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South African students bring 'Porgy & Bess' to life

By Catherine Cuellar, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Catherine Cuellar, KERA 90.1 reporter: The Gershwins' opera "Porgy and Bess" is an American classic - a tragic romance about blacks living in segregated South Carolina during the 1930's. SMU voice professor Barbara Hill Moore assigned songs from the opera to graduate students she recruited from South Africa.

Barbara Hill Moore, SMU Music Professor: This particular project of "Porgy and Bess" began in April of last year with my thought that they could learn something about the culture of America, and specifically African-Americans.

Cuellar: This Sunday, five South African students will perform songs from "Porgy and Bess"at the Meyerson. Then they'll take the production home to South Africa. Bronwen Forbay plays Bess.

Bronwen Forbay, "Bess": I come from Wensworth, a former colored township. Colored South Africans are mixed; they have white and black heritage, and usually English or Afrikaans as primary language. Of course there were different hierarchies of how those were treated as well. I think it's going to be very interesting in the new South Africa to see that we weren't the only people that struggled against apartheid and were trying to make a go of things because in Porgy and Bess, you have different social structures within the Catfish Row setting.

Cuellar: Lionel Mkwanazi from Johannesburg, who plays Sporting Life, thinks the characters are universal.

Lionel Mkwanazi, "Sporting Life": Back in South Africa, I have people who I grew up with, a lot of guys who are doing these things. They're full of life. They always want to have fun even if there's nothing to do, because it can be quite dry there. So I would say, as the trip goes back to South Africa, I think this will be well-received and people will understand and easily relate to it, because it's not much of a difference. A lot of people in South Africa who live, who can relate, from their life, when they see this opera happening on stage, they can relate to their lives.

Cuellar: Many of the students in this production began studying opera soon after apartheid ended. Most are post-graduate students. But for Otto Maidi, who plays Crown, a professional music career is still a dream.

Otto Maidi, "Crown": I was a prison guard, and then because of the love of music, in the evening, I go to rehearsal. A lot of people like my voice and like to use it. So last year, I started to register for my diploma in Opera in Pretoria. I am still a prison guard, I'm on leave to come study here. I took a leave without pay just to pursue my career, but I really love music. I feel that music is part and parcel of my life, and I can't do without music, so I have to do something about it.

Cuellar: Simphiwe Qavane from Cape Town plays Porgy.

Simphiwe Qavane, "Porgy": In South Africa, in Cape Town, opera is not recognized as an art form you can make a living out of it, and coming from the community of black people in South Africa, and a lot of them don't understand what it entails, you know what I mean? So, here in America, it's understood, it's culture, it's just there, whereas in South Africa, you have to make an effort for people to understand it. You have to go, you have to teach it, make them understand it's about this and this and that.

Cuellar: To support the students here, The Turtle Creek Chorale is sponsoring the students' performance at the Meyerson, and will back them up with 100 singers from their Chamber Chorus and mixed chorus, One Achord. Timothy Seelig is the Turtle Creek Chorale's artistic director.

Dr. Timothy Seelig, Artistic Director of the Turtle Creek Chorale: Once apartheid fell and the horrors of the black and white issue, South Africa went right ahead with nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation as well, the first country in the world to put it in their constitution, so we're proud of them for that. And to be singing what is a quintessential American piece about discrimination and about prejudice, those kinds of things and to be singing it here in Dallas in one of the world's leading halls with one of the world's largest gay men's choruses is phenomenal.

Cuellar: SMU students perform highlights from Porgy and Bess with members of the Turtle Creek Chorale Sunday at the Meyerson. Proceeds will help defray their South African tour costs and benefit the Bruce Foote Memorial Scholarship Fund, which provides SMU music education for minority students. For KERA 90.1, I'm Catherine Cuellar.


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