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Rhiannon Giddens returns to Greensboro for lead in 'Porgy and Bess'
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Rhiannon Giddens returns to Greensboro for lead in 'Porgy and Bess'

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Rhiannon Giddens — Grammy Award winner, singer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist — has become known internationally for her folk, blues and old-time songs and music that explores history.

Two of her most recent projects draw on another aspect of the city native’s multiple talents: opera.

Giddens has written an opera about a Black Muslim scholar, “Omar.” It will premiere at the Spoleto Festival USA in May in Charleston, and later at Los Angeles Opera and elsewhere.

But first, she will star on Jan. 21 and 23 as Bess in the opera “Porgy and Bess” at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts.

Shortly after Christmas, she flew back to her hometown from her other home in Ireland, to spend time with family here and appear in “Porgy and Bess.”

With two different operas, “It will be an interesting year for me, to be in what is kind of considered the ‘Black opera,’” Giddens said in a phone interview.

With “Omar,” she said, “I think it will the first opera debuted by a Black woman at L.A. Opera.”

“I said yes to ‘Porgy and Bess’ in large part because I wanted to be in the brotherhood and sisterhood of Black singers who have done ‘Porgy and Bess,’” Giddens added. “... There’s some absolutely show-stoppingly gorgeous music in that piece.”

First performed in 1935, “Porgy and Bess” tells the story of Porgy, a disabled Black street beggar in the slums of Charleston.

He attempts to rescue Bess from Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer.

Composer George Gershwin wrote the music, with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin.

It was adapted from Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward’s play “Porgy,” itself an adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name.

A cast of classically-trained African American singers performed songs such as “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin,’” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You is My Woman Now” — at a time when discrimination barred them from leading stages.

They have become among the best-loved songs by one of the country’s greatest songwriters.

“The music is just spectacular,” said David Holley, Greensboro Opera general and artistic director. “The story is one of community and overcoming tragedy and circumstances. It’s the greatest American opera ever.”

In its contract, the Gershwin estate says the opera must be performed by a Black cast. All singing roles must be filled by African American actors, Holley said.

In addition to Giddens as Bess, the 45-member cast includes Thomas Cannon as Porgy, Sidney Outlaw as Jake, Robert Anthony Mack as Sportin’ Life and Michael Preacely as Crown.

Elvira Green, former Metropolitan Opera singer and artistic adviser to the production, will perform her signature role of Maria (pronounced Moria).

Everett McCorvey, music director of the American Spiritual Ensemble, will serve as stage director. His career has spanned all areas of the performing arts business, including “Porgy and Bess” in 1982 at Radio City Music Hall and the Met in 1985.

The set has arrived from New York City Opera.

A 27-member chorus will appear in almost every scene. It includes two UNCG alumni — Charles Williamson and Lindell Carter — and Greensboro College graduate Maurio Hines, who were part of the Met production.

Awadagin Pratt, pianist, conductor and faculty member at Greensboro’s Eastern Music Festival, will come from Ohio to conduct. Orchestra musicians come from UNCG.

More than four years ago, in August 2017, Giddens accepted Holley’s request to play Bess, when it looked like the opera would be presented at the Tanger Center in November 2020. It was the first performance to be announced for the new venue.

But the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the opening of the Tanger Center until September 2021 with Giddens performing with Francesco Turrisi and “Porgy and Bess” until this month.

Holley called Giddens “a wonderful singer, first, and a great actress. She’s just a stunning artist on the opera stage ... Her being able to sing opera in front of her family and her hometown — that’s huge.”

Giddens graduated in 2000 from Ohio’s Oberlin Conservatory, where she studied opera. She returned to her hometown and graduate-level studies in vocal performance at UNCG, where Holley also directs opera.

She then returned for the 2003-04 school year, performing in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s opera “Little Women” in fall 2003 and “Susannah” in spring 2004.

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The latter two won first place for the UNCG Opera Theatre in the National Opera Association’s Opera Production Competition.

“Susannah” was the last full opera in which she performed.

Now 44, Giddens went on from there to amass a long list of credits.

Among them: co-founder of the old-time, Grammy Award-winning African American string band Carolina Chocolate Drops, in which she sang and played fiddle and banjo; eight more Grammy nominations as a solo artist; a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “genius grant;” and artistic director of Silkroad Ensemble.

Her operatic training and style continues to show in her voice. In 2021, she performed arias with composer John Adams conducting.

She and Turrisi, her partner in music and life, were nominated in November for two Grammy Awards for their album, “They’re Calling Me Home.” They had planned to attend the Jan. 31 ceremony in Los Angeles — until it was postponed by the surge in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The daughter of an African American and American Indian mother and European American father, Giddens explores issues of race in her expansive artistry, focusing on neglected pieces of American and African American history. If the banjo is involved, “I’m there,” she said.

“Omar,” for example, is based on the 1831 autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, a West African Muslim scholar who was captured and sold into slavery in South Carolina.

“Porgy and Bess” has attracted debate over the years with questions of stereotypes and cultural appropriation.

Giddens praises the music, but agrees that “Porgy and Bess” does contain stereotypes.

“I think there are some true connections to Black life,” she said. “There’s a lot that’s also through a lens that I don’t think is a true lens.”

“But that’s kind of part and parcel of this age, of this time period,” Giddens said. “There’s stuff to like and there’s stuff to love and there’s stuff to kind of go, ‘OK, let’s talk about this.’”

Over the years, among those who have starred in “Porgy and Bess” are Todd Duncan and Anne Brown, LeVern Hutcherson and Gloria Davy; Cab Calloway, John W. Bubbles and Avon Long as Sportin’ Life; Ruby Elzy as Serena; Leontyne Price and Etta Moten as Bess, William Warfield as Porgy and Maya Angelou as Ruby.

Important artists continue to take on the challenges of “Porgy and Bess,” Giddens said.

A 2012 production on Broadway featured Audra McDonald as Bess, Norm Lewis as Porgy, David Alan Grier as Sportin’ Life, Phillip Boykin as Crown, Nikki Renee Daniels as Clara and Joshua Henry as Jake.

The Met staged another critically-praised production in 2019. Led by Eric Owens and Angel Blue, the cast also featured Golda Schultz, Latonia Moore, Elizabeth Llewellyn, Denyce Graves, Frederick Ballentine, Alfred Walker and Ryan Speedo Green.

“Because it’s such a big part of so many people’s experiences, I wanted to have that experience and to have it here in Greensboro,” Giddens said.

“So now I can talk about ‘Porgy and Bess’ after we have done it, from a position of having been in it,” she said.

Giddens describes her character Bess as “troubled.”

“She is a damaged person,” Giddens said. “How do you crawl into a character that makes choices that you would never make? That is difficult because it’s easy to play a hero. It’s harder to play somebody who is flawed.”

“It’s very easy to say, ‘I made good choices in my life,’” Giddens said. “But when you are given good choices, it’s easier to make good choices. When you are given crappy choices, it’s a lot harder to climb up out of that.”

“For me,” she added, “the most important thing is to find my empathy for her as a damaged person.”

Giddens looks forward to acting and singing with the cast of “Porgy and Bess.”

“The thing that’s probably going to be the hardest is the stamina of being in a full production,” she said “It’s a lot of singing. It’s a lot of acting. It’s a lot of physicality.

“You have to have a healthy amount of nervousness that keeps you on your toes. I definitely have that,” she added, laughing.

She knows Michael Preacely, who performs the role of Crown, from her time as an Oberlin student, and Sidney Outlaw, who plays Jake, from UNCG.

“Porgy and Bess” and “Omar” put her on different ends of the spectrum, she said. With “Omar,” she adds her voice to the canon of pieces of Black opera.

And with Terrence Blanchard’s recent debut of “Fire Shut Up in My Bones” at the Metropolitan Opera, “There is kind of a renaissance in Black opera that’s happening right now,” Giddens said. “It feels really good to be a part of that.”

Contact Dawn DeCwikiel-Kane at 336-373-5204 and follow @dawndkaneNR on Twitter.

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