SF Opera: Porgy & Bess


If you weren’t able to score tickets to the stellar San Francisco Opera production of Porgy and Bess, then Summertime opera ain’t necessarily going to feel very easy.

Unfortunately this oh-too-brief engagement of George and Ira Gershwin’s American operatic masterwork is fleeting as sweet summer itself.

We’ll leave the heavy, analytical lifting to the experts. But for lucky ticket-holders last week at opening-night, Porgy and Bess was, simply, thrilling.

“It’s been years since I’ve seen such a complete and sustained standing ovation,” exclaimed SF Opera Board member Dede Wilsey as she and her Box O guests enthusiastically joined in the “bravos!”

The evening was a joyous celebration for SF Opera Director David Gockley and Co. -- (including conductor John DeMain; director Francesca Zambello; and lead sponsors Cynthia Fry Gunn and her husband, SF Opera Board Chairman John Gunn) -- especially as Porgy and Bess has been a sort of leitmotif throughout Gockley’s career.

It was back in 1976 when Gockley was serving as General Director at Houston Grand Opera (with DeMain holding the baton), that Porgy and Bess was finally (and rousingly) performed as originally conceived by the Brothers Gershwin.

Post-opera, a joyous cast party followed next door in the Green Room of the War Memorial Veterans’ Building -- catered in sumptuous Southern style by McCall Associates.

Organized by SF Opera Board member Ira Dearing, the party was a celebration for the mostly all-African American cast -- some of whom were making their SF Opera debut; others who are SF Opera Merola and Adler Fellow graduates.

Conductor John DeMain, Linda Kemper, SF Opera Director David Gockley and SF Opera Board member Ira Dearing

And fellow board member Sylvia Lindsey had spent the week welcoming cast members by cooking up a Southern smorgasbord of goodies -- ribs, collard greens and pound cake. But her most important dish involved the inclusion of African American students (including 26 Allen Temple Baptist Church members) to opening night. Some of whom were experiencing a night at the opera for the first time.

Also in attendance? Opera star Marilyn Horne. And Ira Gershwin’s nephew, Michael Strunsky and his wife, Jean Strunsky, who founded the Ira and Leonore Gershwin Philanthropic Fund.

“I wouldn’t dare rate Porgy and Bess against Rhapsody in Blue. But I would say this opera is certainly one of the most important creations of George Gershwin’s career,” said Michael Strunsky. “What’s more amazing is how the black community has embraced Porgy and Bess, which was written by two Jewish kids from the Lower East Side.”

Historically, that’s not always been the case. Citations of racial stereotypes initially dogged the opera (first performed in 1935) because its portrayal of drug use and poverty.

But, countered Strunsky, at the heart of Porgy and Bess is the community of Catfish Row -- supporting each other, assisting each other, encouraging each other.

Amy Tan -- who masterfully crafted a libretto from her novel for the Opera’s production of the spine-tingling Bonesetter’s Daughter which kicked-off the 2008-09 Repertory Season --agreed.

“Sometimes, it’s not always about politics,” said Tan, at the party. “The libretto was incredible! In fact, everything was -- from the music and choreography, to the acting.”

A fun sidebar? Tom Taffel who reigns as the Crown Prince of the Opera House’s Intermezzo Lounge related his personal Gershwin connection.

Tom’s family arrived in America (by way of Petrograd, Russia) with members of the Gershwin family. Tom’s father, George Taffel, taught Ira Gerswhin to play the fiddle. And Tom’s uncle, Lou Taffel, taught George Gerswhin to play the piano.

Growing up, the families once shared a flat in Harlem. And though George Gershwin would eventually prove himself a musical genius, he was not so fond of piano practice.

“George would pay Uncle Lou five cents to play the piano scales George was supposed to be practicing,” said Taffel, laughing. “And then George would sneak outside to the empty lot next door where he and my father would play stickball!”

Taffel, who has been with the opera for 37 years, has seen more than his fair share of dazzling divas and onstage, operatic enchantment. But even he was wowed.

“This production is Gockley’s chef-d'œuvre. From casting and staging to the orchestration, this opera is a masterpiece,” enthused Taffel. “Without a doubt, Porgy and Bess is, so far, David’s greatest triumph; his finest hour!”

P.S.: All remaining performances of Porgy and Bess are sold out. But, according to the Opera’s Press Office, Standing Room tickets go on sale at 10 a.m. the day of each performance.

Check out more photos below

Jane Scovell, mezzo-soprano star Marilyn Horne and Lester Lynch ("Crown")

SF Opera Board Chairman John Gunn and his wife, Cynthia Gunn, who served as lead production sponsors of Porgy & Bess

Earl Hazell ("Jim") and Chauncey Packer ("Sportin' Life")

Lou DeMattei and his wife, author-librettist Amy Tan

Chorus members Pamela Ferguson, Alex Taite, Leah Dexter, Nicole Taylor and Vince Wallace

Bob Hill, SF Opera Board member Dede Wilsey, John and Lucy Buchanan, Patsy Pope

SF Opera Artistic Director Gregory Henkel, Kirsten D'Agostaro and Blanche Streeter

Chorus members Sean Miller and Malesha Jessie

SF Chronicle Editor Ward Bushee and his wife, Claudia Bushee

Chorus members Gregory Brumfield and Jeanette Blakeney

Intermezzo Lounge Manager Tom Taffel and SF Opera Board member Sylvia Lindsey

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