Opera Singer Morris Robinson Discusses The Complicated Legacy Of ‘Porgy And Bess’

Porgy and Bess cast
“Porgy and Bess” will be on stage at the Cobb Energy Centre from March 7 to 15. (Credit: Karli Cadel / Glimmerglass Festival)

George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” is often called “The Great American Opera.” Yet, 85 years after its premiere, the piece continues to raise questions about racial representation and cultural appropriation.

The Atlanta Opera will present “Porgy and Bess” from March 7 to 15 at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre. There will be a pre-opera discussion before each performance with Dr. Uzee Brown Jr., Morehouse professor of voice.

He’ll talk about the history and social context in which the story takes place.

“City Lights” host Lois Reitzes recently spoke with Morris Robinson who portrays Porgy in this production. He began their conversation by explaining why he hesitated to play this role for 17 years of his career.

“When I came into the business early on, a lot of the veterans who were going down this path said to stay away from those types of roles because the natural assumption is: you’re an African American, you have a deep voice, you can sing ‘Old Man River,’ you can sing Porgy,” he said. “And once you have established yourself as that, no one really at the time had the vision to see you cast as other things. So I stayed away from it for those reasons.”

After nearly 20 years in the business, Robinson has now established himself as someone who sings German and Italian repertoire. His hesitation with the opera is now a concern with perpetuating stereotypes on stage.

“There has to be other material that can depict us in a more positive sense, so I struggled with that,” Robinson said. “But the one thing that keeps me with ‘Porgy and Bess’ is that I love the message. I love story. I love the character of Porgy because he is the most respected, so there is dignity in playing those types of roles.”

Note: There is a cast change for the role of Bess. Soprano Talise Trevigne will make her Atlanta Opera debut as Bess.

This story was originally published with audio on WABE.org.

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