The Baritone's Deeper Resonance

At 46, Gordon Hawkins envisions a more nuanced Porgy in the Washington National Opera's production.
At 46, Gordon Hawkins envisions a more nuanced Porgy in the Washington National Opera's production. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)

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By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 29, 2005

With six older brothers and sisters trying to outdo each other during their childhood in Clinton, Gordon Hawkins had to stretch his interest.

Taking a break from rehearsals for "Porgy and Bess," Hawkins laughs at the memory and rattles off the lineup. Beverly played the French horn, Thomas and Ron the sax, Woody the oboe, Wayman the tuba and Cheryl the flute. Gordon chose the clarinet. When it came to sports, Thomas and Wayman had football, Woody track and Ron wrestling. Gordon settled on baseball.

He shakes his head at how the Hawkins family competition shaped his life.

"The less noble part," he says, was sibling rivalry. But he wanted to stand out. "Your brothers and sisters are doing something, and you have to find your own turf."

Now, a quarter-century into his professional life as a busy baritone with 20 different Verdi roles alone in his repertoire, he stands as the only internationally known singer in the family.

Beginning today, Hawkins stars in the title role of the George Gershwin classic being staged by the Washington National Opera for the first time. Gershwin premiered "Porgy and Bess" on Broadway in October 1935 and, almost from the start, the work has been accompanied by debate over whether it is truly an opera or musical theater and whether the characters are offensive caricatures or homespun folks.

And this is where Hawkins says he has made some peace. Porgy is the role that most black baritones end up singing, like it or not.

In the opera's sprawling rehearsal hall in the Takoma section of Northwest Washington, Hawkins has a glint in his dark brown eyes and a clear idea about how Porgy's manhood should be signaled. Knowing Francesca Zambello, the award-winning director, for more than 20 years from previous collaborations, Hawkins firmly believes his views will be considered. One hint of his approach: There is no goat cart pulling poor Porgy around as in most productions. He's on his feet for almost three hours, and Hawkins, imposing at 6 feet 2 inches tall and 260 pounds, pulls himself along on his crutch.

When the role of Porgy comes his way, and it has six or seven times, he aims for nuance, some way to measure the man, not the facade. "I hope it has a lot more depth, a lot more understanding of what it means to lose," he says of the current portrayal. "The first time I did it, I was 26 in Melbourne, Australia. The only thing I was preoccupied with was finishing the entire piece without losing my voice. It is a very long and physical piece to do. I think now at 46, I am more interested in what I want to say rather than the sounds I make or being perfect. I am comfortable technically, so that is not a concern. It is more of a concern of energy, endurance and focus, and more of the journey I want to make with that character."

At times, Hawkins avoided Gershwin's Catfish Row and its residents, the blessing and the bane for black singers. "The route I chose was to do more mainstream repertory," he says, and that adds up to a long list, from Bizet to Stravinsky. "It means that sometimes I wasn't earning enough money as I would have if I did 'Porgy.' But now my career and artistic palate is broader."

Since the day "Porgy and Bess" opened 70 years ago, many black artists and scholars have objected to the caricatures of loose women, murder and drugs, all in a dialect filtered through a white writer's ears. Harry Belafonte famously turned down a role in the 1959 movie, and Sidney Poitier wrote in his autobiography that his involvement in the film was something that he regretted. But "Porgy" is revived often, and the recognizable music is revered, and black artists get work.

The story follows Porgy, a crippled beggar, and his love, Bess, who live in Catfish Row, a fictitious enclave outside Charleston, S.C. A character named Sportin' Life peddles plenty of cocaine and drink. Crown is Bess's man but has to get out of town when he kills a card player. Bess is shunned by everyone but Porgy and eventually declares her love. But all of their lives are turned upside down when Crown returns and is killed by Porgy. While he is in jail, Bess decides to start over in New York with Sportin' Life.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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