We'll pardon the Atlanta Opera staff today if they forgo their morning java for a bit of bubbly in their office coffee cups. The opera's second-ever staging of the great American opera "Porgy and Bess" finished its two-weekend run Sunday afternoon, selling out all 2,750 seats at the Cobb Energy Centre at every performance.
In a still struggling economy, this is nothing short of a miracle, considering that a night at the opera is not a cheap endeavor (even opening night tickets in the tippy-top Grand Tier were $82 a piece). The production also had the challenge of an ongoing weekend repaving construction project nightmare outside on I-75. Opera purists, meanwhile, were wary of the production's innovative use of rear-projection technology to beam real Weather Channel hurricane footage behind the company during the opera's second act climax.
And then, there's the considerable racial baggage "Porgy and Bess" drags around in a modern America which often makes it the opera equivalent of "Gone With the Wind" for many African-Americans. But it's the opera's well-known Gershwin pieces, including "Summertime," "I Got Plenty of Nuttin'," "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "There's a Boat Leavin' Soon" that have become Great American Songbook standards and possibly a reason the piece endures.
For Atlanta Opera education manager Emmalee Iden, it comes down to this: "Thank God for "American Idol!" Indeed, the hit Fox singing competition has introduced "Summertime" to a whole new generation of potential opera fans. On opening night, for example, we sat behind two rows of excited, beautifully dressed college students and their music professor on a Saturday night.
For tenor Larry D. Hylton, who has been featured in "Porgy and Bess" in over 300 performances in 15 countries around the globe, the opera's beauty far outweighs its baggage. In the current Atlanta Opera production, he portrayed Mingo.
"Should African-Americans still be performing 'Porgy and Bess?'" he asked recently during an interview with Intel. "My answer is hands down, yes. For me, the real disservice would be to put this beautiful Gershwin opera on a shelf in a closet and not perform it. It's an inspired masterpiece that continues to be a gift, not just for America, but for the world. It's piece of American history. In this country, we have a tendency to sweep things under the rug. This is a beautiful story about friends, family and faith. It needs to be told."
The Atlanta Opera will close its 2010-11 season next month with Mozart's "Cosi Fan Tutte" April 9, 12, 15 and 17.