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Arts Desk
Every week, on the air and online, you'll hear music from new releases and favorite albums that have been carefully selected for your listening pleasure. Check out our posts for commentary from our hosts and video highlights for each Classical Album of the Week.

Classical Album of the Week: Metropolitan Opera's GRAMMY-Nominated Cast Album, Porgy and Bess

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February 8, 2021. As we head towards Valentine's Day, we turn to a new recording of a great American love story. The cast album of the Metropolitan Opera's 2019 production of Porgy and Bess, starring Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles, is up for a 2020 Grammy and is our Classical Album of the Week. Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin's 1935 opera about life in an African American community in Charleston, has been performed over the years on Broadway and in opera houses with new productions reflecting changing perspectives on race, music, and theater.  Here's more about the story behind the opera.

The Met's season-opening 2019 production was part of a broader effort exploring race in opera, which included an exhibition titled, Black Voices at the Met, exploring the company's hiring practices with respect to Black artists over the years. A companion recording, Black Voices Rise, includes performances by contralto Marion Anderson, who in 1955 was the first African American to perform a leading role at the Met, baritione Robert McFerrin, who made his debut several weeks later, and soprano Leontyne Price, among others.

In 1935, Gershwin's collaborators—his lyricist brother Ira, and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, who had produced a Broadway play based on DuBose's 1925 novel, Porgy—were all white.

But Gershwin stipulated that Porgy and Bess was to always be performed with a Black cast. When, in 1985, the Met first staged it, many of the principal cast members were making their debuts there. In contrast, among this production's leads—all but Frederick Ballentine, who plays Sportin' Life—have established themselves at The Met.  They include Golda Schultz, as Clara; Denyse Graves in the role of Maria; Latonia Moore singing Serena, Ryan Speedo Green as Jake, Alfred Walker as Crown, and Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles.

Here's a video of excerpts from the production:

A staging that defies the stereotypes

The story of Porgy and Bess as told in this latest production joins the lush and vibrant music with strong characters who defy stereotypes.

Porgy, while disabled, has a strength that powers his drive to protect Bess. Bess, in abusive relationships with violent dockworker Crown, and drug dealer and con man Sportin' Life, is trying to find a way forward. The 60-member chorus creates a strong sense of community.  "And every individual in that community of Catfish Row," says director James Robinson, "every member of the chorus, has a story." 

Angel Blue, in Philadelphia to sing a concert version of the opera with The Philadelphia Orchestra, talked about learning to inhabit her title character in the Met production:

"I love the acting aspect of opera; the music of course is beautiful, but there are so many facets to Bess's character and I had the opportunity to work very closely with our director," she says. "He helped me to understand her as not just not just a musical character, but also as a woman, and a person who's constantly struggling with making better decisions for herself."

A human story about love

"Bess is driven by the idea of love, says Angel. "She's caught up in this idea that there's this man named Porgy who overlooks all of her faults. And he just loves her because she's Bess. And he tells her flat out in the first duet that they sing together, when they declare their love for each other, he tells her, I want no wrinkle on your brow. Porgy's entire life is based, in my opinion, on making Bess happy."

Even songs that have become familar popular favorites are infused here with the power and drama of the story.  Eric Owens reflects, "It could be really easy for us to just sing,'Bess, You is My Woman Now' as a love duet, but there's a lot of subtext. Finding those moments and trying to make them true to the show - there's a lot of responsibility there."

Here's a video about the production:

This recording captures the excitement of the performance, recorded live at the Metropolitan Opera on September 23rd and October 16th, 2019; and the applause reminds us of the energy that can fill a packed opera house.  The three-CD set has 56 tracks, so here's just a sample of just some of the music and great voices that lift us along as the story unfolds:

ACT 1: "Summertime" (Golda Schultz and Metropolitan Opera Chorus)

"My man's gone now" (Latonia Moore and Metropolitan Opera Chorus) 

ACT 2: "Oh, I got plenty o'nuttin"(Eric Owens, Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Latonia Moore, Denyce Graves); "Bess you is my woman now" (Eric Owens and Angel Blue); "It ain't necessarily so" (Frederick Ballentine and Metropolitan Opera Chorus)

ACT 3: "There's a boat that's leaving soon for New York" (Frederick Ballentine, Angel Blue); "Oh, Lawd, I'm on my way" (Eric Owens and Metropolitan Opera Chorus)

Black History Month on WRTI is supported by Temple University, home to the first Department of Africology and African American studies in the country to offer a doctoral program.

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