Virginia Opera Presents the Gershwins’ ‘Porgy and Bess’ at Center for the Arts

Posted: April 19, 2010 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: April 16, 2010 at 3:45 pm

Virginia Opera wraps its 35th anniversary season with a scorching production of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” at Mason’s Center for the Arts Concert Hall on Friday, April 23, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 25, at 2 p.m.

The production, celebrating the opera’s 75th anniversary, is a brave American classic bridging the gap between Broadway and opera.

The clever love story between characters Porgy and Bess explodes with a fiery tempo, amid George and Ira Gershwin’s distinguished musical style featuring jazz, Broadway and opera.

“Porgy and Bess” is based on DuBose Heyward’s novel “Porgy” and the play of the same name that he co-wrote with his wife, Dorothy. The play focuses on African-American life in the early 1920s in fictional Catfish Row set in Charleston, S.C.

Modern history has proven “Porgy and Bess” to be one of the most popular American productions; however, since its 1935 world premiere in Boston, followed by its 1935 Broadway premiere lasting 124 performances, its run has not come without controversy.

In an era of segregation and racism, the avant-garde Jewish American composer, George Gershwin, insisted on an all-black cast for this production to provide authenticity to the opera. Thus, in 1935, classical European opera was challenged by the new genre of American folk opera.

At one point in history, the play’s popularity waned in light of political and social views, only to be reborn in the 1970s as the only opera production to win Tony and Grammy Awards. To this day, the Gershwins’ terms specify that English-speaking countries may only produce “Porgy and Bess” with all-black casts so the singers and actors can bring the characters to life with passion and inspiration.

Gospel choirs from Northern Virginia will join opera singers and Broadway singers, actors and dancers on stage for the last act to enhance the movement and spirituality that is at the heart of Catfish Row.

Baritone Michael Redding returns to Virginia Opera’s stage in the role of Porgy. His previous work includes singing the roles of Crown and Jake with the New York Harlem Productions, Evansville Philharmonic, Opera Carolina and the Natchez Festival of Music.

Redding impressed Virginia Opera audiences with his performances as Gregorio in “Romeo and Juliet” (2005) and as Schaunard in “La Bohème” (2009).

Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown makes her Virginia Opera and U.S. debuts in the role of Bess. A Virginia native, Brown has appeared in critically acclaimed opera, musical theater and recital performances around the world. Brown has performed the Hines-Lee Opera Ensemble, The American Spiritual Ensemble and has toured with the 3 Mo’ Divas. Brown was favorably received as Sarah in the Light Opera Works Chicago regional premiere of “Ragtime,” earning a Best Actress in a musical nomination.

Sharing the spotlight is baritone Timothy Robert Blevins as the villain, Crown. Blevins performed to perfection in Virginia Opera’s previous production of “Porgy and Bess” in 2000. Last December, Blevins starred as the Beggar/Happy Mac in a revival of Duke Ellington’s “Beggar’s Holiday” at Opera Theater of Pittsburgh.

Blevins made his Broadway debut as Sgt. John in “Miss Saigon.” Additional Broadway and off-Broadway credits include “Showboat,” “Sweet Adeline” and “One Touch of Venus” for the New York City Center’s Encore Series; the new Disney production of “King David” for the re-opening of the New Amsterdam Theatre; and as Husky Miller in the Goodspeed Opera House production of “Carmen Jones” at Lincoln Center.

Blevins was recently featured on the soundtracks of Disney’s animated film, “Home on the Range,” as well as Disney’s film “Enchanted,” where he sings the steel drum player for the Oscar-nominated song, “That’s How You Know.” In addition, he can be heard on the soundtrack for “Malcolm X.” He has also made a guest appearance on “As the World Turns.”

Joining the illustrious cast is Virginia native soprano Aundi Marie Moore as Serena, lyric soprano Nicole Jenkins as Clara and baritone Lawrence Craig as the “happy dust”-dealing Sportin’ Life. All three singers are making their Virginia Opera debuts.

Moore is a recent alumna of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program with Washington National Opera. Jenkins is a Virginia Opera Spectrum resident artist and also the outreach choir coordinator for the production. Craig is a veteran of jazz, classical, Broadway and modern music performances; perhaps his most unusual role was as both stage director and Sportin’ Life in the Albanian National Opera’s recent production of “Porgy and Bess.”

Director Greg Ganakas returns to Virginia Opera, having previously directed “The Highlights of Porgy and Bess” (2010) for the association’s education department, “The Barber of Seville” (2009), “The Family Day Pirates of Penzance” and “The Family Day Pinocchio” productions (2007 and 2008) and “Carousel” and “Oklahoma!” in the early 1990s with great success.

He most recently collaborated with Disney Live Entertainment and Radio City Music Hall Productions. He has also staged productions for the Minnesota Opera, Central City Opera, Omaha Symphony, Glimmerglass Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Carnegie Hall, Madison Square Garden and Lincoln Center.

The world-renowned Maestro Peter Mark returns to conduct for his 35th season.

The Richmond Symphony accompanies the production, which is sung in English with English Digitext Supertitles projected above the stage.

A discussion, free to ticket holders, begins 45 minutes prior to the performance on the Center’s Grand Tier III. Pre-performance discussions are sponsored by the Friends of the Center for the Arts.

Tickets are $86, $72 and $44 (Friday) and $98, $80 and $48 (Sunday). Charge by phone at 888-945-2468 or visit

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