The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is one of the season’s biggest hits, breaking box office records and garnering critical raves. Much of the production’s success is thanks to its two stars, bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Angel Blue, who give definitive portrayals of the title roles. With additional performances added through February 15, the pair reflected on bringing this great American opera to the Met for the first time in nearly 30 years.
You two first met while singing Porgy and Bess in San Francisco, right?
ANGEL BLUE: Yes, it was in 2009, and I was singing Clara. It was my professional debut, so when Eric and I opened this new production in the fall, 10 years later, it was like coming full circle.
ERIC OWENS: That was my first Porgy. I remember being nervous. Anytime you debut a new role, it takes some time to get it to the point where it’s comfortable. But I also remember how great Angel was. She sings the hell out of this, and I have to be careful not to slip into being an admiring audience member onstage.
What has it been like to be a part of this historic new staging?
AB: I feel like I’m part of a long tradition of people singing this great music. And more than being African American, it’s about representing American music. As opera singers, we perform music that has come from so many different countries and is in so many different languages, but this is our opera. It’s for us—all of us in the United States.
EO: And to sing this music in this theater with this orchestra is just divine. The warmth of the sound but also the clarity of the sound—it’s quite special. This has all been an amazing gift.
It must be rewarding to have received such an overwhelming response from audiences. Why do you think that people are responding so enthusiastically?
AB: I really believe that everyone can relate to this story. Just as Bess is someone who is broken, someone who is looking to be accepted in Catfish Row, all of us are searching for something.
EO: Exactly. Porgy is also broken—physically, yes, but really, every character is broken in a way that you cannot see immediately. Every member of this community yearns for some sort of validation, to be heard or understood. AB: And, of course, the music speaks for itself.
It must be a thrill to sing all of these fantastic tunes.
EO: It’s incredible. And when you have a show that has spawned so many popular musical numbers, the stakes are higher. We’re trying to present these pieces within the original context. Extracted from the opera, “Summertime,” for example, means something completely different, and it would be really easy for us to just sing “Bess, you is my woman now” as a love duet. But there’s a lot of subtext when you perform it as a part of the larger piece.
AB: “Summertime” is a great example because there are a million recordings of it, both classical and non-classical. A lot of people don’t know how much depth it has until they hear it within the opera.
EO: It’s such a complex score. It’s Gershwin, so it’s jazzy as all get-out, but it’s also gritty and earthy. There’s oodles of Stravinsky and Puccini in it, and then there’s “I got plenty of nuttin’,” which is basically a folk song. Hell, there’s even a banjo.
Do you have to change your vocal approach when signing this music?
AB: Sometimes. Gershwin allows us to play with things that we can’t in other operas. So much of what he’s written stems from the church, which has a tradition of embellishment. There are places where you can put some of that in if you’ve grown up going to church or singing gospel or jazz. There are also moments where I really don’t feel operatic, where it’s more about going on the feeling. For instance, “Leavin’ for the Promised Land.” To me, that’s not about opera, it’s about a feeling. And then you’ve got the very beginning of “What do you want with Bess?” where I’m starting out almost as though I’m crying, and it builds from there. EO: That whole number is one of my favorite moments in the opera. The entire orchestra just becomes a big band. I’m always listening in my dressing room or from the wings, and it’s so incredibly satisfying.
What are some of the challenges of these roles?
AB: Vocally speaking, the greatest difficultly for Bess is the range. Of the three roles I learned last year—Bess, Tosca, and Violetta in La Traviata—I think Bess was the hardest one. Not just vocally, but in terms of technique, singing with the orchestra, the demand of the performances, the demand of the character, and the respect of the opera. All of it together, Bess was the most difficult.
EO: For me, it’s all about pacing. You have to know when you can afford to gun it and when you can afford to lie back a little bit. You want to present the dramatic arc the way it should be presented and vocally give it what it needs. Porgy is pretty much a bass-baritone role the whole night, and that’s challenging enough, but then the final scene comes, and it’s this full-blown baritone. It sits up so high in my range, and it’s at the very end.
AB: Oh, but it’s such a fantastic ending! I’ll never forget the first time I heard you sing those words, “Oh Lord, I’m on my way,” back in 2009 with your beautiful, deep voice. I have to try not to cry just thinking about it.
Edited by Christopher Browner