungwana, center, as Porgy in the Glimmerglass production of “Porgy and Bess.” Contributed by Karli Cadel

Attend the Atlanta Opera's production "Porgy and Bess" on successive nights this month and you might get whiplash from your double take: The run begins with a prototypical Wagnerian bass and ends with a changed man. Literally.

The story stays the same. Crippled Porgy will still fight for the love of Bess, a junkie, in the downtrodden Catfish Row section of 1920s Charleston. There will still be murders and fights and a terrible, fatal hurricane. The production is the same. Staging and costumes first conceived for the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, New York, and used in numerous productions since bring the stories to life. The rest of the cast, which features Kristin Lewis (Bess), Donovan Singletary (Crown) and Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life), doesn’t vary.

Porgy is the difference. Bass Morris Robinson opens the opera March 7 in the title role, singing three performances, and Musa Ngqungwana performs the role for the final two shows. Double casting an opera is common for longer runs where singers might need some relief after performing night after night. This planned shift on a short timeline allows audiences to see how two actors from different generations and backgrounds — Ngqungwana is South African, Robinson lives in Tyrone — interpret the character.

The two will also sound different. As a bass-baritone, Ngqungwana’s voice more naturally climbs into the vocal stratosphere. Robinson is a true bass, although he’s “been blessed with a good top,” he said. Robinson isn’t singing the last two performances due to prior engagements, but he desperately wanted to sing this production because Atlanta Opera is his hometown company.

An ensemble scene featuring Sportin’ Life from the Glimmerglass production of “Porgy and Bess.” Contributed by Karli Cadel
An ensemble scene featuring Sportin’ Life from the Glimmerglass production of “Porgy and Bess.” Contributed by Karli Cadel

“The Atlanta Opera made sense to me,” he said. “I think I should be the Porgy since I’m from here.”

The three-act story follows the disabled Porgy through a series of trials as he toils to win the love of Bess, escape the tyranny of her boyfriend, stevedore Crown, and rise up from his subjugated place in life. Other residents of Catfish Row appear as vibrant characters, including Jake (Reginald Smith Jr.) and Clara (Jacqueline Echols), who are raising a newborn in the tenement, surrounded by murder and despair.

During Gershwin’s lifetime, he referred to his 1935 composition as a folk opera, a quintessential American work that aims to capture the music and way of life in the South during that time. It’s also possibly the first instance of an opera comprised predominately of black singers.

Many listeners who don’t know the opera will recognize its most famous songs. Everyone from Ella Fitzgerald to Janis Joplin to Al Green has covered the lazily lilting “Summertime,” adapting the lullaby from a downtrodden mother to her fussy baby to fit the zeitgeist.

There’s a chance that listeners only familiar with the Miles Davis and Billie Holiday interpretations of “Summertime” and the jazzier side of Gershwin might dismiss the work as a light jazz opera. But Ngqungwana points out that characters die on stage, songs are tinged with hopelessness, and residents of Charleston generally struggle to get ahead in life.

“Porgy is darker than happy,” Ngqungwana said. “It’s a very dark opera, but there’s beautiful music.”

The popular success of “Summertime” and other tunes belies a universal truth about the opera: The music is incredibly complex and very hard to sing.

“The ‘Porgy and Bess’ score is one of the most difficult scores ever written,” Robinson said. “It is as complicated as reading the hardest Puccini, Shostakovich or Rachmaninoff.” Ever-changing time signatures and meters, and the broad vocal range required for many of the songs, are just some of the opera’s tricky idiosyncrasies.

Ngqungwana, who is making his Atlanta Opera debut, sees the opera as a particularly robust vocal workout. Porgy is tasked with tunes like “The Buzzard Song” that sit in an elevated range of the voice.

The picnic scene in the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival production of “Porgy and Bess.” Atlanta Opera is using the Glimmerglass version of “Porgy” for the upcoming Atlanta performances. Contributed by Karli Cadel
The picnic scene in the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival production of “Porgy and Bess.” Atlanta Opera is using the Glimmerglass version of “Porgy” for the upcoming Atlanta performances. Contributed by Karli Cadel

“It’s as if Porgy was written for three different voice types,” he said. For this reason, “Porgy and Bess” is also malleable. Your bass can’t sing that high? Cut “Buzzard” from the production. Don’t have the money or the talent for a staged version? Symphonies around the world routinely present highlights of the score. On multiple occasions, Robinson and Ngqungwana have sung concertized versions of the opera. But both singers prefer staged performances.

The opera features paint-by-number stereotypes, a fact Robinson said has historically caused all-African American casts some hand-wringing moments. University of Michigan professor Naomi Andre wrote expressly of the minstrelsy of the opera in her 2018 book “Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement,” but also allowed that staging the show has created a platform to talk about racial issues.

“Every negative stereotype you could possibly think of for African Americans in the 1920s is illuminated,” Robinson said. “I struggle with that part of it because I think we have to start looking for opportunities to steer away from those stereotypes that have been put in front of us on stage for so long.”

Many of the Atlanta Opera cast have sung together. The two bass singers know each other well; they first met in 2013, when Robinson sang the lead role in Opera Philadelphia’s “Nabucco.” Robinson sang his first Porgy at the venerated La Scala in 2016 alongside Lewis, again his Bess. Smith and Ngqungwana had to join the current Atlanta Opera rehearsals a few days late after they finished a run of “Aida” together at the Houston Grand Opera.

Even with that experience, both Porgies consider themselves relative newcomers to the role. The Atlanta performances will be only Robinson’s second time doing a fully staged version. Ngqungwana premiered the role at Glimmerglass, later singing in the same production with the Grange Park Opera in England.

Preparing for such an opera requires intense preparation. The singers studied with operatic leads of yesteryear to get ready for their debut performances, journeying to Houston on off days to study with Donnie Ray Albert, who gave seminal performances of Porgy with the Houston Grand Opera in the 1970s. While Albert helped both men with the notes, everyone’s interpretation of the character varies widely.

“A lot of people like to play Porgy like a kick-puppy. I don’t play Porgy like a kick-puppy,” Robinson said. “I play Porgy like the strongman that everyone respects, and if pushed in the wrong direction, he will retaliate, and that’s what happens.”

The Atlanta Opera recently tapped Robinson as a member of its new Artistic Advisory Council. As one of four opera musicians in the group, Robinson will be looking for ways to bring opera newbies to the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. The popularity of “Porgy and Bess” is certainly a draw, as is the ubiquity of the Gershwin tunes, but Robinson also thinks the mere fact that the cast is composed of African Americans and features a resident of the metro area will interest listeners.

“I can tell you now there will be people coming to Atlanta Opera that have never been because I’m on stage singing this role,” Robinson said. “There will also be people coming that have never been because ‘Porgy and Bess’ is a popular title. Combine the two, and I think it’ll make a big impact.”

OPERA PREVIEW

'Porgy and Bess.' March 7-15. $45-$160. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Pkwy., Atlanta. 770-916-2800, www.atlantaopera.org.