Even if you don’t know who George and Ira Gershwin are, or have never seen a production of Porgy and Bess, you know their music. So much of the work, which was actually conceived as an opera by George Gershwin, is so ingrained in the American popular songbook that once you hear a few notes of any of the great songs like Summertime or It Ain’t Necessarily So, you can hum along. The work itself presents a lot of difficulties – not just from the sheer size of the cast, the different sets and the overall complexity of it, but also the political and racial questions that come from a work that’s about African Americans living in a tenement that’s written by two New York Jews and a Southern white man, DuBose Heyward.
Thankfully, our society has changed a lot since the opera’s debut in 1935, and I was excited to spend my summer working on the Seattle Opera production with a favorite baritone, Gordon Hawkins. Gordon is an amazing artist. He won the Luciano Pavarotti International Vocal Competition in 1992. He has a powerful voice with a rare ability to make it emotionally heartbreaking and tender. I actually cried backstage a couple times listening to him and the pain and longing he conveyed as the disabled beggar, Porgy – just too beautiful!
Of course, I wanted to do a sock monkey for him, but I was a bit gun shy after preparing my show for the “New Visions” exhibit at McCaw Hall (see my post about “Verboten”). I thought the best way to proceed was to tell Gordon I wanted to make a Porgy for him, and let him decide if it was OK. He was all for it!
I pushed myself to add a lot of details to this character. I found a crutch from a ski set for the American Girls doll line that was the perfect size for him. I wrapped it with cloth strips from a favorite old shirt of mine, added some bits of leather and distressed it. The result came really close to the actual stage version he used, and with the club foot I gave him, he needed that crutch. My boss, Ron, helped me distress the pants and the wool I used to make the cardigan. I added a removable hankie to his cardigan
pocket, and leather tabs to his suspenders, trying to bring it as close as possible to the costume worn on stage. The most fun I had was making a felt fedora for him. I made my own pattern and kept cutting it down until it fit just right, added a hat band and distressed it.
The production was terrific – for the most part, it was an entirely new group of performers who’d never sung at Seattle Opera before, and they brought a refreshing energy and enthusiasm to the show every night. The first costume change I had backstage with Gordon was primarily an instrumental point in the show with little singing. I went a bit early to the change each night – I felt completely immersed in and surrounded by this lush, gorgeous Gershwin sound. I could hear bits of other Gershwin pop songs throughout the orchestration, and a little Rhapsody in Blue every now and then – absolute heaven!
Porgy and Bess is one of the most beautiful and fun productions I’ve worked since my first show at SO in 2002. I wish they were all like that –