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March 31, 2012

'Porgy and Bess' receives admirable staging at Morgan State

First, you have to admire the chutzpah.

Morgan State University Opera went way out on a limb, artistically and financially, to present a fully-staged production of "Porgy and Bess," a work of daunting proportions and challenges.

Then you have to admire the results, which went considerably beyond the college level.

For one thing, with the help of stellar artists, some of them MSU alumni, the level of singing in the principal roles Friday night was about as good as you could find at major opera houses anywhere today. (Those performers will be featured again Sunday afternoon; an alternate group sings Saturday night.)

Given the crucial choral part in this opera, another decided plus is this venture is the presence of the justly famed Morgan State Choir. On Friday, the choristers may not have been entirely comfortable with the acting and dancing side of things, but produced a stirring sound.

The budget allowed for some key assets -- a sizable ...

set, purchased from Opera Company of Philadelphia, that offered sufficient atmosphere and allowed for easy flow of the action; and a professional orchestra in the pit, the Mid-Atlantic Symphony, led with a sure and expressive hand by Julien Benichou.

Hope Clarke, a seasoned, sensitive director/choreographer with a Tony nomination among her long list of credits, deftly emphasized the sense of genuine community on Catfish Row, along with the superstitions and pettiness that threatened it. Some of the blocking and dance sequences looked rudimentary, but the key elements of the drama were effectively conveyed.

That drama, and the music driving it, have been well honored in this Morgan staging. This is the real "Porgy and Bess," in its unabashed grand opera form. No big cuts, no Broadway-style reductions to George Gershwin's brilliant score or orchestrations.

It's a great reminder of the continued potency of the original work, with its ever-fascinating story by DuBose Heyward, who fashioned the libretto (with significant input from his wife Dorothy) and a good deal of the lyrics (with contributions from Ira Gershwin).

On Friday night, Kevin Short commanded the stage as Porgy. The bass-baritone filled out the music with an exceptional rich, even tone and vivid, often quite individualistic phrasing. He was particularly compelling in the final scene, as Porgy slowly realizes that Bess has deserted him.

Short, with the help of the vibrant Ruby Weston (Serena) and Leah Hawkins (Maria), made "Oh Where's My Bess" an affecting high point of the evening.

Kishna Davis tore into the role of Bess, revealing the character's physical and moral volatility -- Bess is the ultimate "sometime thing" -- to telling effect. The soprano's plush voice hit the spot, whether in Bess' sweet little goodbye on the way to the picnic or soaring in the "I Loves You Porgy" duet.

The lithe and nimble Larry Hylton caught the oily attractiveness of Sportin' Life and sang with delicious flair. Lester Lynch was a dynamic force, vocally and theatrically, as Crown.

In most cases, supporting roles were ably filled, showcasing lots of promising talent among the university's voice students. Shana Oshiro, as Clara, sang "Summertime" sweetly. I also especially admired the evocative work of Joseph Johnson (Honey Man), Melodye Shipmon (Strawberry Woman) and Anthony Marciano (Crab Man).

Technical glitches, mostly with lighting, took a toll Friday, but nothing derailed this earnest and spirited effort.  I couldn't help but think, though, how much more satisfying it would have been to experience this production at the Lyric Opera House instead.

I'm afraid the cavernous Gilliam Concert Hall at the Murphy Fine Arts Center just doesn't cut it acoustically, or in ambiance. At the Lyric, amplification would not have been needed (it was, thankfully, used moderately here). Oh well.

I hasten to add that it is important to have this "Porgy" at Morgan, where the first Bess, Baltimore's Anne Brown, once studied (Morgan College then). It's a fitting way to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the arts center and, above all, to show off promising voice students at the school and the growth of the opera department under the guidance of Vincent Dion Stringer.

And there's another element worth noting -- the opportunity to see this classic opera about African Americans produced by an African American institution. That's significant and valuable in itself.

Final performances are Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.

Posted by Tim Smith at 3:27 PM | | Comments (2)
Categories: Clef Notes


Thank you for your honest and sincere comments. I thoroughly enjoyed the production. Perhaps because my daughter played the alternate role of Serena.
Events like these are so good to broaden ones perspective and world view: I wonder how many people in Baltimore have ever been to an opera. Talk about "Bucket lists," An opera and perhaps a ballet are definitely some of things someone must do before they are called home. Again, thank you for your review.

And thank you for your comments. I could not agree more that everyone should experience the fine arts. TIM

I caught the Saturday evening performance with the alternate cast. Many of the major roles were covered by students at the school and, once again, the result was thrilling. I sat next to a person who for some reason did not understand that these were students performing. He remarked how wonderful it was to have a professional production playing on campus. Congratulations to the school, Mr. Stringer, Ms. Davis, Mr. Benichou and all of the performers who gave us a profound, entertaining, and stirring musical and theatrical experience.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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