Fearless Predictions

We Loves You, Porgy!

I firmly believe that there will be standing ovations for the Porgy and Bess at the Coliseum in London between 11 and 21 July this summer – and elsewhere.

Where New York’s current production has taken a controversial Broadway Musical approach and some liberties, the Cape Town Opera, which is touring the UK at the moment, is committed to the opera, using the 1935 score and orchestrations. The action, however, has been moved from Charleston, South Carolina, to Soweto in the 1980s during Apartheid. The dramatic parallels and reasoning are clear.

Michael Williams, the managing director of the company, said in an interview for South African radio before leaving for the UK: “Porgy and Bess was George Gershwin’s attempt to write an opera that showcased the true depth and range of African-American voices. Despite the beauty of his music, the concept challenged both white and black audiences alike, and for many years the opera was presented in a watered-down ‘musical’ format. Even by Gershwin! He wrote the piece to give black singers an opportunity but when it turned out that it wasn’t cutting it with the opera glitterati – the mink and pearls brigade – Ira Gershwin tried to make it into a Broadway show.” Happily, insists Williams, Porgy and Bess is now such a stalwart of the operatic canon that “people know they shouldn’t tamper with it.” At least not with the music. Transferring the setting is another matter, says Williams, insisting that the South African relocation is faithful to the themes and spirit of the opera.“If you pick up any newspaper in South Africa, you’ll see the issues we deal with.”

Tsakane Maswangany, who played the title role in last year’s Winnie the Opera (about Winnie Mandela) , and who sings Bess in this tour, agrees. “However, we are a nation of singers,” proclaims the 32-year-old soprano, based in Italy but back on home turf for Porgy and Bess rehearsals before heading for the UK. “There is something very familiar about singing this music,” she says. “I heard my own African music from when I was a tiny baby and here I am singing with my people and my nation again. It reminds me of where and who I am. It takes me back to being young and the reasons why I’m a singer.”

CTO is South Africa’s only full-time opera company – and its nearest competitor is almost a continent away in Cairo – but it works hard to spread the gospel of opera as widely as possible. “We do a national tour every year to 10 different cities and the kids who do our workshops are the same kids who say, ‘We want to come and sing and audition for you’,” reports Williams. “We did La Bohème and every one of the soloists came through our programme. The average age on stage was 23.”

The company aims to present at least one new African work each season as well as a classic of the repertoire. Recent successes include Poet and Prophetess, a NorrlandsOperan co-production with a libretto by Williams, and the Mandela Trilogy, which will be performed twice at the Wales Millennium Centre before Porgy’s Cardiff dates.

“What we strive to do is not only the European classics,” says Williams. “Do foreign audiences really want to see our version of La Bohème, or is that taking coals to Newcastle? We want to represent the miracle that is South Africa: look at what we can do here, look at the art we can produce.”

And people are taking notice. This September, the CTO Opera Voice of the Nation Ensemble will travel to Berlin at the personal invitation of Sir Simon Rattle for three concert performances of the complete Porgy and Bess with the Berlin Philharmonic. To learn more about the CTO and its mission: CTO site. Meantime, you can see it for yourself in the UK:                                             —MC

Wednesday 6 – Saturday 9 June 2012
Birmingham Hippodrome
web site Box Office 0844 338 5000

Friday 15 – Saturday 16 June
Edinburgh Festival Theatre
web site  Box Office (0)131 529 6000

Saturday 23 – Sunday 24 June
Wales Millennium Centre
web site Box Office 029 2063 6464

Wednesday 27 – Saturday 30 June
Canterbury Marlowe Theatre
web site Box Office 01227 787787

Wednesday 4 – Saturday 7 July
Southampton Mayflower
web site Box Office 02380 711811

Wednesday 11 July – Saturday 21 July
London Coliseum
web site Box Office 0871 911 0200

Mandela Trilogy

Wednesday 20 June – Thursday 21 June
Wales Millennium Centre
web site Box Office 029 2063 6464

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