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by Michael Portantiere

Gregg Baker: From Crown to Porgy

  • Porgy.jpg

    Gregg Baker: From Crown to Porgy

    With his huge physical, vocal, and dramatic presence, baritone Gregg Baker virtually owned the role of Crown in the George Gershwin masterpiece Porgy and Bess for the past quarter century, having played it in just about every high-profile production of the period (Radio City Music Hall, the Metropolitan Opera, Glyndebourne, and so on). If you missed his definitive performance, you still have the opportunity to see and hear it, as the Glyndebourne production was videotaped and is available on DVD.

    An artist has to grow, so it's not surprising that Baker would eventually graduate to the central role of the crippled beggar Porgy, which he recently sang for the Opera Company of Philadelphia. New York-area folks have a chance to see him in the part for two performances this weekend, when the New Jersey State Opera brings the Philadelphia production to Newark Symphony Hall on Friday, May 21 at 8pm and Sunday, May 23 at 3pm. Most of the cast is new, but Mr. Baker is reprising Porgy, this time opposite the Bess of Laquita Mitchell. A few days ago, I spoke with him about the role and the opera.


    BROADWAYSTARS.COM: When you sang Porgy in Philadelphia, was that your first time in the part?

    GREGG BAKER: Yes, but I've recorded it twice -- for Zubin Mehta on Teldec records, and with the late Erich Kunzel on Telarc.

    STARS: It's a tremendously challenging role. Aside from the huge amount of singing, you're required to perform on your knees.

    GREGG: Actually, I won't be on my knees this time; I'll be on crutches. I think that's the new concept for the part, ever since Glyndebourne, when Trevor Nunn gave Porgy walking sticks instead of having him on his knees and in a goat cart. But I did sing the part on my knees in Philadelphia.

    STARS: Did you have a goat in Philly?

    GREGG: No. I had a cart, but no goat!

    STARS: The opera is a masterwork, but some people are put off by its depiction of impoverished African Americans living in the South in the early years of the 20th century. What's your take on that?

    GREGG: Porgy and Bess is a fantastic piece. Because of the social environment in which we live, certain words and references that were in the original production could never be included now. It would just be unacceptable. But those elements are of little consequence to the construct of the piece a whole, so it really doesn't suffer if they're cut, as they have been over the years.

    STARS: You were Crown in the opening night cast of the Metropolitan Opera production in 1985, with Simon Estes as Porgy and Grace Bumbry as Bess. If I recall, Estes had been injured during rehearsals, so he had to do the part on crutches rather than on his knees. Isn't that right?

    GREGG: Yes. In the first orchestra/dress rehearsal, Simon twisted his knee during one of our fight scenes, so he had to make some adjustments.

    STARS: Would you like to say something about the musical qualities of the opera?

    GREGG: It's very eclectic. Various parts of it are written like Wagner, Verdi, Puccini. A lot of people come to Porgy not fully understanding how difficult a piece it is, both from a vocal and orchestral standpoint. I stayed away from it for the first part of my career, because I knew some people who were already in "the Porgy vortex," whereby once you become identified with the piece, you're pretty much locked in. Once I chose to do Crown, I examined the whole work from a musical standpoint and tried to figure out what I could bring to the role vocally, aside from my size and my athletic ability.

    STARS: Have you ever seen the Otto Preminger film version of Porgy and Bess?

    GREGG: Of course. I like the movie, even though Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge don't do their own singing. I still think it's a classic. Sammy Davis, Jr. was the perfect Sportin' Life.

    STARS: Speaking of Dorothy Dandridge: I got to see you play Husky Miller in Carmen Jones in London some years ago. Do you think that show could be a hit if it was revived in this country?

    GREGG: Definitely. After London, I did a concert version of the show with Vanessa Williams in D.C. at the Kennedy Center, and it was very well received.

    STARS: How was Ms. Williams as Carmen?

    GREGG: She was fantastic. At first, I think she was a bit intimidated because she categorized it as an opera, but it really isn't. The show can be done with opera singers, but it doesn't have to be. Vanessa is a very strong musical theater performer; once we all made her feel more comfortable and at ease, she was wonderful in the part. I think the show would go over really well on Broadway today. As a matter of fact, we're in low-level discussions on how to possibly pull it together for Broadway. I'm hopeful that there might be an announcement of a revival in the near future -- and if there is, I'll be a part of it.

    STARS: Great! Any final thoughts on Porgy?

    GREGG: I believe it's a timeless piece. This production was put together rather quickly, but I think we have a good mix of young singers and veterans. I'm really looking forward to it.

    [For more information about the New Jersey State Opera performances of Porgy and Bess, click here].

    Published on Thursday, May 20, 2010

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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