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`Porgy and Bess' revival full of melody and meaning

``I go up to New York, and this bus comes by that says, `A Chorus Line - Greatest Musical Ever!' If it's the greatest musical ever, why don't I know a tune from it?'' So says Wayne Shirley, a music specialist from the Library of Congress, who advances that comment only as ``my wretched attitude'' and not the truth for everyone.

Mr. Shirley's ``attitude,'' however, makes an about face when it comes to George Gershwin - and especially the opera ``Porgy and Bess'' - whose manuscripts he's spent many years studying at the library. He says that songs like ``It Ain't Necessarily So'' and ``I Got Plenty o' Nuthin''' have become entrenched in American culture, language, and even the way we think. ``Who could ask for anything more?'' he jokes, echoing another Gershwin strain.

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The Houston Grand Opera revival of ``Porgy and Bess,'' first presented in 1976, is now in the middle of a six-month tour around the United States, marking the production's 10th year and the 50th year since Gershwin's death. Tomorrow, the Boston Opera Association will begin its five-night presentation of ``Porgy and Bess,'' and Northeastern University will hail the composer with a gala of films, concerts, and a lecture by Shirley. [Please see next page for listing of tour dates and Boston events.]

When ``Porgy and Bess'' was first performed in 1935 in Boston, it received mixed reactions from critics and the public. ``People were a little nervous, '' says Shirley. Because of Gershwin's reputation as a terrific composer of songs and musicals, his step into the ``serious'' form of opera was regarded with suspicion.

``If Stephen Sondheim were to write a plain old opera right now, I think people would be equally hestitant to say `This is great.''' says Shirley. There was also the vivid memory of the play ``Porgy,'' by DuBose Heyward, which had been a smash hit and on which the opera was based. So it was inevitable that people would compare the two and say Gershwin's opera wasn't as good as the play.

Over the years, however, the opera has remained a staple of American stages, subject to the ``conveniences'' of condensing the score to suit American tastes and production demands.

But 10 years ago, the Houston Grand Opera mounted a full-scale revival of the original opera that revolutionized people's thoughts about the work. In that same year, Lorin Maazel and the Cleveland Orchestra recorded it in its entirety.

``Until Houston just bit the bullet and did all of it ... the legend was you couldn't do it,'' says Shirley. Houston's production and Maazel's recording ``completely changed everybody's attitude,'' he adds. ``From that moment on, you couldn't do it, unless you did every note!''

The '76 revival was ``a key event'' in the history of the opera, he says. ``For the general public, it [blew] away a lot of false legends and documented the fact that doing what the composer wrote is once again a good idea.''

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That production stirred up a new appreciation for Gershwin's talents. Even at that time, ``there was still a little bit of `Is it an opera or is it a musical?' But I think that's been left to rest,'' says Shirley. ``He wanted to write an opera in the great tradition. ... He'd heard `Carmen.' He'd heard `Die Meistersinger.' He'd been at one of the first American performances of [Schoenberg's] `Pierrot lunaire.' So he knew what the avant-garde was doing. He wanted to write an opera that could look `Boris Godunov' in the eye - and I think he succeeded.''

Though many composers of the '20s and '30s tried to weave jazz and blues idioms into their ``serious'' compositions, Gershwin had a particular knack for doing it well. ``He was the one person who could work both sides of the tracks with elegance and style,'' says Shirley. Gershwin succeeded in bringing this new kind of music into the concert hall with such works as his ``Rhapsody in Blue,'' Piano Concerto in F, and ``An American in Paris.''

``Porgy and Bess,'' though, revealed a new side to Gershwin's style. ``The thing that's always fascinated me about `Porgy' is how utterly unlike it is to whatever has gone before. Gershwin's popular songs are models of the popular song, but they really do fit the formula. But things like `Bess, You Is My Woman Now' just flower, and they owe nothing at all to this design of the popular song.... None of the concert works even suggests that anything as great as `Porgy and Bess' is just down the pike.''

It remains to be seen whether the recent discovery in a New Jersey warehouse of lost Gershwin manuscripts will provide evidence that the opera grew logically out of previous works, says Shirley. ``Porgy and Bess'' was a completely new direction in terms of subject matter as well - and Gershwin managed to get away with what amounted to virtually his own interpretation of black culture.

Despite the originality and freshness of Gershwin's original score, the cost of mounting the opera has been an obstacle for companies over the years. So this year, the Houston Grand Opera initiated a joint venture. ``This communal contract ... made it possible for all of us to do it in a way that would not break us,'' said David Gockley, general director of the Houston Grand Opera. The shared venture has brought increased ticket sales for nearly every company so far. The Seattle Opera just finished seven sellout performances, and two of them were sold out in advance to nonsubscribers, which was very unusual, said Jim Bailey, Seattle Opera's director of marketing.

Most important, though, audiences who may never have had the chance to see ``Porgy and Bess'' in their community now have that opportunity. And according to Shirley, it's an artistic experience no one should miss: ``The great achievement of `Porgy and Bess' in 1935 - as in any year - is the fact that you care so passionately for everybody on the stage.''

For those who've never seen it, what can they expect? ``Take three handkerchiefs! ... because you do so much care for those people.''

`Porgy' tour; Gershwin observances

The Houston Grand Opera/Sherwin M. Goldman revival of ``Porgy and Bess'' will be seen in eight cities: Boston: Boston Opera Association, April 30-May 3. Louisville: Kentucky Opera, May 4-10. Dallas: Dallas Opera, May 11-17. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, May 18-24. Cleveland: Cleveland Opera, May 25-31. Detroit: Michigan Opera Theater, June 1-7. Denver: Denver Center for Performing Arts, June 8-21. San Francisco: San Francisco Opera, June 22-July 5.

Other Apr. 30 Gershwin observances in Boston include: Northeastern University `Gershwin Gala' Films: ``Shall We Dance?'' (9:30 a.m.), ``A Damsel in Distress'' (2 p.m.), ``Funny Face'' (4 p.m.), and `` An American in Paris'' (6 p.m.), Ell Center Ballroom. Lecture: Wayne Shirley from Library of Congress, with live performance. 12 noon, Ell Center. Concert: ``An Evening With George Gershwin,'' with Northeastern University Choral Society, Boston Lyric Opera Company, and pianists Eskin, Hach'e, and Nadeau. 8 p.m. Alumni Auditorium

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