The Johnson C. Smith University concert choir will perform in a new production of the opera “Porgy and Bess” during the 2016 Spoleto Festival U.S.A. in Charleston, S.C.
The agreement was announced Wednesday on the JCSU campus, where university President Ronald Carter was joined by Spoleto General Director Nigel Redden and Jay Everette of Wells Fargo, which will sponsor the performance.
In the 38-year-history of Spoleto, organizers have never staged the Gershwin-Heyward masterpiece, which is set on Catfish Row, a fictitious black tenement on the Charleston waterfront.
“As an international festival, we try to avoid the obvious,” Redden said. “It’s daunting to do an opera in the city where it was written, where people can walk out of the theater and find Catfish Row.”
As fate would have it, “Porgy” was last performed in Charleston in 1970, at a time when the city was commemorating its tricentennial. The performance was held in Gaillard Auditorium, which was then newly constructed, and was viewed by what Redden described as one of the city’s first mixed-race audiences.
The Gaillard has since been refurbished into a state-of-the-art, 1,800-seat concert hall and will open to host the Spoleto production.
“When it became clear that we were going to rebuild the Gaillard Auditorium…it seemed obvious that we should make the same commitment to the community, that the Gaillard was for everyone, and that we should do Porgy and Bess in the Gaillard,” Redden said.
In the Spoleto production, Catfish Row will get a distinctive makeover, thanks to Low Country artist Jonathan Green, who was brought on to design the set and costumes. At Wednesday’s announcement, Green said he wants to infuse his designs with a look and feel suggestive of West Africa, the ancestral homeland for many black Americans.
“My goal is to take the façade of buildings and to turn them more into what some might call an African village,” he said, “to have women be garbed in clothing that is reflective of the 50s and 60s but also with a huge emphasis on West African color and designs.”
Green said he wants to restore a sense of dignity to the residents of Catfish Row, a dignity he said has been missing as the opera has evolved over the decades.
“It’s my attempt to simply put Porgy and Bess in the proper perspective for what it is,” he said, adding that he wants theater-goers to “see a glorious opera of their ancestry and to feel good about it—to feel good about looking at it, to feel good about walking away from it, and hopefully to have some inspiration.”
As for the 22-member JCSU choir, directed by Shawn-Allyce White, they will make up the nucleus of a larger chorus. Other vocalists will be added through nationwide auditions.
Carter, the JCSU president, said being chosen for the production will provide a significant boost for the school’s burgeoning arts program.
“What better way to get the arts program known across the country than for people to see and hear our students on the stage,” he told Qcitymetro in a later interview. “They’re learning how to sign contracts as individuals. They will be paid as performers, so this is exciting. They are living and learning and making some money.”
Everette, community affairs manager of the Wells Fargo Social Responsibility Group, said the idea of using the JCSU choir came to him almost by accident. While having lunch one day with Redden and former Spoleto board chairman Carlos Evans, he said, they looked beyond the Charlotte skyline and saw the iconic clock tower of JCSU’s Biddle Hall. It just so happened that the men were discussing Wells Fargo’s support for Spoleto and logistical difficulty of holding nationwide auditions for a chorus.
“That was when the light bulb went off,” Everette recalled.
Although the production will be staged during the summer months, Carter said rehearsals will likely take choir members away from some of their normal classes. He said the school would find ways to accommodate them.
“This is part of the learning experience,” he said.