Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Co-Producing Porgy and Bess

Last November's decision to cancel the San Francisco Opera's summer seasons caught many locals by surprise. In its original design, Terry McEwen's 1987 summer season was meant to focus attention on four operas written during the 20th-century: Puccini's Golden Girl of the West, Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten, Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. Many Bay Area opera queens are still wondering why the Porgy and Bess production (which originated in another city) was not abandoned along with the three other operas which comprised the ill-fated 1987 summer season. The answer goes far beyond the box office potential of George Gershwin's popular opera.

With this month's production of Porgy and Bess, the San Francisco Opera is participating in an exciting experiment in the arts. This season, using cost-saving techniques which could revolutionize the way grand opera is produced in America, more than a dozen opera companies have staged Porgy and Bess in cities across the United States. While this grand entrepreneurial adventure is, in effect, a revival of the Houston Grand Opera's Tony award-winning production which toured North America and Europe back in 1978, it also represents the largest joint venture ever attempted by members of Opera America, the professional service organization for producing opera companies.


The idea to revive Porgy and Bess first began festering in David Gockley's mind when he realized that the Houston Grand Opera was approaching the tenth anniversary of its 1976 staging of Gershwin's masterpiece; a production which netted his company both national and international acclaim. Eager to share production costs with other impresarios, Gockley wrote to the heads of twenty-five opera companies whom he felt might want to include Porgy and Bess in their repertoire and could also afford to participate in a co-production. Outlining the dimensions of the project, he asked which companies would be interested in joining forces with him. The response to his letter exceeded his wildest expectations.

An important factor in the project was Gockley's previous success at producing Porgy and Bess since, in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to obtain production rights. The Gershwin estate (whose motivations are not necessarily financial) has become more and more dissatisfied with the caliber of certain productions and -- because the remaining relatives of George and Ira Gershwin are well aware of how each production of Porgy and Bess is assembled -- wields the power to make an artistic statement through its licensing of performance rights.


Shared productions are hardly a new phenomenon in the opera world. Indeed, the success of several previous operatic joint ventures has soundly demonstrated that, in the course of co-producing an opera, all parties can reap handsome benefits. Audiences in multiple cities can be exposed to top-quality productions of rarely-performed operas. Singers who are familiar with a traveling package (and who can arrive in town for rehearsals already knowing most of the stage direction) are capable of building a stronger ensemble in fewer rehearsal hours by working with colleagues who have already appeared in the same production. Impresarios have the surety of presenting a proven product to their subscribers without taking the risk of building a new production from scratch. Last, but certainly not least, the bottom-line people on each company's board of directors can rest assured that opera is being produced within a framework of fiscal responsibility.

The proof lies in past performances. In recent seasons, the San Francisco Opera's productions of Handel's Orlando and Verdi's Falstaff (1985) were projects whose costs were shared with the Lyric Opera of Chicago. 1984's Anna Bolena with Dame Joan Sutherland in the title role was, in reality, a traveling roadshow of Donizetti's bel canto opera made possible by a joint venture between the opera companies of Toronto, Detroit, Chicago, Houston and San Francisco. San Francisco Opera's sets and costumes for Puccini's Turandot (a production whose initial costs were shared with the Greater Miami Opera Association, the Dallas Opera and the Houston Grand Opera), has not only amortized its costs, but generated additional income through rental fees paid by opera companies in Detroit, Montreal and Louisville, Kentucky.


In many ways, the Porgy and Bess project evolved because the same tough economics which contributed to the demise of the San Francisco Opera's summer season forced a new spirit of cooperation upon the nation's operatic community. "There's nothing quite like hard times to make people start working together," snickers the project's coordinator, Anne Tomfohrde. "Opera is the most labor-intensive and, therefore, most expensive art form known to man. At present, no opera company in the United States can rest assured of either clearing its deficit or staying afloat. That knowledge has helped everyone face the music and understand that the key to surviving the economic hardships of the 1980s may lie in working together."

Although 1987's Porgy and Bess project was by no means designed as a profit-making venture, with production costs being split fourteen ways each participating opera company has been spared the nightmare of having to raise huge amounts of money. "Because Porgy and Bess is an extremely expensive opera to mount, co-producing it with a number of other companies makes the idea financially much more attractive. If I had tried to produce this opera by myself, it would have cost at least $750,000. This way, my investment is only about $150,000," stresses Speight Jenkins, General Director of the Seattle Opera.

This joint venture has proven that the opera world's power brokers are capable of putting the overall health and welfare of the nation's arts community above their own personal agendas. "Prior to 1970, the idea of impresarios working together to improve their own opera companies -- as well as the cause of opera in general -- was considered contrary to their image as self-sustaining dictators of individual operatic fiefdoms," admits David DiChiera, the General Director of both Michigan Opera Theatre and the newly-formed Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa, California.

The times, they are a'changing.

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This "Tales of Tessi Tura" column originally appeared in the Bay Area Reporter on June 25, 1987.

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