Lawrence Toppman

Charlotte choir breaks new ground at Spoleto

Deomunique Abrams, center, and members of the Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir rehearse. They’re the first North Carolinians recruited en masse to sing in a Spoleto production.
Deomunique Abrams, center, and members of the Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir rehearse. They’re the first North Carolinians recruited en masse to sing in a Spoleto production. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Charleston, which considers itself the South’s most aristocratic city, likes to speak of its Pinckneys and Calhouns, its Draytons and Middletons. Yet the Charleston native best known around the world remains an African-American beggar who lived on Cabbage Row and rode through the city on a goat-drawn cart.

Not many people can identify Samuel Smalls by name. But they know Porgy, as DuBose Heyward dubbed the character based on Smalls in a novel and play in the 1920s. They know him especially well from “Porgy and Bess,” the most beloved opera written by an American and the cornerstone of the 40th Spoleto Festival USA, which begins May 26. “Porgy” has already sold out all six performances there.

Shawn-Allyce White, who first performed in the opera at 4, knows it well. She has introduced it to 17 of her Concert Choir students at Johnson C. Smith University, who’ll get an unprecedented privilege this month: They’re the first North Carolinians recruited en masse to sing in a Spoleto production.

People have debated since the 1935 premiere whether “Porgy and Bess” is a conventional opera, a folk opera (composer George Gershwin’s term) or a Broadway show that should be done with spoken dialogue. Heyward wrote lyrics to the songs, occasionally assisted by Gershwin’s brother Ira, but he also wrote a libretto in which every line can be sung.

The piece waited 50 years to get its Metropolitan Opera premiere in 1985. If anyone born in the 1990s knows it, they’re likely to have heard Fantasia Barrino sing “Summertime” on “American Idol,” a song that set her on the road to victory in 2004.

So the 11 women and six men took a crash course in history while starting on this journey in October.

“Before I was asked to sing in ‘Porgy and Bess,’ I had never heard of it at all, so the music was not relevant to me,” said sophomore Deomunique Abrams. “Now that I have studied what it is all about and why it was written, I understand it more. Some of the struggles they faced in the opera are still relevant today, such as the problems with violence, drugs and sex and equality with whites.”

Senior Rontavius Allen, who praised “the sequence of melodies and chromatic chord tones” Gershwin composed, saw it as more of a piece of its own time. He’s approaching it this way: “I will relate my moods (to theirs) and portray the hurt and pain yet joy of being black amongst one another in such a segregated time, knowing (they had) to stick together because all they had were each other.”

The students have a well-versed guide in White. She was a non-singing child in the 1976 production by Houston Grand Opera, which went to Broadway and won a 1977 Tony for best musical revival. Her mother, Barbara Buck – whose voice teacher was Todd Duncan, the original Porgy – performed in that show.

As an adult, White auditioned for a chorus spot in a Harlem Theater production but ended up singing Bess in Europe; there she met Anne Brown, the original Bess. She even wrote a 2008 doctoral dissertation about the opera, where she says “Gershwin was successful in combining elements of the Gullah culture and African-American music, including popular music from W.C. Handy to Cab Calloway, folk music and Negro spirituals.”

She has drilled her students since January in typical matters – intonation, pitch, rhythm, diction, producing a free sound – and in the use of Gullah dialect.

Said senior Krystal Gipson, “The most enjoyable thing about the music is the mixture of blues, jazz, spirituals and gospel. My favorite piece is the prayer ‘Doctor Jesus’…. Getting into the mindset of people from such a different time and place is not hard. Each scene has a distinct emotion; (I) just get into character.”

For senior Christopher Waller to get into the right mindset, he thinks about “character, story, time and place. If you don’t understand what they are going through, you will not be able to get into the true character. I cannot say I relate to the things that are happening in the opera – maybe some of the scenes where the community is really sticking together. This is how my community was; everyone looked out for each other.”

Toppman: 704-358-5232

The Skinny on Spoleto 2016

The South’s most diverse multidisciplinary arts event specializes in premieres, and the 40th festival – which runs May 26-June 12 in Charleston – lives up to that history. The world premiere “Grace Notes: Reflections for Now” contains music, spoken words and video projections reflecting on grace and democracy. “Afram, Ou La Belle Swita” (dubbed an “African romance”), introduces most of us to long-dead, Charleston-born composer Edmund Thornton Jenkins.

U.S. premieres include Helmut Lachenmann’s opera “The Little Match Girl”; Antoine Dauvergne’s comic baroque opera “La Double Coquette” (revised by contemporary composer Gérard Pesson); a new production of Oscar Wilde’s “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Dublin’s Gate Theatre; and “Golem,” a Jewish folk tale updated by the uncategorizable British theater company 1927.

The festival has made a couple of changes since announcing programs in January. Grammy-nominated Americana singer-guitarist Brandi Carlile and her band will perform at TD Arena May 30. And choreographer Bill T. Jones’ program will now offer two works, “Story/” and “D-Man in the Waters.” The first employs a random menu of movement accompanied by Franz Schubert’s String Quartet “Death and the Maiden”; the second is a celebratory piece set to Mendelssohn’s Octet for Strings.

Details: 843-579-3100; spoletousa.org.

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