In 2019, it was the first show to be announced for Greensboro’s new premier concert hall, the Tanger Center.
And now, two years from when tickets first went on sale, the much-anticipated production will soon arrive: Greensboro Opera’s “Porgy and Bess.”
On the morning of January 3rd, the performers and directors – including many who had traveled from New York City and other regions of the country – showed up at Well-Spring retirement community for their opening rehearsal all together, a few short weeks before they’ll move into the Tanger Center for final run-throughs.
And it was snowing.
“Here we are. Everybody’s here,” said Greensboro Opera general and artistic director, “Porgy and Bess” producer, and UNC Greensboro Professor of Music David Holley. “Ah, I just find it ironic that we would plan for four years and have a snowstorm. At 7:30 in the morning, I set up a dozen directional signs to help people find out where to go. By the time nine o’clock rolled around, there was so much snow that they were all covered up.”
But the cast members made it, the directors, stage managers, and accompanists made it, and they began.
In the total ensemble of 45 stage performers, nine of the cast members are UNCG alumni and nine are UNCG students. Nine alumni, faculty members, and current students are working behind the scenes to bring the production to life. Nearly 40 musicians will play in the orchestra – all of them UNCG alumni, students, and faculty.
Among the outstanding singers is Grammy-winner and MacArthur fellow Rhiannon Giddens, a Spartan who pursued graduate study in opera in the School of Music.
Giddens, who plays the title character “Bess,” has sung on stages across the world, recorded several albums, succeeded Yo-Ya Ma as director of the Silk Road Ensemble, written an opera for the Spoleto Festival in Charleston, and has become the host of the Met Opera podcast “Aria Code.”
At UNCG, she sang in several operas – “Little Women” and “Susannah,” for which she also choreographed a square dance – but “Porgy and Bess” will be her first staged opera performance since that time.
Sidney Outlaw ’04, who plays the character of “Jake,” was working on his undergraduate degree when Giddens was in the graduate program, and performed with her in “Little Women.”
Outlaw has also performed on the biggest stages in Europe and the U.S., from the Metropolitan Opera to the English National Opera. He was recently featured in Handel’s “Messiah” at Carnegie Hall, which was broadcast on NPR last month.
“It’s always nice to come home,” he says. “I got my feet wet in Greensboro, and this is where it kind of started for me. So, it feels like being on the home court, playing a home game, to be surrounded by such a familiar setting. And, to have Mrs. Levone Tobin Scott, my voice teacher from UNCG, who is also my mentor, and to have other people who have helped me along the way.”
Outlaw’s character, Jake, owns the fishing boat the men work on. He describes Jake as a strong community member, and a leader. In speaking about the story of “Porgy and Bess” Outlaw emphasizes the Southernness of the narrative, and how it focuses on a Black community.
“It’s a story of people’s humanity. And it’s a story of life in a community,” he says. “It’s a story of love, pain and joy – they go through all of the emotions. But you know, we are telling a Black story, in this case here, and about life in the beginning of the 20th-century. And, I’m always honored to tell Black stories and share our perspective historically, and present-day.”
Alumnus Richard Hodges – whom Holley taught as a middle school singer in the Greensboro Opera summer camp, and then in graduate school at UNCG – plays the role of Frazier; UNCG faculty members Donald Hartmann and Robert Wells play the detective and coroner, respectively; UNCG students Doug Grimm and Collin McCrea are policemen; student Detra Davis sings the role of Annie, and in the ensemble are current UNCG students Michael Adams, Diana Thompson-Brewer, Danielle Dorsett, Olivya Moore, Zion-Grace Foster, Rafael Garcia, and Reggie Powell, and UNCG alumni Stefany Spencer, Travis Gilliam, as well as Charles Williamson, and Lindell Carter, who just finished a run of “Porgy and Bess” at the Metropolitan Opera.
UNCG Opera director David Holley is the general producer, working with a sizeable group of UNCG students and alumni on the production crew and music staff: Jeff Neubauer, Gitana Havner, Hanna Atkinson, Trent Pcenicni, Lauren Reinhartsen, Jim Bumgardner who is chorus master, Benjamin Blozan, and Emily Russ.
Everett McCorvey is the stage director and Awadagin Pratt is the conductor. Among its many luminaries of opera, the cast includes the first African American tenor to sing a leading role at the Metropolitan Opera, George Shirley, and Greensboro native Elvira Green who has sung over 2000 performances internationally.
The Greensboro Opera performances will be held Jan. 21 and 23. Few tickets remain, at this time.
Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications, with help from Michael Harris, University Advancement
Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications