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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)

Its initial staging in Washington in 1936 with Todd Duncan as Porgy marked the first time an audience at the National Theatre was integrated, after the singers said they wouldn't perform before a segregated house.

Hawkins says he accepted the role this time because he trusts Zambello, and he has a policy of asking the companies who want him for Porgy to find another role for him in the season. He will return in March as Alberich in Wagner's "Das Rheingold."

"I certainly think that is important. I think people will look at me and say it is a no-brainer that I can sing Porgy. I just need to make sure they know it is a no-brainer that I can sing Alberich," he says in a deliberate, warm voice. His first appearance in "Porgy" at the Metropolitan Opera was in 1989 as Jake, with James Levine conducting.

His Porgy has to have fire and flesh, he says. He's not the beaten-down cripple that some find demeaning. "Everyone makes excuses for him because of his handicap. People don't make the effort to see any deeper. He's not just a kind man, a gentle man, but a full physical being," Hawkins says. "What I care most about with Porgy is that if Crown is very demonstrative and physical, and Sportin' Life is conniving, I want Porgy to have a different tempo. He is a much stiller person, and he has a philosophy about things."

Some of that character deconstruction goes right back to the Hawkins household. Thomas N. Hawkins was the pastor of Union Bethel AME Church in Brandywine, and Edith Mae Ridgley Hawkins was a mother who was devoted to family and church. The children spent a great deal of time at the church, where they also sang. The parents allowed music at home, mostly Motown, and Hawkins remembers it had to be played "down in the basement." Now when he has his offstage choices, on the road or at his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., he is a Miles Davis man. He also listens to John Coltrane and Joni Mitchell as well as Odetta and Nina Simone, and sometimes even warms up his vocal cords to Aretha Franklin.

His early interests were music, math and sports. Older brother Wayman recalls a young Gordon who "wanted to tag along. He was a stubborn kid with a heart of gold. But when he said no, he meant it."

Hawkins finished Surrattsville Senior High School in 1976 and went to the University of Maryland on a baseball scholarship. He pitched, but his career ended when he tore his rotator cuff. His participation in a vocal class caught the attention of the faculty, and once he had to drop baseball, he also shifted his academic focus from math to music. "He would baby-sit and work in my garden to get extra voice lessons," remembers Linda Mabbs, a Maryland professor. "His voice was low, deep, dark. People thought he was a bass. But he worked on it and took it higher."

Hawkins finished Maryland in 1980, and stayed to take some graduate courses. He sang locally, working with the Wolf Trap Opera Company, and then won a Metropolitan Opera audition in 1986, singing an aria from Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin."

"I was a big Tchaikovsky lover. I fell in love with Russian music. I used to think the greatest thing in the world was his 'Romeo and Juliet' until I discovered Prokofiev's 'Romeo and Juliet,' " the music written for the Kirov Theater in 1935-1936. "There were no sounds like that."

The change, he says, is one of the things that happen to your listening ear as a singer explores, in this case, the neo-romantics. What happens, he explains, "is different colors appear."

Some circumstances of his career are described with awe, such as performing at the Met with people whose records he had collected and studied. In 1990, he sang Marcello in "La Boheme" at the Met when he was called at 10:30 a.m. for a 1 p.m. show -- the day the show was being broadcast around the world with Placido Domingo and Mirella Freni in the cast.

He has had a number of highlights already: five years in the Met's ensemble; winner of the Luciano Pavarotti voice competition in 1992; the grueling joy of doing Wagner's "Ring" cycle.

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