If you close your eyes, you can almost feel the warm Southern air blow through the theater as soprano Brandie Sutton belts out the indelible “Summertime” from the folk opera “Porgy and Bess.” Even though it’s been more than 80 years since its groundbreaking debut, it’s as if the emotional pangs and heartbreak associated with the classic tale of tragic love in the deep South has been bottled up and released onto the South Florida stage.
When George Gershwin set out to produce an opera based on DuBose and Dorothy Heyward’s play “Porgy,” he knew the work would be head-turning at the least. For the composer behind hits such as “Rhapsody in Blue” and “An American in Paris,” it wasn’t just melodious, operatic songs that he felt would be memorable; it was also his casting of a predominantly black cast to sing, act and portray life in the Charleston slums in the early 20th century. At its 1935 debut, traditionally white opera audiences were shocked, and black community members became spirited at their chance to revel in a classical theater setting. Fast-forward to today, and the South Florida Symphony Orchestra is looking to pick up where Gershwin left off.
To produce an opera today and present it to a contemporary audience is no easy feat. But to produce an opera that’s considered one of America’s best stories with an all-black cast, some of whom are from South Florida, to an audience that mixes both seasoned theater aficionados and first-time operagoers from an urban community is a radical idea altogether. However, it’s one that the South Florida Symphony Orchestra, an organization with a history of rarely backing down from challenges, is proud to present.
Founded in 1997 as the Key West Symphony Orchestra by Maestra Sebrina Maria Alfonso, the organization expanded two years later to become the South Florida Symphony Opera, a company that now serves audiences from as far north as Monroe County and as south as Mile Marker 0. As one of the few classical symphonies in South Florida, its carried the torch of some of history’s greatest composers for the benefit of local audiences.
The idea of presenting “Porgy and Bess” came to Alfonso almost organically. She had been working with Fort Lauderdale-based baritone Neil Nelson for nearly four years, notably producing pop concerts together. “Neil is an incredible voice, and I’ve always wanted to do something special with him that would be something that the community enjoyed,” Alfonso says. “But I couldn’t figure out what that was until he suggested we present ‘Porgy and Bess.'”
Alfonso says she couldn’t pass up this opportunity, especially considering her personal connection to the opera. The first time she saw the opera was in conservatory at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore.
“When the character Serena sang her aria about losing her man, you could hear a pin drop; the audience was so silent. And when she was done, the audience erupted. It was so powerful. So when Neil had brought the idea to perform “Porgy and Bess,” it brought up so many memories that I couldn’t shake.”
Sebrina Maria Alfonso
But Alfonso knew that they just couldn’t present an ordinary production of the beloved opera. It had to be special. So she enlisted the help of several heavy hitters in the theater world, including Richard Jay-Alexander, a 40-plus-year veteran of the Broadway stage who produced and directed productions of “Les Miserables,” “Miss Saigon” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
As show’s the stage director, Jay-Alexander’s vision was one Alfonso felt was one of the most progressive she’s ever seen. For example, Alfonso originally had the orchestra placed in its traditional location of the pit. But as Alfonso recounts, Jay-Alexander said, “How are we going to have an orchestra playing Gershwin’s memorable music from the pit? They should be on the stage.” So, guess what: The company’s 70-piece orchestra will appear on stage alongside the cast.
In addition to Broadway veteran Jay-Alexander, Alfonso also reined in the talents of Paul Tate DePoo, an internationally recognized set and production designer who has worked with the likes of Tony Award winner Savion Glover and on the Tony Award-winning production of “Anything Goes.” A Key West native himself who matriculated in the orchestra’s Symphony in the Schools program before designing the sets for the Broadway-bound productions of “Titanic” and “War of the Roses,” DePoo gladly took on the assignment of transforming the theater stage into the slums of Catfish Row and early 20th-century Charleston, South Carolina. But DePoo just didn’t create a typical set; he created a virtual one.
Instead of fake, plastic oak trees or unrealistic wooden house structures meant to emulated the Catfish Row, DePoo suggested a set that used blank blocks of different dimensions and placed throughout the stage. On them, video projections of the actual setting would be casted, creating a true, constantly in-motion depiction of Charleson with depth and impact instead of the ordinary static set.
Despite the age-old tale of “Porgy and Bess” displayed in classic opera fashion, for Alfonso this production is something truly different. “We’re doing something with Richard and Paul’s progressive visions,” she says. “We’re melding the old and the new. Yes, the music is true to opera themes, but discovering things like the new technology Paul is presenting is going to elevate everything we’re doing.”
The cast itself is a who’s who of theater performers. After securing Nelson in the titular role of Porgy, the company also confirmed stage veterans Brandie Sutton to play Bess and Jermaine Smith to portray Sportin’ Life. Local performers are also joining these well-known artists on stage, thanks to the South Florida Symphony Orchestra holding open auditions in Fort Lauderdale.
With such a special, never-seen-before production in the works, the symphony wanted to showcase it to an audience who would not only appreciate the performance, but might be inspired to delve deeper into the arts. So, the company set off to create several community outreach programs to the African American communities, including traditionally all-black fraternities and sororities, and urban neighborhoods. Leading up to the Jan. 16, 19 and 23 performances, the company held several “Symphony Chats,” or community sessions that break down the perceived barrier that operas have traditionally had.
The South Florida Symphony Orchestra also engaged Sen. Perry Thurston and his wife, Dawn, to be the presenting chairs of the show. Through his work in the African American communities, both as a community leader and activist, Sen. Thurston has been active in promoting the arts and the orchestra to neighborhoods that have traditionally been more interested in football and basketball. And so far, it’s worked.
“I already have several fraternities who have specifically requested that we save them seats at the production. With their participation, as well as others’, this can be a catalyst to future opportunities with the community.”
Sen. Perry Thurston
But Thurston admits an obvious hook is the all-black cast itself. “For some people, there has to be something that makes them take a second look,” he says. “Community members can say for the first time that ‘these entertainers look like me.’ And that has to be powerful.”
Former news broadcaster Jacqueline “J.C.” Hayward has been tapped as the chair of the gala, which will take place at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on January 23. A part-time Fort Lauderdale resident, Hayward came into national prominence for being the first female news anchor Washington, D.C., in the 1970s, and the first African American female news presenter. As an avid arts supporter and enthusiast (Hayward once considered a career as a concert pianist), she has been a South Florida Symphony Orchestra season ticket holder for several years and couldn’t pass up the chance to get involved with its production of “Porgy and Bess.”
“I had the opportunity to befriend the very first Porgy, Todd Duncan, who Gershwin hand selected to play the lead role,” Hayward says. “So the history of this opera has a special meaning to me. I remember hearing about how Todd Duncan staged a protest in Washington, D.C., in 1936 due to African Americans not being allowed to attend the show. Eventually, they were admitted, and it was he who opened up the National Theatre to the black community.”
Even with the clear social and demographic impact of the production that echoes to this very day, Hayward doesn’t want the audience to forget an essential part of the show: the music. “‘Porgy and Bess’ is something where you can leave the theater and continue humming,” she says. “You know the melody, you know the tunes. You might not know the words, but you know how it sounds. And isn’t that what good music is all about?”
Jan. 19, 2019: Tennessee Williams Theatre, Key West
Jan. 23, 2019: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale
20th Season South Florida Symphony Gala January 23, 2019 @ 5:00 pm
Broward Center for the Performing Arts
201 SW 5th Ave, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33312 For tickets please visit southfloridasymphony.org