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Sunday, April 18, 2021

Fort Worth Opera’s Porgy and Bess ends Tuesday

The final performance of the Fort Worth Opera’s production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess at Bass Performance Hall will be Tuesday (April 30) at 7:30 p.m. The opera is part of the 2019 Fort Worth Opera Festival.

https://www.fwopera.org/

Considered one of the most important operas written in the 20th century, George Gershwin’s beloved Porgy and Bess has captivated audiences across the globe for over 80 years.

The opera, with music by George Gershwin and libretto by his brother Ira, as well as DuBose Heyward, who wrote the original source material, was controversial even before its first production in 1935. During a keynote lecture on April 27, Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic and National Book Critics Circle award-winning author Margo Jefferson discussed the cultural implications of the opera which premiered while America was still very segregated. Jefferson said that cultural elites – both black and white – criticized the opera.

Following its premiere, the opera was often cut and staged more as a Broadway musical than an opera, save for several world tours sponsored by the State Department used primarily to demonstrate to the world how well integrated America had become.

While the opera was rarely performed for many years – decades even – the music found a receptive audience. “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nothing,” and “I Loves You Porgy,” were covered by a variety of artists. “Summertime,” also saw Texas’ own Janis Joplin record a rock/blues version.

It was Texas really that restored Porgy and Bess to its operatic roots. In 1976, the Houston Grand Opera restored the complete original for the first time in decades. The production won the Houston Grand Opera a Tony Award and a Grammy Award. Portraying Porgy in the Houston Opera’s version was SMU graduate Donnie Ray Albert.

For the Fort Worth Opera’s version, opera director Garnett Bruce brings Francesca Zambello’s acclaimed revival of Porgy and Bess to life on the stage of Bass Performance Hall, with spectacular new scenery created by British set designer Peter J. Davison.

Based upon DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy, the opera follows the impoverished residents of the neighborhood of Catfish Row on the shores of Charleston, South Carolina.

This tragic love story centers on a disabled beggar named Porgy and his efforts to save the troubled Bess from a life of shame, addiction, and ruin.

While most previous versions of the opera have had Porgy use a cart, this one has Porgy using a crutch. The performances are uniformly excellent. As usual, the showstopping performance is the pimp and drug dealer Sportin’ Life, played with a mixture of James Brown/Michael Jackson and Prince by Jermaine Smith. The character’s signature song, “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” is a standout. But the leads are equally strong as are the featured secondary characters.

The Fort Worth Opera production is well worth seeing and hearing. Don’t like opera? If so, this is the place to start.

Gershwin has littered his one opera with better tunes than most 10 operas combined. George Gershwin was diligent about writing “American” music and here, at his creative height, he demonstrated how innovative he could take the music he – and the public – loved. 

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Robert Francis
Robert is a Fort Worth native and longtime editor of the Fort Worth Business Press. He is a former president of the local Society of Professional Journalists and was a freelancer for a variety of newspapers, weeklies and magazines, including American Way, BrandWeek and InformatonWeek. A graduate of TCU, Robert has held a variety of writing and editing positions at publications such as the Grand Prairie Daily News and InfoWorld. He is also a musician and playwright.

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