Nassau City Opera prepares to stage ‘Porgy & Bess’
On the eve of celebrating our 38th year of Independence, who would have thought nearly four decades ago that an exciting new opera company would be in full swing by 2011, producing such an ambitious production as George Gershwin’s’ ‘Porgy & Bess’?
Certainly not Cleveland Williams, founder of Nassau City Opera and director, producer and force behind the company’s first production. Yet, he points out, the opportunity for Bahamians with such a talent to have a chance to cultivate and use it in the context of such a complex opera shows that we have, as an independent country, really flourished.
“People have been saying this play has nothing to do with Independence, has nothing to do with anything, and I’ve always said it does, it has everything to do with it,” Williams says. “Thinking outside of the box and trying to learn as much as we can though the arts and what it’s going to do for you, and stretching the capabilities of Bahamian singers and giving them the opportunity to grow, that’s how far we’ve come.”
Williams should know — he’s the catalyst for the growth of opera in the rapidly developing Bahamian theater scene. He left Nassau in the 1970s to pursue acting and singing training first in the U.S.A. and then around Europe for almost 30 years, and upon returning home, set the change in motion by setting an ambitious goal for himself and the few who rallied around the art form — staging the opera ‘Treemonisha’ for the 36th Anniversary of Bahamian Independence.
Following the heap of praise after their performance, The Nassau City Opera was formed, providing talented Bahamians with what Williams got abroad as an aspiring opera singer and actor: training and a creative outlet to gain stage experience.
“The Nassau City Opera has been formed as a training ground, a platform for Bahamian singers who are interested in the genre of opera to get that type of training, the coaching, and also to perform on stage full-time,” explains Williams. “I feel that this is a way of giving back to the country in terms of nation-building and development. There are now some younger singers who are really seriously considering pursuing singing musically in the long term.”
This time around, the company, formed under its name, has been working for two years on the poignant opera ‘Porgy & Bess’, which Williams hopes will resonate with Bahamian audiences in our somewhat turbulent society today, despite our 38 independent years. Whereas ‘Treemonisha’ followed the story of a leader who longer to free their people from ignorance, superstition and poverty, ‘Porgy & Bess’ tells the story of experiencing unconditional love in a society full of dark and dangerous struggles.
“’Treemonisha’ is a black opera and we did it to show Bahamians that opera is not just European; this is something that you can identify with because the themes running through it can be found running through Bahamian society,” Williams explains. “‘Porgy & Bess’ deals with another reality — it looks at some of the social ills that people were experiencing in Catfish Row, for example murders, drugs, prostitution and gambling, and these are issues we face here in the Bahamas as a people.”
Not only is this production particularly exciting because it’s the first time the opera will be performed outside of the U.S.A and the U.K., but it is also the collaboration between Bahamian artists and artists from abroad — the opera features some American actors and the orchestra will be a mix of Canadian string players and The Royal Bahamas Police Force band, directed by Toronto-based orchestral conductor David Bowser.
Williams found Bowser through a series of fortunate events, and Bowser — who is no stranger to The Bahamas, having spent some Christmas holidays in Grand Bahama with his family growing up — is thrilled to be part of the experience.
“I was pretty motivated right from the beginning — from the potential of cultural exchange, for me to come down and for me to bring Toronto-based musicians to come down to learn and to be enriched by this culture in the process of making music, which has already been the case,” he says, emphasizing that the cultural exchange has benefitted both sides of those involved.
“Whenever you go to a different country especially I think that you learn about how people have a slightly different way of doing things, and that can only enrich what we do when we come,” he continues. “In fact three of them are involved in the upcoming concert to benefit the El Sistema program here so you can see that the musicians themselves too are very motivated to share in this whole experience.”
Collaboration with other worldwide groups in order to grow The Nassau City Opera and place it on the map is something Williams hopes to explore more with future productions, noting that such collaboration has brought out the best in the ‘Porgy & Bess’ ensemble.
“I think the combinations are entirely beautiful and fantastic. We need to encourage this type of thing more here in The Bahamas because that’s the only way I feel like the art form of music will flourish and we’ll get more opportunities,” Williams explains. “It’s an exciting group of people and the tonal quality is to die for. They are growing and on the whole they are enthusiastic about it. It’s great to see how they’re absorbing everything.”
Of course, the undertaking was daunting at first — ‘Porgy & Bess’ is a four-hour opera, and even though Williams and Bowser culled it down to three, it’s certainly been an overwhelming two years to prepare an entire production from scratch. As Williams points out, the opera houses he performed and worked with worldwide were developed enough to have several departments in charge of different aspects of the productions.
But being a trailblazer, as most Bahamian artists know, is a lonely and self-reliant path, and Williams, along with Bowser, has spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort on a demanding play. Nevertheless, as they make their way through the final few performances, the excitement is growing among the group that this production will be nothing less than spectacular.
“The most rewarding for me was to see how last night was one of those moments where you could see it all coming together. Yesterday morning it was difficult. I walked out of the theater and sat outside and said I would never ever do another opera again,” Williams says. “But last night’s rehearsal, everything started to gel and it reminded me of when I was in Europe or in the U.S. and we were doing the final rehearsals in the opera house and everyone is signing and I’d think, ‘Wow, this is really evolving.’ This is one of the most rewarding things to be able to say we’re doing this and persons involved are now being culturally enriched and also growing from the experience.”
“For these people especially in the chorus, it was a daunting task to open the thick music book and think about how they are going to get through it,” says Bowser. “To see as we get through it more and more, I noticed people’s eyes open wide once they started to see how what they’ve been working on in isolation starts to fit into the bigger picture. I think they’re re-energized by that. I think every day that is happening with our major rehearsals. We are artists because we continue to learn through art and it develops cooperation, empathy, and thank goodness, enthusiasm and joy.”
All that’s left now is for Bahamians to witness history as they experience this poignant production that is a true labor of love. It will be performed under the distinguished patronage of Sir Arthur and Lady Joan Foulkes on July 6th, 7th and 10th at the Rainforest Theatre, Wyndham Nassau Resort. Tickets are available at the Dundas Center for the Performing Arts at 393-3728. It’s the perfect event to celebrate our development as a creative and talented country.
“We are grateful to the Gershwin Estate and Foundation to have afforded us this opportunity to share this work, and also to through the arts share with the wider community some of the things we are dealing with through our struggles as we grow from strength to strength and from day to day,” says Williams.
Those doubting they’ll enjoy such a beautiful production of an art form that has barely blossomed in the Bahamian art scene should remember that Sidney Poitier himself starred in a 1959 film version of the opera. In stage design, Catfish Row will be indistinguishable from the vibrant cottages of old Nassau town. And as composer Bowser points out, the underlying universal themes of love and struggle will resonate with everybody — worldwide.
“I think a composer or an artist wants to touch humanity,” he says. “It’s not about writing something for a specific group of people — you obviously have organic phenomena coming from the environment but you want to I think generally create it in a way that keeps that charm that is universal. It’s not elitist, it’s not about class, it’s not about the color of your skin, it’s not even about language — it’s more about telling a story and getting someone to feel something.”