Spoleto's 'Porgy and Bess' is the opera, not musical theater

We noticed recently that Spoleto Festival USA’s forthcoming production of the classic folk opera “Porgy and Bess,” for which Charleston was the inspiration and setting, was a quick box-office sellout. We sat down virtually with Jennifer Scott, Spoleto’s Director of Marketing and Public Relations, to get an update on the production, which will be presented six times at the Gaillard Center during the 2016 Festival in late May and early June. Here’s the Q & A:

How quickly did the six shows sell out?
We reached capacity for all six performances three weeks after going on sale for the general public, on Jan. 14.

Do you know if most tickets were bought by Charlestonians, or were tourists and other visitors major buyers?
The Spoleto Festival USA audience mix is generally a 50/50 mix of “away” and “local” with “local” being from the tri-county area. Ticket buyers to date fall into this same split. It is difficult to tell how many in our audiences are from out of town as we do not determine why they are visiting Charleston, apart from attending our shows. We have built up a very loyal audience who attend the Festival on an annual basis. Ticket buyers to date (it is still very early in our ticket sales cycle) also include people new to the Festival. This encompasses tickets to many Festival events, not just "Porgy and Bess," which is one of around 40 productions and concerts we have this year.

In 2011, a greatly revised "Porgy and Bess," directed by Diane Paulus, opened to great controversy at the American Repertory Theater in New York City. There have been other revised versions, going back to the early 1940s, when most of the opera’s recitatives were eliminated and replaced with dialogue, which greatly reduced the length of the show. Which version is being presented by Spoleto?
We are presenting the opera, not a revision. We are using the original 1935 opera score.

Excerpt from George Gershwin's introduction to the original 1935 opera production of "Porgy and Bess."  CREDIT: Music Division, Library of Congress.

Excerpt from George Gershwin's introduction to the original 1935 opera production of "Porgy and Bess."

CREDIT: Music Division, Library of Congress.

The 2011 Paulus production was a Gershwin Estate-endorsed musical theater production for Broadway, not an opera production. This is obviously a very different style. One of the fascinating aspects of “Porgy and Bess” is that, although created by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward (the husband and wife theatrical team from Charleston) and Ira Gershwin (George's brother) as an opera, there have been several reiterations as a musical theater piece. But the original production over the years has gained recognition as a serious operatic work, with the Houston Grand Opera 1976 production being a special landmark.

Our Porgy is baritone Lester Lynch, who performed this role for the Lyric Opera of Chicago to great acclaim in 2008, and our Bess is esteemed soprano Alyson Cambridge, who will be singing this important role for the first time. She has previously sung the role of Clara.

(Note: For all of the pre-production controversy, the 2011 Broadway production won the 2012 Tony Award for Best Revival of a Musical and Audra McDonald won a Tony for her portrayal of Bess. This review in The New Yorker by Hilton Als encapsulates the story well.)

The costumes for this production were designed by Jonathan Green, the Charleston artist. He recounted, in an interview in the Post and Courier last October, what he told Nigel Redden, your General Director, regarding the costumes: "Can I do it from [this] perspective: 'What if Africans had come here like everyone else?’ ” What will Green's "look" look like compared to the costumes and sets from other productions?

"Porgy and Bess" costumes sketches by Jonathan Green include, from left, Maria, owner of the cook shop, and one of the beach folk.

"Porgy and Bess" costumes sketches by Jonathan Green include, from left, Maria, owner of the cook shop, and one of the beach folk.

At this point of the production process, the sets and costumes are still being made! However, the reason that Jonathan Green was the first and obvious choice as Visual Designer was that he brings an authentic Gullah vision and experience to this production. His design aesthetic married with Director David Herskovits’s overall vision for this production aims to show the audience a Charleston and a Catfish Row it recognizes, while also taking the audience on a visual journey that may result in them walking out of the Gaillard and seeing the city in a new way.

With any new production, we do not want to give away too many specifics, but it will be a very special and distinctive production that we hope will resonate deeply with people.

What kind of national buzz is developing around the Spoleto production? Do you expect out-of-town critics, perhaps from New York, to come to hear it?
Our season announcement press release was picked up nationally, including in the New York Times and also extensively via the Associated Press wire service as well as several opera and classical music industry outlets. We have also had excellent regional and local coverage, with this production considered a highlight of the Festivals 40th season.

 It is too early to confirm national press attendance, but we do anticipate that national and international opera critics will attend and review this production, as well as our two other operas, both of which are U.S. premieres (“The Little Match Girl” and “La Double Coquette.”)

The Music Critics Association of North America will be holding its annual meeting in Charleston during the Festival and members will attend all three operas. Certainly the relative rarity of “Porgy and Bess” being performed in Charleston – its home –  alongside Spoleto Festival USA’s international reputation for its opera productions, and also the Festival’s return to the renovated Gaillard, have ignited a significant amount of interest. Our award-winning and acclaimed Director David Herskovits and Jonathan Green’s role as Visual Designer also add to this buzz.