US opera singer Jerris Cates has been making a living out of playing Bess in the Gershwin folk opera Porgy And Bess for much of the past decade.
While the show is acclaimed as the finest American opera ever written and the greatest of Gershwin’s repertoire, Cates admits she had been concerned Porgy And Bess, written in 1935, was known only by an older audience.
That all changed one night a few years back when Cates was watching TV singing competition, American Idol.
Singer Fantasia Barrino took to the stage and belted out a spirited performance of Summertime, the classic ballad of Porgy And Bess. Her performance of the song stopped the show, and Fantasia went on to win the American Idol series.
I was so thrilled as I realised then the music of this show, which is so brilliant, had crossed over to the kids of today, Cates says from her home in Baltimore before leaving for the Australian tour.
I knew then the music is still popular and it still strikes at people’s hearts. It is so beautiful.
The Sydney season of the Porgy And Bess Australian tour plays from 18 to 26 July at the Lyric Theatre. Porgy And Bess is based on the DuBose Heyward novel and tells the moving story of the crippled Porgy and his love for the beautiful, but haunted, Bess.
Their love affair is, however, frowned upon by their community, who don’t approve of Bess’s free-living ways.
The opera was written by George Gershwin in 1935 but, as the US civil rights movements began to advance through the ensuing decades, Porgy And Bess was dismissed by many critics as a racist work, which reduced blacks to stereotypical poor and uneducated characters.
For many years no one dared touch it due to the racial controversy. But in the mid-1970s, the major opera companies across the world rediscovered it.
But Cates also believes Porgy And Bess has earned its modern acclaim as a masterpiece because the piece overcame decades of neglect and derision to stand the test of time.
It is a timeless piece, she says. There are issues in this that are still current now. You see this show and there are the scenarios of the drug abuse, the violence, the brawls in the street and the racism -“ and how close is all of that to what we are still living with today?
But it is predominately a love story, as there is also such a strong human interest story in the way these people treat each other. Porgy is a man who will do anything for love, and his actions speak to the human spirit. I think we can all relate to that.
Porgy And Bess plays at Lyric Theatre, Star City, from 18 to 26 July. Bookings on 1300 136166 or at the Ticketmaster website.