Friday, February 25, 2011

After blazing through the City of Light, The Atlanta Opera brings "Porgy" back home

Posted By on Fri, Feb 25, 2011 at 9:38 AM

The Atlanta Opera chorus taking a first glimpse of the stage at the historic Opéra Comique, where they performed in Porgy and Bess in 2008.
  • Laura English-Robinson
  • The Atlanta Opera chorus taking a first glimpse of the historic Opéra Comique in Paris, where they performed in "Porgy and Bess" in 2008.
Over the next two weekends, the Atlanta Opera will stage Porgy and Bess at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center. It's a special production for many reasons, but perhaps most of all because members of the Atlanta Opera chorus are reviving the crucial role they played in a production of Porgy at Paris' renowned Opéra Comique in 2008. In short, Atlanta audiences will have the opportunity to hear a performance like those that thrilled Parisian audiences on one of Europe's most prestigious stages, right here at home. No plane ticket required.

In 2005, the Atlanta Opera chorus caught the attention of directors at Paris' Opéra Comique, and the chorus was asked to participate in that theater's production of Porgy and Bess in 2008. Although individual opera singers routinely travel the world performing on various stages as a part of their job, an entire chorus touring for an opera is relatively rare. Nonetheless, directors at the Opéra Comique felt so strongly about the Atlanta Opera chorus they deemed it worthwhile to bring the entire crew over to Paris. The cast shared suites at a hotel in the 11th Arrondissement for six weeks while they rehearsed and performed at Paris' historic Opéra Comique theater, one of the most famous opera stages in the world.

“When this came up, it was pretty exciting,” recalls tenor Mel Foster, a chorus member and an associate professor in voice at Morehouse. “To actually set foot in Paris was like a dream come true. And to realize we're standing on the very same stage where Bizet's Carmen premiered was fantastic.”

Rehearsals and performances kept the cast busy, but also left a bit of free time to explore Paris. The Louvre, Versailles, the Orangerie, the Musee Rodin, the Picasso Museum, wine country, or simply strolling the Champs-Elysees, even sampling escargots, were among the highlights recalled by the cast.

When it came time to perform, one of the things that surprised the Atlanta chorus was the wildly enthusiastic response of Parisian audiences. “We had thunderous, rhythmic applause at the end of each performance,” recalls soprano Laura English-Robinson, chorus member and professor of voice at Spelman. “That was a new experience for me. It would go on for minutes!”

“The clapping of the audience is probably one of the most incredible things we remember from the trip,” agrees Foster. “Every night we must have done between five and seven curtain calls. When it happened the first time, we were in awe. We were like 'What are they doing? Why are they doing that? They're going to keep doing that?' No one was leaving the hall! It was incredibly gratifying.”

The performers also took the show to Caen, Grenada and Luxembourg, where the reception was the same. Having sat in on a final dress rehearsal last night for the current Atlanta production, I can say it's no wonder the Parisian audiences went nuts. Under the direction of Walter Huff, the chorus is powerful and weighty, yet awesomely supple, perfectly at home with the show's operatic elements, but able to weave in the music's gospel and jazz inflections with ease. The chorus in Porgy is called upon to portray the residents of the impoverished Charleston community Catfish Row. They're on stage nearly the entire show, and they must run the whole dramatic gamut over the course of the evening: joy, grief, comedy, tragedy, cruelty, kindness. More than any other opera, Porgy asks a chorus to give so much, and the Atlanta Opera chorus hits it out of the park.

Many of the principals who performed the leading roles in Paris are also joining the production here in Atlanta. “We call ourselves the Porgy Family,” says Robinson, who claims that being reunited on stage with so many players from the Paris production of 2008 is like a family reunion. “We'll get a sense of the sound we had in Paris, and we'll really step up to the plate.”

Foster likewise says that the singers who went to Paris are now far more than just members of a chorus. “We were all stretched in wonderful ways. Whatever preconceived notions we had about ourselves were quickly discarded. We had to discard them in order to come together as a group for the performance. It really was a once in a lifetime experience.”

All performances of the Atlanta Opera's Porgy and Bess are sold out.

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