These days it feels like summertime is eternal in Tel Aviv, but although the weather will soon change, Summertime – the classic song from the opera Porgy and Bess IS eternal. Opening the season at the Israeli Opera on November 12, the Tour of the Cape Town Opera comes to Israel for the first time with their acclaimed production of Porgy and Bess, directed by Christine Crouse, with set and costumes designed by Michael Mitchell and choreography by Sibonakaliso Ndaba. David Stern, Musical Director of the Israeli Opera and Albert Horne will conduct the Opera Orchestra – the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon LeZion.
Porgy and Bess was first performed in 1935, with music by George Gershwin (1898 – 1937), libretto by DuBose Heyward and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. George Gershwin read DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy in the mid-20s and was interested in collaborating on a folk opera. By the time Gershwin’s schedule allowed him to begin work, Heyward and his wife Dorothy had already co-written a play based on the novel, and both play and novel form the basis for the libretto.
According to the Library of Congress American Memory site, the four creative partners began their collaboration in February 1934. George Gershwin spent several weeks on Folly Island, off the coast of Charleston, North Carolina with the Heywards, where they observed the local customs and listened to the music of the African-American Gullah culture of South Carolina. The score incorporates elements of jazz, blues and folk elements. Some say that Gershwin’s music was also influenced by Jewish liturgical music – Jon Pareles, in a New York Times article, notes a similarity between “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and the Torah blessing.
Porgy and Bess opened up breakthrough performance opportunities for African-Americans, with Ira Gershwin stipulating that only African-American performers can be cast in the lead roles. In the 1936 tour, Todd Duncan led the cast in an ultimately successful protest against the National Theatre’s segregation policy, resulting in the first time an integrated audience attended a performance at the National Theatre.
Yet despite its overwhelming popularity, the opera has not been without its own share of controversy. The romantic attempt of the disabled Porgy to rescue Bess from a life dependent on violent men like Crown, her lover and Sportin’ Life, her dealer, against the backdrop of life on Catfish Row, has led some critics to say that the opera perpetuates stereotypes of African-Americans as associated with poverty, violence and drugs. Viewed as empowering by some and oppressive by others, the Cape Town Opera will certainly provide a different point of view.
An article in The Times written during the Cape Town Opera’s UK tour, quotes Managing Director Michael Williams: “And Porgy and Bess is the opera that has so much to say about our situation here, in such a powerful way,” he says. “The opera is about perseverance, abuse, addiction, how to rise up from poverty … a lot of these issues are still hot topics in South Africa.”
The Cape Town Opera was founded in 1999, and has enjoyed world wide success. The opera initiates educational and community programs, as well as providing a platform for introducing South African talents to the international stage. Christine Crouse, director of the current production, is the Opera’s Artistic Director.
The opera will be sung in English, with English and Hebrew surtitles, duration – approximately 3 hours. Each performance is preceded by an introductory talk that begins an hour before show time, with post-performance discussions and backstage tours on select dates. “Towards Opening” will take place on Saturday, November 13 at 11:00; tickets for the talk are 70 NIS. Performances will take place at the Israeli Opera/Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center from November 12 – 27. Additional information (in English) and a complete list of performance times can be found on the Israeli Opera website.