Stage & Dance

Stars align for UK Opera's 'Porgy and Bess'

Porgy (Kenneth Overton) and Bess (Angelique Clay) sang Bess, You Is My Woman Now during dress rehearsal at Singletary Center for the Arts.
Porgy (Kenneth Overton) and Bess (Angelique Clay) sang Bess, You Is My Woman Now during dress rehearsal at Singletary Center for the Arts. Lexington Herald-Leader

University of Kentucky Opera Theatre director Everett McCorvey has always had a special place in his heart for Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin's 1935 American folk opera.

As a young tenor fresh out of college at the University of Alabama, he landed his first professional role playing Daddy Peter in Birmingham Opera's 1979 production.

He returned to college to earn a master's degree and, after graduating, had another Porgy and Bess opportunity, this time in the 1983 Broadway revival of the show. McCorvey played Nelson, a small tenor role, and went on tour with the production. Then McCorvey got a spot in the chorus of the 1984 Metropolitan Opera production of Porgy.

The first day of rehearsals would change his life forever.

"At the Met, when you go to rehearsals, artists come dressed very professionally, in business suits and the like," McCorvey says.

"I saw this young lady in a green tweed suit, very classy," and she was wearing huge Alaskan snow boots, McCorvey says. "I thought to myself, 'What kind of woman wears snow boots to the Metropolitan Opera House?'"

That woman turned out to be McCorvey's future wife, Alicia Helm. Both chorus members, the pair dated for two years, marrying in 1986.

The Met production didn't just signify a turning point in McCorvey's personal life; it was a turning point in the opera's history.

"It wasn't until the Met's production that the world accepted Porgy and Bess as an opera," McCorvey says.

Although Gershwin penned Porgy and Bess in the 1930s, his original vision of the show as an African- American folk opera was thwarted. Even in creative circles, the social environment of the time did not warm to the idea of Gershwin's requisite all African-American cast or the notion that a score inspired by folk songs and Negro spirituals could be considered opera.

"He had to retool it as a Broadway musical so that he could find a venue for it," McCorvey says.

Cutting arias, truncating characters, Gershwin made Porgy and Bess work as a musical, and it enjoyed wide popularity in that format for decades.

But it had always been meant for operatic voices.

Critics and audiences wildly embraced the Met's production, and Porgy has enjoyed runs as an opera and a musical ever since.

Fast-forward a decade or so, to the beginning of McCorvey's tenure as director of the UK Opera program.

"I knew at some point I'd want to do Porgy and Bess," McCorvey says, "but I also knew we didn't have enough African-American singers in the program."

Shelving the idea for a while, McCorvey founded the American Spiritual Ensemble, a national touring group devoted to keeping the Negro spiritual alive.

Over time, the group expanded, and many of its members gravitated toward UK's graduate program.

Attracting more and more African-American singers to the program, McCorvey inadvertently began to solve some of the problems that prevented a potential Porgy production.

But even if McCorvey could manage to secure the 75 or so African-American opera singers required to cast the show, there was a problem of space.

"Porgy and Bess is a grand opera," McCorvey says. "It requires huge sets, and the Singletary Center is a concert hall. It's just not equipped to handle grand opera."

He is alluding to the lack of technical maneuverability that most opera venues need, such as sufficient wing space and the ability to raise mammoth sets up or down at a moment's notice.

McCorvey and designer Richard Kagey started to find the solution to that problem four years ago, working with the UK Center for Visualization and Virtual Environments to create a new technology that allowed the backgrounds to be high-definition images shown from banks of projectors onto giant screens that serve as the backdrops.

This production will feature the world premiere of that technology, which also will be used in Atlanta Opera's March production of Porgy and is drawing interest from other companies.

The bulk of the talent onstage for Porgy will be UK opera students, but the production also features singers from Kentucky State University and the American Spiritual Ensemble.

More than two decades since McCorvey first played Daddy Peter, his relationship with Porgy and Bess has reached another milestone.

"It's been so exciting," he says, "and I'm just so appreciative that I'm in an environment that lets me be creative, innovative and take chances in the arts."