A&E Opera: ‘Porgy and Bess’

South Florida Symphony Orchestra.

The artistic and administrative team at the South Florida Symphony are definitely not afraid to tackle a challenge. Case in point: Last season, the symphony collaborated with the famed Martha Graham Dance Co. on a critically-acclaimed world premiere ballet by South Florida composer Tom Hormel, “The Legend of Bird Mountain.”

This season, Maestra Sebrina Maria Alfonso, symphony president Jacqueline Lorber and their board of directors have set their sights even higher—George Gershwin’s quintessential American opera, “Porgy and Bess”—and assembled a dream team to guide the production.

While Lorber was faced with perhaps the biggest challenge, raising the nearly $500,000 necessary at a time when federal and state support for the arts is shrinking, the creative team set about reimagining Gershwin’s drama, set in a seaside slum in Charleston, South Carolina, for the vastly different stages of the Tennessee Williams Theater in Key West, Arsht Center concert hall in Miami and Au Rene Theater at the Broward Center.

 Richard Jay-Alexander, the Broadway impresario who stages Barbra Streisand’s concerts and is now a Miami resident, is directing the folk opera.

 “Porgy and Bess” is one of the musical world’s greatest pieces ever created. Gershwin and all those fantastic characters, in a heartbreaking and thrilling story. It’s not done very often because, quite honestly, it is a daunting task,” the director explained.

 “I want to tell that story and break everyone’s heart with the humanity of these people. I love this piece and have some history with it, so it’s a bit of a dream come true. We are doing a unique presentation, with the full orchestra on stage,” he added. “That will be very interesting, showing off the ‘pure Gershwin’ of it in all its raw power. The staging will also be unique because, unlike most operas, this one moves at a very rapid pace and I want to engage every single ‘moment’ I possibly can. I can see it in my mind already, but am very excited to get into rehearsal and up onto the stage!” 

Alfonso is overjoyed with the opportunity to conduct Gershwin’s rich and rhythmic score:

She said, “Gershwin's music makes my soul dance. There is a rhythm that is just human and whoever hears it cannot ignore its power. Gershwin dared to write an opera that did not represent European opera. He represented American music and especially music which has definitely influenced American music and that is music of African-American heritage.”

The performers also look forward to the show. 

Neil Nelson, who plays Porgy, believes the show has endured for one reason: “It is filled with amazing music!” And, because the entire cast is African-American, he also appreciates the opportunity to share the stage with so many other talented black performers.

His costar, Brandie Sutton, agreed, “Honestly, what I love most about being part of any ‘Porgy and Bess’ production is the sense of family I get with the rest of the cast. It's always a very laidback process and so much fun.”

The South Florida Symphony presents George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Arsht Center in Miami on Jan. 16, the Tennessee Williams Theater in Key West on Jan. 19 and the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 23. Tickets are available at SouthFloridaSymphony.org.