Collaboration brings ‘Porgy’ to Stambaugh

Opera Western Reserve will serve up a double dose of opera this year with “Porgy & Bess.”

While many of the players are the same, this production is somewhat different from OWR’s regular full-scale opera staged every November.

The opera by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward is being presented by Stambaugh Auditorium.

OWR Production Director David Vosburgh said, “They are the actual producer and we’re putting together for them with the Warren Philharmonic.”

The idea came about after Stambaugh General Manager Matt Pagac saw a production of “Porgy and Bess” at Lincoln Center in New York City and was inspired to bring it to Youngstown.

“The goal was to introduce a larger demographic to opera,” said Jamie Fleeson, director of advertising and design for Stambaugh. “‘Porgy and Bess’ is sung in English, and most operas are in Italian or French. We wanted to reach different different people and introduce them to opera with songs they have may have heard once or twice before.”

“Porgy and Bess,” which takes place in North Carolina about 70 years after the Civil War, features several songs well known by non-opera audiences, especially “Summertime,” which has been performed by everyone from Billie Holiday to Janis Joplin.

Based on the play “Porgy,” it tells the story of a beggar who tries to rescue a woman from both her brutish lover, Crown, and her drug dealer, Sportin’ Life.

“It is often considered the first true American opera,” Vosburgh said.

And that presents some unique challenges compared to most operas.

“They have to be able to swing a little bit, because it’s Gershwin,” Vosburgh said. “It’s really that Gershwin type of musical standards.”

The singers performing the title roles will be familiar to OWR audiences. Rhea Olivacce sang the title role in the 2016 production of “Carmen” while Jonathan Stuckey appeared in “Lucia de Lammermoor” last fall.

“He came in to audition for ‘Porgy,’ but we needed a bass for ‘Lucia’ and he was hired,” Vosburgh said.

Warren Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Susan Davenny Wyner will lead the orchestra, and Vosburgh and Karen Clark-Green are collaborating on the stage direction and have worked together in the past.

“You can’t tell where her work ends and mine begins,” he said. “It just dovetails together.”

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