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November 2014
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Bass-ic Instincts: From Porgy to Wotan

Eric Owens as Porgy, c. Todd Rosenberg

Eric Owens as Porgy, c. Todd Rosenberg

Live Lyric Opera Broadcast, Monday at 7:15 pm

Bass-baritone Eric Owens will be center stage as George Gershwin’s Porgy in Lyric’s latest production, but his star power shines far beyond George Gershwin’s 1935 opera. He has the versatility and commanding stage presence that make a company want to choose operas with meaty roles that he can sing. He was the title character in Handel’s Hercules at Lyric in 2011. He sang the role of Rusalka’s father, Vodnik, last season, and stars in Porgy and Bess, which opens Monday night.

Last February, the 44-year-old Philadelphia native was named community ambassador by Lyric Opera of Chicago, a role he shares with soprano Ana María Martínez. The community ambassador title formalizes a relationship the artists have cultivated in Chicago’s neighborhoods, particularly with the public schools. It also points to the commitment Lyric has made to having them onstage in coming seasons.

More on Eric Owens and Ana María Martínez as community ambassadors.


Eric Owens as Vodnik in “Rusalka,” c. Todd Rosenberg

As Alberich in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 Ring Cycle, Eric Owens didn’t just steal the Rhine gold, “he stole the show,” according to The Washington Post’s Anne Midgette. His performance got a lot of people talking about casting him as Wotan, the king of the gods (and of bass-baritone roles); but evidently Mr. Owens was biding his time. When Lyric announced he would be Wotan in their new production of the Ring Cycle, debuting in 2016, he acknowledged he had turned down other offers until he found the right situation. Chicago is it.

Das RHEINGOLD by Richard Wagner, new production premiere Metropo

Eric Owens as Alberich at the Metropolitan Opera

Last month, Eric Owens relocated from New York to Chicago. While this may only slightly increase this busy international artist’s time in the windy city, it does signal a deeper commitment to Chicago. He was a soloist in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in September, and returns to the CSO in the spring. He is also a tireless advocate for education and community engagement, and has indicated a desire for greater involvement in Chicago’s schools.

Casting a favorite singer like Eric Owens as Porgy seems like a natural choice for Lyric, but there is a history that binds this opera to the African-American experience that goes beyond the simple tale of boy meets girl. George Gershwin made a point of casting black singers for Porgy and Bess – in opposition to Jim Crow laws. That bold decision rippled through the opera’s early history; Porgy had little success until the end of the twentieth century.

A Misunderstood Opera

This is only Lyric’s second staging of Porgy and Bess; the first was in 2008; yet Sir Andrew Davis calls it “the great American opera.” Notwithstanding hit songs like “Summertime” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” Porgy and Bess languished long after African-American singers like Marian Anderson and Leontyne Price broke through the glass ceiling.

There was a conventional wisdom that Gershwin’s writing was problematic – the original cast wasn’t up to the vocal challenges – but that was not a reflection on the quality of composition. Gershwin certainly knew how to write for voice, but Porgy and Bess required an operatic technique, the kind of training that was unavailable to most African-Americans in the 1930s. Attempts to stage Porgy in the musical theater, where Gershwin had triumphed in the past, were equally unsuccessful.

Porgy and Bess

Eric Owens and Adina Aaron as Porgy and Bess, c. Todd Rosenberg

Porgy and Bess challenged conventional notions of opera. Gershwin used his typically jazzy musical language to set the vernacular of a Gullah community on the Carolina coast, a dialect which even today tweaks the sensitivities of many Americans (ex., “Porgy, I’s yo’ woman now, I is, I is!”).

DuBose Heyward’s novel, Porgy, is a story about a people who were effectively sealed off from white America. The first audience distanced itself from black people in general. Subsequent generations distanced themselves from portraying black people who talked like that. Many in the establishment thought Porgy simply didn’t belong in the opera house – or did it?

It was only a matter of time before someone took another look at the score – it was written by George Gershwin, after all. It happened at the Houston Grand Opera, which launched a full-scale production in 1976. That production earned Houston the only Tony Award ever bestowed upon an opera company. After that, no one questioned Porgy‘s place in the opera literature.

Eric Owens first sang the role of Porgy in a 2008 production with the San Francisco Opera. That Francesca Zambello production aired on public television and is the production being staged at Lyric Opera of Chicago through December 20th.

Lyric has extended the run of Porgy and Bess to a total of 13 performances. WFMT’s live broadcast of opening night begins on Monday, November 17 at 7:15 pm.

Listen to Eric Owens singing excerpts from Porgy and Bess, Die Walkure, and Rusalka on a WFMT Impromptu.

See the complete cast and a summary of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Porgy and Bess.


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