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‘In Porgy, we are portraying a kind of life that is still happening today’

By Esteban Colombet
For the Herald

Stage Director Christine Crouse on the Cape Town Opera’s production of a daring Gershwin masterpiece from 1935, currently being performed on the Colón’s stage

Christine Crouse took George Gershwin’s popular masterpiece and moved it to the South African townships in a production that has been touring the world and garnering accolades since its 2009 Edinburgh première.

In an interview with the Herald, following the premiere of Porgy and Bess at the Colón, a soft-spoken Crouse addressed the production’s transposition of setting, the harrowing social issues plaguing South Africa today and her cast’s uplifting stories.

How has the Colón experience been for you so far? What are your thoughts after the premiere of Porgy here?

Every theatre we go to is different but the Colón experience has been very different for us. We’ve never been in this part of the world and that has been a bit strange but it’s been a good experience and we’ve learned a lot of lessons. I was very happy with the première last night, the acoustics are amazing. I went to sit upstairs for a couple of minutes where the sound is fantastic.

Your version of Porgy and Bess moves the setting from the US fishing village to a South African township. Why did you choose to do so?

The history of Porgy at Cape Town Opera has been a long one, there have been productions of Porgy and Bess before this one in the house and Michael Williams (Cape Town Opera’s managing director) asked me to do a new production and we spoke about how we could change it. I started doing research with my designer, Michael Mitchell, and we decided to alter the setting. We put it in the apartheid era, in the 1970s, and around that time there was a photographer working for a South African magazine called the Drum Magazine. There were lots of photographs that had American overtones: lots of American jazz in the bars, people listening to Louis Armstrong. The Gullah language that Porgy and Bess was written in, originated in Africa. So, the more research we did, we also saw that there’s such a strong link in the community in South Africa between singing and dancing at every occasion, be it a funeral or a marriage. So it just seemed to have a natural crossover and that’s why we used the American influence — the images and jazz, etc. — but transferred it to South Africa.

How do you make it work, this transposition of the opera from one story of racist oppression to another? Won’t this change of setting produce any sort of narrative disconnection?

There is a bit of narrative disconnection, you know. If you say that Porgy is going to New York to look for Bess, well, there’s no New York close to South Africa, but we have the townships and the city of Cape Town.

Opera houses tend to place racial restrictions in an attempt to abide by Gershwin’s requirement that only people of colour sing in Porgy and Bess. However, some say there’s no basis to that claim and that Gershwin was only against white people singing in blackface, which was still commonplace in the 1930s. What is your approach?

Well, it’s an all-black cast, we just have two white nuns who work in the community. But a lot of the cast are quite fair-skinned so you wouldn’t think that they are black people. And also we don’t have black children because we couldn’t find black children here in Buenos Aires so we have two little white kids (laughs). But they match some of the skin tones onstage and it doesn’t jar.

Is this due to Gershwin’s call for an all-black cast or to your specific setting?

It’s got to do with our setting, really. And the fact is that we did Porgy in previous years, and now we’ve reached the stage where all the people in the cast are South African. Many years ago, we didn’t have people that could sing the role of Bess and Porgy and Sportin’ Life, so those people were brought from America. Even in my first tour I had an “imported” Sportin’ Life but now they’re all South African and to me it’s just so fantastic that now we can cast the whole opera with our own people.

You’ve been doing Porgy for many years, what has surprised you the most while touring this opera?

We did it the first time in 2009 and premiered it in Edinburgh, with a show in Cardiff. I never thought it would be such a success, I never really — not in my wildest dreams — imagined it would become such a success. I think it has to do with the fact that the people in our company are very special, they love this production because some of them still leave in the townships, you know. Not all of them live in the city, so, throughout the rehearsals and everything, we kind of built a production together and they had their input. It has become part of them and they have unique voices and all of them can dance — there’s not one of them who can’t dance.

Since you say that some of your cast come from townships, how have the people internalised the changes that South Africa has been going through in the last two decades?

Well, there’s still a lot of racial inequality in South Africa because there’s such poverty there and the two poles, of being rich and being poor, are so far apart that I personally think that it’s only going to be the next generation that is going to be more equal, hopefully, than we are.

Especially with many of our senior people in the company, there’s still a lot of stuff that has been left over from apartheid or that has not been equalised in their life. That’s always for me a sad thing, that these people tour all over the world and it’s still not always easy for them to live in South Africa. There’s a lot that they keep inside, that is not easy for them to talk to you about and there are moments of connection when you see what’s really going on inside that person and other moments when everything seems to be fine. And that to me is quite sad because it means we haven’t broken that divide.

Porgy and Bess is often judged as either a story about drugs, murder and harlotry or as a crippled man’s complex quest for love. How do you see it, what stands to the fore for you?

Previous productions have always seemed very dark and morbid to me. I find that there is a morbid side but there’s also an uplifting side and for me the message at the end is one of upliftment: Porgy’s going for it and everybody is supporting him. Throughout the production, there are peaks of happiness and peaks of loneliness but I think at the end we leave with a message of hope and courage. For me, Porgy carries a message of true grit to hang on to what you’ve got in life. And that’s what we’ve tried to portray in this production.

Times, they are a-changin’, but despite that, this opera still resonates with audiences.

Yes, I think the message of Porgy still resonates with a lot of people today. If you think of poverty, and crime, and discrimination, abuse against women, these are all issues that we still have absolutely every day in South Africa. The crime and the sexual abuse and the drugs, absolutely everything is still there. It’s sad that we are portraying a kind of life that is still happening today — but that’s the world, isn’t it?

It’s been 80 years since Gershwin premiered and Porgy is still going strong. Do you think its folk opera quality has won people over?

I don’t know, it’s a difficult question. Porgy is being done all over the world, all the time, and as Tim Murray, our conductor, says, it’s definitely a masterpiece. The music is incredible, if you listen to the orchestration of what he’s done. Mind you, it’s not an easy piece to do, we’ve put in a lot of cuts, there is some music that we’ve taken out. It’s a complex opera to do but I think that the masterpiece of the music and the way it’s been put together that is hopefully going to last longer.

Opera as an art form has been increasingly under siege as many directors try to leverage the costs and attract new audiences. Streaming hasn’t saved the day yet either. How do things look for the Cape Town Opera?

Look, it’s hard because Capet Town Opera is an NPO (Non-profit Organisation) and we don’t get any sponsorship from the state, for instance, we’re not state-subsidised. We get money from the National Lotteries where we apply for funds, and we also get money from the provincial government. But we’re lucky that we have the City Opera School, affiliated to the University, so we do two productions a year in collaboration with them. So we rely on donations, sponsorships, legacies and it’s hard work for the people who bring in the finance to keep the company going. But these tours are very profitable for us, with the foreign currency coming in to help the company stay afloat.

And how do you do, audience-wise?

With the audience it’s always difficult. You have the older generation that come and then you have the mid-generation and then the young people but that’s imbalanced. You know, public transportation is not easy in Cape Town, people living in the townships have to travel very far to come and see an opera. For them it is not so accessible because you can’t get on a tube or a bus to get here and we don’t do streaming yet, it’s too costly. So it’s hard work to try and get the audience balanced but the new artistic director is building the younger generation now.

Are you optimistic after working with young people?

I’m optimistic and pessimistic, you know. There’s such enthusiasm, we do small productions with them, like the Magic Flute and Hansel and Gretel and the children absolutely love it. But a lot of them don’t have access to things they should have because they live in poverty, in rural areas...

There’s little seeds that we hopefully take through but there’s lots of people that just slip through the cracks, which is very sad for me. It’s very sad to see these little kids and they’re so enthusiastic but may not continue because their parents don’t have enough money to send them to university...

They have to start working at a young age?

Yes, a lot of them do. You know, many of our singers come from such backgrounds. In the case of one of our singers, all his brothers worked in the mines and his parents said, ‘You’ve got to go and work in the mines’ and he said, ‘No, I want to sing.’ It was hard for him, with his parents very much against his choice, saying, ‘You’re not going to earn a living by singing.’

Well, surprise!

Yes, indeed (laughs). And a lot of the people that sing for us still support other people, parents, children... it’s a hard life in South Africa for many people.

You’ve staged so many operas throughout the years. Does Porgy get a special spot in your noteworthy résumé?

Yes, definitely (laughs). Although I never really used to like Porgy before I started doing it but it’s given me so much artistic satisfaction and it’s very close to my heart because I enjoy working with the company. So it has a very special spot in my CV, a place of honour (laughs).

When and where

Teatro Colón (Cerrito 628),

on December 10, 11, 13. Tickets available at the Colón’s box office or through www.tuentrada.com. More information on www.teatrocolon.org.ar

@tebocolombet

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