Grace Bumbry Adds Passion to Bess as Gershwin's Porgy Finally Makes It to the Met
It's taken 50 years, but with its premiere at the Metropolitan Opera earlier this month, Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin's three-and-one-half-hour story of black life along Charleston, S.C.'s Catfish Row, has formally come into its own as the full-scale opera the composer had originally intended. Hitting the high notes with saucy aplomb as Bess is Grace Bumbry, picked by conductor James Levine and director Nathaniel Merrill who said, "she would bring to the role a strong personality and the vocal splendor of one of the Metropolitan Opera's leading singers." He was proved triumphantly right by her 10 opening-night curtain calls. ("Bumbry's performance was not flawless," noted the Washington Post's Joseph McLellan, but then added, "In the last two acts she was overwhelming.")
Bumbry was anything but sanguine about taking on the role of the wayward Bess. "I had a lot of negative thoughts," she says with characteristic candor. "The story is not a very complimentary one for blacks in the 1980s. But I've come to look at Porgy and Bess as an historical piece of music." And, she adds, "it's just as important, just as difficult as a Strauss opera, like Salome." Porgy and Bess has been controversial since Gershwin completed it in 1935. The Met bid for its world premiere then, but Gershwin turned down the offer since the then all-white Met would have had to perform the work with a white cast in blackface. Instead, Porgy went the Broadway and Hollywood route in its cut musical version, and songs like Sportin' Life's sardonic It Ain't Necessarily So, Porgy's Bess, You Is My Woman Now and the haunting Summertime became all-time American favorites. In 1952 Porgy played Milan's La Scala (Leontyne Price was Bess), but, in part because Gershwin's estate stipulated an all-black cast in the U.S., its American operatic debut did not come until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera mounted a production.
Bumbry began boning up on her role in Lugano, Switzerland last fall, working five hours a day at her villa with accompanist Jonathan Morris. Now, she says, "I keep on studying. I always think I can come up with something a little more interesting, an insight into the character, a point more up to date." She's also gone on a high protein, low carbohydrate diet to facilitate her sirenish portrayal of Bess.
Born in St. Louis to a railroad freight handler and a schoolteacher, Bumbry was always a diligent student. "From age 10 I wanted to be like Marian Anderson," Bumbry recalls, laughing. "She had these beautiful long red fingernails." At 17 she won a radio talent contest in St. Louis and later Arthur Godfrey predicted, "Her name will be one of the most famous in music one day."
At Northwestern, Bumbry studied under the famous German opera singer Lotte Lehmann and at 23 she stunned the Bayreuth Festival in the role of Venus in Tannhäuser. From then on her burnished cello-like mezzo voice created sensation after sensation. The London Times called her role in Verdi's Don Carlo "the finest Eboli we have yet heard or indeed could wish to hear." Her wild-eyed Carmen is considered a classic, and in 1971 in Salome, she insisted on dancing the seductive striptease of the seven veils herself. "In the history of Covent Garden," Bumbry says with a chuckle, "they never sold so many binoculars."
Bumbry obviously relishes the role of jet-set diva. Divorced from German tenor Erwin Jaeckel in 1972, she currently maintains a commuting romance with London industrialist Jack Lunzer ("He has my itinerary"). Whether in her Swiss villa, where she keeps a Rolls-Royce, Cadillac Seville, Daimler and Fiat (for the supermarket), or at her East Side Manhattan apartment, she wears gowns by Oscar de la Renta and Yves Saint Laurent. But when it comes to opera, she turns dead serious. With a determined glint in her eye she says, "I figure if the Met is going to do Porgy, then it should be done well."
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