Note from BW of Brazil: Now this really looks exciting! I actually only discovered this production when I was doing some research about the Festival de Arte Negra in Belo Horizonte last week. Although I admit I am not a serious classical music/opera enthusiast, there have been productions over the years that have caught my attention. But my familiarity with the songs from Porgy and Bess are courtesy of the famous Miles Davis/Gil Evans collaboration from 1958. The story behind the making of this production in Belo Horizonte is almost as intriguing as the images and video I’ve seen of the show.
And yet another detail I must point out is that this is yet another presentation associated with Americans or African-Americans and now being performed by Afro-Brazilians. If you’re keeping track, we’ve already seen Love Story, Sister Act, Lion King, and The Mountaintop. And this doesn’t even include The Color Purple, which no one seems to know what happened to. When we consider how Afro-Brazilians continuously support TV shows, films (here, here and here) and plays featuring African-Americans, it once again shows that the US, even having severe diversity problems in its media productions, is still light years ahead of Brazil in terms of big features starring its black population.
Opera of blacks
By Jessica Almeida, with additional info by Ana Clara Brant and courtesy of BHAZ
With a cast consisting only of black soloists, the masterpiece of US operatic production ‘Porgy and Bess’ is set in Belo Horizonte
When the Municipal Theater of Rio de Janeiro held an assembly of the opera Porgy and Bess, by the American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937), which presupposes a cast composed entirely of black soloists, in 1986, it was necessary to “import “professionals of other nationalities, since Brazil did not have enough black singers to supply the need for the opera.
Three decades later, Fernando Bicudo, who was the artistic director of the Municipal at the time, celebrates the change in the country’s operatic scene. He is the stage director of the Clóvis Salgado Foundation, which will be playing at the Palácio das Artes from Saturday (21), and this time all the soloists are Brazilian.
“At that time, I brought 12 soloists from North America (New York) to sing this opera. Today, for our joy, we are able to have an entirely Brazilian cast. And with exceptional artists,” says Bicudo. “It is a great joy that I have, particularly, over the past 30 years, that opera has been democratized and no longer a thing of elites brancas (white elites). It was both presented and consumed by the Brazilian white elite, and today it is no longer. There has been a democratization of both its production and access.” At that time the only one of the Brazilian cast was Eliseth Gomes, who is also in this set up of the Clóvis Salgado Foundation (FCS), playing Serena, Bicudo revealed.
The maestro Silvio Viegas is also clearly impressed with the diversity happening in a style of music not known for presenting many black artists. “Today, with the popularization of classical music, we have had an increasing demand for the less affluent classes. Who maintains the classical music today in Brazil are these people, and many of them are black. The timbre, the power and the vocal capacity are different and unique,” he says
Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935, with libretto by DuBose Heyward (1885-1940) – also author of the book Porgy, on which the opera is based, and lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin (1896-1983), brother of the composer. Considered the masterpiece of American operatic production, it tells the story of Porgy, a physically handicapped beggar who lives in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina. It is about his attempt to rescue beloved Bess from the arms of Crown, a violent and possessive man, and the drug dealer Sporting Life.
A visionary, Gershwin merged the European tradition with the language of musicals and jazz, an originally black rhythm in the United States, as explained by maestro Silvio Viegas, musical director and conductor of the montage. “He uses this jazz language to color, draw the ambiance of the opera he builds, creating a very rhythmic, pulsating, dancing harmony. It has a lot of gospel music too, which is one of the influences of jazz. Therefore, the orchestra has instruments such as the piano, drums and saxophone, which even exist in this context, but are not common,” he says. Also with the addition of banjo and horns, Viegas opines that “It’s like there’s a big band out there. Porgy and Bess has a musical face in disguise, with that suingue (swing) that is not typical of operatic presentations.”
Another particular feature of this piece is how choir and soloists interact. “There are great musical numbers and the relationship of these two parts is very close and personified. The choir has elements, people, it’s not simply a group, and often dissolves into personalities that are there. It is very characteristic of Broadway musicals. And it’s a mixture of genres that makes the operatic discourse very difficult for us,” comments Viegas on the challenge.
It is relatively common for large arias to fall into popular taste and be popularized when their genre changes in terms of interpretation. But Gershwin composed this opera with so many rhythmic features and readings that many of Porgy and Bess’s arias ended up being easily absorbed by popular music, in the voice of performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Janis Joplin. They recorded songs like “Summertime”, “Bess, You’re My Woman Now” (which even has a version by (MPB artist Marisa Monte), “It Is not Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty o ‘Nuttin.”
In addition to the musical complexity, Gershwin’s opera is also very dramaturgically rich, as Fernando Bicudo notes. “It is one of the most difficult operas to be staged, there are a lot of dramaturgical elements, characters. There are almost 20 soloists playing important characters for the plot, a full choir, a ballet corp and also 15 children. It is an overproduction of what the Palácio das Artes is doing and I believe the most important production of the year in Brazil,” he says.
Instead of setting the scene in the southern United States at the time of the Great Depression, Bicudo chose to bring it to Brazil of today. “As history takes place in a poor community that has occupied an aristocratic area, we brought the action to a current Brazilian community, which could be in Rio, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte or any other major Brazilian city. The problems and difficulties are identical to those we experience today and the set design that I and Desirée Bastos created together is spectacular,” he says.
Luiz-Ottavio Faria, who Bicudo ranks as the Pavarotti of basses in the world today, intended not to be involved in Porgy and Bess productions anymore and removed from the biography on his website (www.ottavio-faria.com) more than 120 presentations he has made of opera, in various roles. Although production was responsible for making his international career viable – today he lives in New York – he was afraid of losing opportunities to do different things.
When he was invited to be Porgy in the Palácio das Artes assembly, he accepted. “I would never deny being part of this project in Brazil, in Minas, in Belo Horizonte, which is my favorite city. I am from Rio, but my mother was born in Vale do Jequitinhonha, I have many relatives. If I could, I would trade New York for BH – and I intend to do so when I retire,” he says.
He underscores the importance of such an initiative, especially at affordable prices. “I was 16 years old and had never attended an opera, but a teacher of mine took me and showed me bass singing and told me that I could be like him. I was amazed at the possibility and went to study music, but before consolidating my career, I was also an industrial electronics technician. Why did I go straight? Because I didn’t have a model, I didn’t know anyone, especially of my race, who showed me that it was possible,” he says.
In times when the Palácio das Artes itself has been a victim of intolerance, the conductor Silvio Viegas bets on the transformative potential of such an assembly. “It is very important to put the black man as an absolute protagonist in a world where skin color, religion or political choice cause people to be discriminated against. Porgy and Bess deals with subjects like ‘Romeo and Juliet’: love, betrayal, deception, discord, acceptance, things common to all of us regardless of what we may believe or the color of our skin.”
The production in Minas Gerais was adapted to an atmosphere in a poor Brazilian community.
“That’s the big news. What the community of Charleston, South Carolina, of the original story goes through, is not much different from the reality of poor communities in Brazil, whether in Rio, BH, or Salvador. We find the same struggle for survival, the difficulties of dealing with traffickers, the world of drugs,” analyzes Fernando Bicudo. Even Desirée Bastos’s scenery and Sayonara Lopes’s costumes have more modern features. “It has the graphite, the beer cans, the sneakers, the fishnet stockings, there’s the Brazilian swing. This opera is a portrait of Brazil today and even those who do not like this musical style will be surprised,” he says.
The first time Luiz-Ottavio Faria attended an opera was in Rio de Janeiro, where he was born, and he was only 12 years old. At the time, he did not like what he saw. “I thought it was strange because I didn’t understand. This initial contact was not the best (laughs). But then I got to know it, going deeper and today the story is different,” he says.
Strangeness became passion and craft and Luiz-Ottavio is considered one of the most important lows today. “He is the Pavarotti of basses,” attests Fernando Bicudo, with whom the soloist worked well at the beginning of his career. “Bicudo was responsible for having moved to Brazil. He was instrumental in my career. I’ve been in New York for 29 years,” he says.
And it was direct from the Big Apple that Luiz-Ottavio Faria came to play the protagonist Porgy in the assembly of the Foundation Clóvis Salgado. “I have lost count of how many times I have participated in this opera and in several roles. I think about 120 (laughs). But all of them outside of Brazil. I believe it will be different, especially in Belo Horizonte, a city where I have great affection and where I have relatives who will watch me,” says the artist, who is the son of mineiros (native of Minas Gerais) – his mother is Teófilo Otoni and his father is from Betim.
Luiz-Ottavio Faria, who graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School of Music in New York, believes that the essence of production does not change. “The music is the same, the story is pretty much the same. The problems that the blacks of Charleston (USA) faced at that time are repeated now. Segregation, racism and poverty serve as a backdrop for this love story of Romeo and Juliet. But for me, the cool thing is to see that the cast, the soloists and all the production of the Palácio das Artes are not due to any great theater in the world. I am very impressed with the quality and level I am seeing here.”
The director hopes to make history, with this new production, gathering only black soloists in the main cast. For him, it is fundamental that the public understands the importance of assembling, in all senses, both the musical and the historical, since Porgy and Bess was a production that, at the time of the debut, in the years 1930, generated controversies by addressing the issue of race in the United States.
“Porgy and Bess, before being a beautiful opera, which is part of the traditional repertoire of the great montages, is a victory of social justice. It is arte negra, a cultura negra, a música negra, a estética negra (black art, black culture, black music, black aesthetics) being protagonists of a great spectacle. This is undoubtedly historical for us, for the Clóvis Salgado Foundation, and for the public, who will have the chance to enjoy this rich production,” concludes the director.
Once again, the Cia. de Dança Palácio das Artes (Dance Company of Palácio das Artes) is part of an FCS operatic ensemble. In Porgy and Bess, the artistic body brings a choreographic proposal that is replete with references of dances typical of black culture. A creation of Cristiano Reis, regent of the CDPA, the choreography mixes movements of jazz dance, hip-hop and break, to typical Brazilian rhythms, like funk carioca and axé.
The setting of the opera is a creation of scenographer Desirée Bastos and transposes space and time, retaining traces of the original version, which was inspired by a tenement that was in Charleston, South Carolina. In the FCS montage, the story is set in a community born from the occupation of a mansion by the sea. “Small houses grew on the basis of the grand structure of the mansion. The spatiality is shaped by planes, levels, stairs, alleys, slabs and especially in the penetrability from one environment to another,” comments Desirée.
The urban space, appropriate for the marginalized culture, and the celebrations and cultural movements born under viaducts, such as the one of Santa Tereza, a cradle of the street culture in Belo Horizonte, and the one in Madureira, in Rio de Janeiro, where the movimento Charme, also served as references for the creation of the Porgy and Bess scenario, which proposes a dialogue with urban art.
Pedro Pederneiras is responsible the lighting of the show. The drawing of light was intended to dialogue directly with the scenes, which happen at the same time, at different levels of the scene. “The challenge of the illuminator in this assembly is to know how to measure the light at the right moments, which can be either intimate or more open. It is a great responsibility to enlighten this opera, which I have known for a long time. I hope that, like the cast, I can surprise the audience too,” he says.
Cast members of the opera include Michel de Souza (Crown), Nabila Dandara (Clara), Juliana Taino (Maria), Cristiano Rocha (Jake), Geilson Santos (Sporting Life), Lucas Damasceno (Mingo), Carlos Átilia Crab Man), Lucas Viana (Peter), Indaiara Patrocínio (Annie/Strawberry woman/Lilly), Antônio Marcos Batista (Jim/Undertaker), Emerson Oliveira (Jasbo Brown), Luciano Luppi (Police/Colonel) and Henrique Luppi.