If you want to know what’s going on in San Francisco — at least as far as museums, opera, ballet or cultural events — look to the lamp posts. Oh, we’ve got listings in the Pink Section of the Chronicle and in our two free papers, The Guardian and the SF Weekly. But it’s more fun to look to the colorful banners that festoon every lamp post in town to see what’s upcoming and what’s hot on the SF cultural scene.
That’s where I found out that one of my favorite operas of all time, and one that isn’t often mounted, is featured in the San Francisco Opera Summer Season. Although I’ve been attending the opera for more than 20 years here, and even held season tickets for a good ten of those, I’ve always steered clear of the summer season. It’s a mini season that’s usually geared for the tourists and, as such, features an endless recycling of Verdi and Puccini’s Greatest Hits. The one exception was the year San Francisco mounted Wagner’s entire Ring Cycle. I thought I’d died and gone to Valhalla.
Yes, my taste in opera tends to lean toward the productions it’s hard to find in the U.S. — Wagner, Handel and the Russians. I got a taste for them when I used to take the train into Cold War Eastern Europe where Communist Governments ensured full funding for a never-ending cycle of operas and even a high school freshman could afford a box seat. It does put me at a distinct disadvantage in trying to introduce “Opera Virgins” to one of my passions. I can get Andy to a Mozart opera (which is no hardship to me), but most people need to be introduced easily via our old friends Verdi and Puccini. No disrespect to those Italian Gentlemen, but I’m heartily sick of them now.
But this upcoming opera, this IS the opera that even opera-haters will love. I know you’ve heard this before from opera fans, but this time it’s really true. How would you feel about a truly American opera with lots of action, a jazz and folk-music tinged score and lots of tunes you’ll recognize as having been covered by greats like Nina Simone, Pearl Bailey and even Janis Joplin?
Yes, I’m talking Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin. And it’s Francesca Zambello’s grand opera–scaled production. Porgy can stand up to anything Europe produced. In fact, I think even Mozart would have applauded it. I KNOW Mozart would have applauded it as he, like the Gershwins, knew the power of a great show-stopping tune. And tunes there are. To my ears, every song’s a winner. Unlike an opera such as Puccini’s Madama Butterfly where everyone waits for Un Bel Di Vedreno, claps then goes back to sleep.
It always baffles me that Porgy and Bess isn’t performed more often. There is that little sticking point that Gershwin and his estate insist the opera only be mounted with an all Black cast. It was a bold and risky move during the segregated Thirties. But times have changed and, hey, I know there are Black people out there who can sing. That can’t be a barrier anymore.
It might have something to do with the fact that Gershwin, canny master of popular music, brought his production to Broadway and worked hard to avoid calling it anything as stuffy as “opera”. I think for a long time, that move condemned Porgy to the strange limbo between opera and musical that is sometimes called Light Opera, the Ghetto of Gilbert and Sullivan. Then there may be that old prejudice that “high” culture is European, “pop” culture is American. So how can you have a “real” American opera? If you have the chance to hear a recording of the fully-mounted complete production (and I’d recommend the groundbreaking Houston Grand Opera production that put Porgy back on to the cultural map), you soon conclude, it is a fully realized opera. An opera that I think blows something as insipid as most of Gounod out of the operatic waters.
Ironically, I think this is a point where Europeans have been ahead of us. I remember in one of the coldest periods of the Cold War, there was a rare cultural exchange. Some of Russia’s greatest opera stars and groups like the Red Army Chorus and select dancers from the Kirov were to make a limited tour of the US. Tickets were hard to come by. Somehow my parents scored them. And even had the foresight to take my brother and me (I think we were the only kids in the audience at that New York performance.) At one point, a stout lady stood up to sing, first motioning to her translator. My mother whispered that she was the Soviet Union’s reigning diva. (I wish I could remember her name.) Through the translator, she announced that she was going to sing one of the greatest arias ever written for opera.
Then she launched into “Summertime” from Porgy and Bess.
On that note, I’ll leave you with one of the greatest Porgys of all time, Williard White, in the famous Glyndebourne production of Porgy and Bess.
And if your only acquaintance with Summertime is American Idol Fantasia’s weak version. Let Kathleen Battle show you how it should be sung:
NOTE: Run don’t walk to get tickets. Here’s the website and more about the production. Trust me. You’ll love it. And, from my experience, this may be a once in a decade opportunity.