In Belo Horizonte, an unprecendented production presents classic ‘Porgy and Bess’ with all black Brazilian soloists

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In Belo Horizonte, an unprecendented production presents classic ‘Porgy and Bess’ with all black Brazilian soloists *

With a cast made up of only black soloists, the masterpiece of American operatic production ‘Porgy and Bess’ is assembled in Belo Horizonte

Marly Montoni
Marly Montoni (pictured), who plays Bess, and the entire cast of the production is made up of Brazilian-born black soloists

I admit that, as a child, I wasn’t necessarily a fan of Classical Music or the Opera. And  it was only in later years that I began to get into the classic Jazz sound of musicians such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Charlie Parker, etc.

Porgy and Bess, 1959 album by Miles Davis
Cover of ‘Porgy and Bess’, the 1959 album by Miles Davis

But when I did get into this phenomenal music, it was through the 1959 Porgy and Bess album by trumpeter Miles Davis with arrangements by Gil Evans that I became familiar with this classic work of composer George Gershwin. After my initial introduction to the songs, I later began to realize how often these works had been covered by both popular singers as well as artists from the world of Jazz and Classical Music. Still later, I would begin to understand that I had been exposed to not only the music but the also the opera itself through numerous performers over the years as well as reference to this legendary production.

Lemuel Wade's production of Porgy and Bess at Cincinnati Opera, 2012
Lemuel Wade’s production of ‘Porgy and Bess’ at Cincinnati Opera in 2012 with African-American cast

Perhaps if I had never been exposed to this work, I may not have even thought about the importance of its recent re-production using all-black Brazilian operatic singers. The funny thing is, as controversial as the piece was back in the 1930s, it tells us a lot about Brazilian society when such a production with all black soloists is only near the end of the second decade of the 21st century. As I always ask, realistically, which society is actually more exclusionary to black artists and black people as a whole? Keep this in mind as we learn about the behind the scenes of this production of Porgy and Bess in Belo Horizonte, the capital city of Minas Gerais state.

In 1986, when the Rio de Janeiro Municipal Theater held a staging of the opera Porgy and Bess by the American composer George Gershwin (1898-1937), which presupposes a cast entirely of black soloists, it was necessary to “import ”professionals from other nationalities, since Brazil didn’t have enough black singers to meet the need for the opera. From the beginning the work was written, the author made it explicit that the roles should be filled by black actors, with the presence of only one white actor, the same as the role of police.

Three decades later, Fernando Bicudo, who was the artistic director of the Municipal at the time, celebrates the change in the opera scene of the country. He is the scenic director of the Clóvis Salgado Foundation, which will be on display at the Palácio das Artes starting next Saturday (21) and this time all soloists are Brazilian.

“At that time, I brought 12 soloists from North America to sing this opera. Today, for our joy, we are able to have an entirely Brazilian cast. And with exceptional artists,” says Bicudo, who also remembered that at that time, Brazil didn’t have black operatic singers in Brazil, which was a condition that George Gershwin himself imposed for his assembly.

“It’s a great joy that I have particularly, that over these 30 years, the opera has democratized and ceased to be a thing of the 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 its access.”

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Luiz-Ottavio Faria and Marly Montoni in the lead roles of ‘Porgy and Bess’ in Belo Horizonte

Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935, with DuBose Heyward’s libretto (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 to be the masterpiece of American operatic production, it tells the story of Porgy, a physically disabled beggar who lives in the Catfish Row slum of Charleston, South Carolina. It deals with his attempt to rescue his beloved Bess from the arms of Crown, a violent and possessive man, and the dealer Sporting Life.

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Folk opera

A visionary, Gershwin merged European tradition with musical language and jazz, originally a black rhythm in the United States, as explained by conductor Silvio Viegas, musical director and conductor of the montage. “He uses this jazz language to color, to 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 piano, drums and saxophone, which even exist in this context, but are not common,” he says. Other unusual instruments featured in the assembly and formation of the orchestra are brass and banjo. For Viegas, it’s like there’s a big band on the side. “Porgy and Bess has the face of a musical in disguise, with that swing that is not typical of operatic performances,” he says.

Another particular feature of this piece is the way 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, is not simply a group, and often dissolves into personalities that are present there. It’s very characteristic of Broadway musicals. And it’s a mix of genres that makes operatic musical discourse very difficult for us,” comments Viegas about the challenge.

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Black protagonism and representation in opera: ‘Porgy and Bess’ in Belo Horizonte

According to the maestro, other technical elements of the production make the project exciting as well as challenging as, for example, operatic vocality has been avoided, with the show mixing together many sung words with spoken words. In this montage, the vocal range of each singer will be a highlight during the recitals.

Viegas explains that, because it breaks with traditional lyrical singing patterns, Porgy and Bess is an opera that demands greater vocal power from artists. “The voice of the singers needs to be supported, because it is necessary to have a projection that tends more to belting, a vocal technique characteristic of musicals, used to produce a clearer and more projected voice than to operatic singing. Porgy and Bess has a very strong religious force, and the common North American black sound in church singing must be preserved. Therefore, it is necessary that the soloists have all this power when entering the scene,” points out the conductor.

nabila dandara porgy and bess
Nabila Dandara as Clara in ‘Porgy and Bess’

It is relatively common for large arias to fall into popular taste and to be popularized when changing its gender in terms of interpretation. But Gershwin composed this opera with so many rhythmic characteristics and readability that many of the arias of Porgy and Bess ended up being easily absorbed by popular music, in the voice of performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Louis Vaughan, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Janis Joplin. They recorded songs such as “Summertime”, “Bess, You’re My Woman Now” (which even has a version by MPB singer Marisa Monte), “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “I Got Plenty o ‘Nuttin”. Other famous versions include Nina Simone’s version of “I loves you Porgy” and “I got plenty o ‘Nuttin”, immortalized by Frank Sinatra.

Viegas echoes Bicudo’s sentiments in terms of the audience as well.

“This is very interesting, because in the past, there was a great difficulty in finding black lyric singers. Today, with the popularization of classical music, we have had an increasing demand from the less wealthy classes. Those who maintain classical music in Brazil today are these people, and most of them are black. The tone, power and vocal capacity are different and unique,” he says.

In addition to the musical complexity, Gershwin’s opera is also very dramaturgically rich, as Fernando Bicudo notes. “It’s one of the hardest operas to perform, there’s a lot of dramaturgical elements, characters. There are almost 20 soloists playing important characters for the plot, a complete choir, a dance body and also 15 children. It is an overproduction that the Palácio das Artes (Palace of Arts) is doing and I believe the most important production of the year in Brazil,” he says.

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STAGING IN MINAS

Porgy and Bess was rarely assembled in Brazil and this is the first staging in Minas Gerais. Fernando Bicudo’s fifth partnership with FCS (O escravo, Turandot, Fedra e Hipólito, Um baile de máscaras were the previous ones), the montage features DuBose Heyward’s libretto and lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin.

The Minas Gerais production was adapted to a setting in a poor Brazilian community.

“This is the big news. What the community of Charleston, South Carolina, from the original story goes through is not unlike the reality of Brazil’s poor communities. We find the same struggle for survival, the relationship difficulties with drug dealers, the drug world,” says Fernando Bicudo. Even the setting by Desirée Bastos and the costumes of Sayonara Lopes have more modern features. “There’s the graffiti, the beer cans, the sneakers, the fishnets, there’s the Brazilian swing. This opera is a portrait of Brazil today and even those who don’t like this style of music will be surprised,” he says.

Community

Instead of setting the stage in the southern United States at the time of the Great Depression, Bicudo chose to bring it to Brazil today. “As the story goes on in a poor community that occupied an aristocratic area, we brought the action to a current Brazilian community, which could be in Rio, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte (BH) or any other major Brazilian city. The problems and difficulties are identical to those we experience today and the scenography that Desirée Bastos and I created together is spectacular,” he says.

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Geilson Santos (left) as Sporting Life and Marly Montoni as Bess (in red) in ‘Porgy and Bess’

The story revolves around a fishing community in the southern United States, throughout the story the characters are taken to occupy a mansion. It shows the context of the conflicts that they go through, related to their survival and all the issues that encompass that community.

In its first appearance in 1935, it caused great controversy where it was uncommon the presence of blacks in operas, mainly as protagonists. The work had great relevance for the moment, gaining great recognition and becoming one of the most important works in North American production. With the setting in Brazil featuring elements of a Brazilian backdrop, Bicudo points out how a scenario set in Great Depression era in the US at the time reminds us of the fact that the Brazil is currently going through a crisis.

Cia-de-Dana-Palacio-das-Artes-Porgy-and-Bess-6

Luiz-Ottavio Faria, whom Bicudo classifies as the Pavarotti of the bass today in the world, intended to no longer get involved with Porgy and Bess montages and removed it from the biography on his website (www.ottavio-faria.com) more than 120 performances he has done of opera in various roles. Although production was responsible for making his international career possible – he now lives in New York – he was afraid of missing opportunities to do different things.

 When he was invited to be Porgy at the Palácio das Arte, he accepted it. “I would never deny being part of this project in Brazil, Minas Gerais, Belo Horizonte, which is my favorite city. I am from Rio, but my mother was born in Vale do Jequitinhonha (state of Minas Gerais), I have many family members. If I could, I would trade New York for BH – and I intend to do so when I retire,” he says.

He stresses 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 a 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 direct? 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.

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Marly Montoni as Bess and Geilson Santos as Sporting Life in ‘Porgy and Bess’

In times when the Palácio das Artes itself has been a victim of intolerance, conductor Silvio Viegas wagered on the transformative potential of such a montage. “It is very important to place black as the absolute protagonist in a world where skin color, religion or political choice make people discriminate. Porgy and Bess deals with subjects like Romeo and Juliet: love, betrayal, disappointment, discord, acceptance, things common to all of us regardless of what we may believe or the color of our skin,” he concludes.

The protagonists of the assembly in BH include Luiz-Ottavio Faria, playing Porgy, and Marly Montoni, playing Bess. Completing the cast of soloists are Michel de Souza (Crown), Nabila Dandara (Clara), Juliana Taino (Maria), Cristiano Rocha (Jake), Geilson Santos (Spoting Life), Lucas Damasceno (Mingo), Carlos Attilia (Robbins/Nelson/Crab man), Lucas Viana (Peter), Indaiara Sponsorship (Annie/Strawberry woman/Lilly), Antonio Marcos Batista (Jim/ Undertaker), Emerson Oliveira (Jasbo Brown), Luciano Luppi (Police/Colonel) and Henrique Luppi (Detective).

HISTORICAL CONTEXT

Besides the fact that the casting in Belo Horizonte features as all-black cast, Fernando Bicud also doesn’t miss the historical context of the original opera was first assembled in the United States.

For him, it is essential that the public understands the importance of the assembly, in every way, both the musical and the historical, since Porgy and Bess was a production that, at the time of the debut in the 1930s, generated controversy and polemics by addressing the racial issue in the US.

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 black art, black culture, black music, black aesthetics being protagonists of a great spectacular. This is undoubtedly historic for us, for the Clovis Salgado Foundation, and for the public, who will have the chance to enjoy this very rich production,” concludes the director.

We must also consider that now, more than eight decades later, in some ways, the mounting of such a production is equally important in Brazil that, only within the last 15 years or so that the racial question, that historically, has always been denied, is being openly discussed. Keep in mind that, just five years ago, in 2012, with the discussions of mounting a Brazilian edition of the musical The Color Purple, there was concern that the Brazilian public would not embrace a musical featuring an all-black cast. Ultimately, although the cast had been assembled and the rehearsals looking promising, that production seemed to simply fade away without a word as to what happened to it.

In Porgy and Bess, the artistic body brings a choreographic proposal that is full of references to typical black culture dances. Created by Cristiano Reis, conductor of CDPA, the choreography mixes movements of jazz dance, hip-hop and break, with typical Brazilian rhythms, such as funk carioca and axé.

FROM STRANGE TO PASSION

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 didn’t like what he saw. “I thought it was weird because I didn’t understand. This initial contact was not the best (laughs). But then I got to know it, deepening myself and today the story is different”, he says.

The strangeness has become passion and craft and Luiz-Ottavio is considered one of the most important basses of today. “He is the Pavarotti of the bass,” says Fernando Bicudo, with whom the soloist worked well at the beginning of his career. “Bicudo was responsible for my going to live outside of Brazil. He was instrumental in my career. I have been in New York for 29 years,” he says.

And it was straight from the Big Apple that Luiz-Ottavio Faria came to play the protagonist Porgy in the assembly of the Clovis Salgado Foundation. “I’ve lost count of how many times I participated in this opera and in various roles. I think about 120 (laughs). But all outside Brazil. I believe it will be different, especially in Belo Horizonte, a city where I have great affection and where I have family members who will watch me,” says the artist, who is the son of Minas Gerais natives – his mother is from (the city of) Teófilo Otoni and his father, from (the city of) Betim.

Despite the story taking place today and with a Brazilian reality, Luiz-Ottavio Faria, who graduated from the prestigious The Juilliard School of Music in New York, believes that the essence of production does not change. “The song is the same, the story is pretty much the same. The problems that black people in Charleston (USA) faced at that time are repeated now. Segregation, racism and poverty serve as the backdrop to this love story à la Romeo and Juliet. But, for me, the coolest thing is to see that the cast, the soloists and the entire production of the Palácio das Artes doesn’t owe anything to the great theatre in the world. I am very impressed with the quality and the level I am seeing here.”

CHOREOGRPAHY, DESIGN, LIGHTING

In Porgy and Bess, the artistic body brings a choreographic proposal that is full of references to typical black culture dances. Created by Cristiano Reis, conductor of CDPA, the choreography mixes movements of jazz dance, hip-hop and break, with typical Brazilian rhythms, such as funk carioca and axé.

The representativeness of the Cia. de Dança (Dance Company) in this montage also goes through other issues. Drag queens Babaya Samambaia and NaDja Kai Kai, characters of the dancers Carlos Gomes and Lucas Medeiros, will play two trans women, demonstrating a clear dialogue of the new conception of opera with the present day.

Contemporary readings – Porgy and Bess costumes are signed by Sayonara Lopes, who sought inspirations in the clothing of men and women from the communities of Belo Horizonte. Bright colors, sneakers, fishnets, short shorts, minidresses, caps, hoods, long boots and high heels are featured in the opera attire. Sayonara explains that the creation of the costume was a challenge for her, since the pieces were designed to mirror, without metaphors or stereotypes, the daily lives of the community’s residents.

“The pieces represent a desired and distant world, and the mixture of unlikely, disparate elements make up a form of exclusive grace. I borrowed the concrete ways of dressing, the beauty of overuse and concomitant use of strong elements, very urban clothing. The community characters demonstrate their sui generis ability to reinvent, with incredible agility, the latest releases from the fashion world, a desired and distant world,” explains the costume designer.

Scenic Inspirations – The opera scene is the creation of set designer Desirée Bastos and transposes space and time, retaining traces of the original version, which was inspired by a cortiço (tenement) in Charleston, South Carolina. In setting up the FCS, the story is set in a community born from the occupation of a mansion by the sea. “Small houses grow based on the large structure of the mansion. Spatiality is configured by planes, levels, stairs, alleys, floor slabs and especially in the penetrability of one environment to another,” comments Desirée.

The urban space, appropriated by the marginalized culture, and the parties and cultural movements born under viaducts, such as Santa Tereza, the cradle of street culture in Belo Horizonte, and Madureira, in Rio de Janeiro, where the Charme movement emerged, also served as references for the creation of the scenery of Porgy and Bess, which proposes a dialogue with urban art. A large mural of 3mX16m, made by Antonio Lima, scenography assistant, brings references to graffiti.

Pedro Pederneiras is responsible for the lighting of the show. The light design was designed to dialogue directly with the scenes, which happen at the same time, in different levels of the scenario. “The challenge of the illuminator in this montage is to know how to dose light at the right times, which can be, sometimes intimate, sometimes more open. It is a great responsibility to be able to illuminate this opera, which I have known for a long time. I hope that, like the cast, I can also surprise the audience,” he comments.

In setting up the FCS, the story is set in a community born from the occupation of a mansion by the sea. “Small houses grow based on the large structure of the mansion. Spatiality is configured by planes, levels, stairs, alleys, floor slabs and especially in the penetrability of one environment to another,” comments Desirée.

The urban space, appropriated by the marginalized culture, and the parties and cultural movements born under viaducts, such as Santa Tereza, the cradle of street culture in Belo Horizonte, and Madureira, in Rio de Janeiro, where the Charme movement emerged, also served as references for the creation of the scenery of Porgy and Bess, which proposes a dialogue with urban art. A large mural of 3m by 16m, made by Antonio Lima, assistant set designer, brings references to graffiti.

Pedro Pederneiras is responsible for the lighting of the show. The light design was designed to dialogue directly with the scenes, which happen at the same time, in different levels of the scenario. “The challenge of the illuminator in this montage is to know how to dose light at the right times, which can be, sometimes intimate, sometimes more open. It is a great responsibility to be able to illuminate this opera, which I have known for a long time. I hope that, like the cast, I can also surprise the audience,” he comments.

Porgy and Bess

George Gershwin’s Opera

Palácio das Artes (Ave. Afonso Pena, 1.537, downtown, 3236-7400). October 21, 23, 25, 27 and 31 at 8pm and 29 (Sunday) at 7pm. BRL $60 (full price).

Information courtesy of O Tempo, UAI, Causa Operária, Feira Cultural and BHAZ

* Updated on October 28, 2019

About Marques Travae 3303 Articles
Marques Travae. For more on the creator and editor of BLACK WOMEN OF BRAZIL, see the interview here.

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