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Southern Md. 'Sons' Sing Lead in 'Porgy and Bess'
National Opera Production to be Broadcast Live on Mall

By Yvonne J. Medley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, November 6, 2005

Today's forecast for the Mall calls for jackets, blankets, lawn chairs and familiar Gershwin melodies as the Washington National Opera offers a free big-screen simulcast of "Porgy and Bess."

Residents from around the region will be able to watch the performance of the Gershwin classic broadcast live on an 18-by-32-footscreen near the Capitol. The curtain goes up at 2 p.m.

Southern Maryland fans of the show, which runs through Nov. 19 at the Kennedy Center, may have a special reason to see the production: Two of its lead cast members are native sons.

Baritone Gordon Hawkins, who grew up in Clinton, will sing as Porgy in today's performance. And alternating with him in that lead role as the show continues this month is Kevin Short, from Pomfret in Charles County.

Singers in demanding operatic leads, such as Porgy, alternate performances with another cast member to save their voices. "We're doing so many performances and, in many cases, close together [that] you need at least two days for the singer's voice to rest," said Jennifer Johnston, a spokeswoman for the Washington National Opera.

Hawkins and Short, who are longtime friends, are rooted in humble beginnings. Today, they are international performers.

"We've both sung around the world," Short said during a recent rehearsal at the Kennedy Center. "We performed at the Met [New York's Metropolitan Opera] together." Short performs throughout the United States, Europe and Japan.

"Porgy and Bess" marks Short's Washington National Opera debut. He came to the part by way of New Mexico.

Last summer Christina Scheppelmann, director of the National Opera's artistic operations, attended a Santa Fe Opera performance of "Don Giovanni" in which Short sang.

During a chance conversation with her, Short recalled saying, " 'You know, I was born in Washington, D.C., and grew up in that area, and I've yet to perform there as a professional.' Within days my agent heard from her."

Short offered to send her recordings of some of his material. But he said Scheppelmann's response was, " 'Nope, no need. I just heard you.' "

Hawkins, 46, made his National Opera debut in 1983, returning several times since to perform in such operas as "L'Italiana in Algeri." Next spring he will play Alberich in the company's "Das Rheingold." Hawkins lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., and has lived in Milan.

Short and Hawkins are products of this area's public schools and religious communities. Short graduated from Lackey High School; Hawkins from Surattsville High School. As teenagers, both were known for their athletic, as well as their musical, performances.

And both men said they can trace their professional success to the mentoring of family members, educators and church leaders. All of these people, they said, recognized and nurtured their talent, urging them as adolescents to further their education and train hard.

Short excelled in wrestling at Lackey, winning several championships before he graduated in 1979. "Because of my dual thing with music and athletics, in June 2004 I was inducted into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Oklahoma," Short said. The Hall of Fame named him an Outstanding American, an honor given to recognize a former wrestler who has earned national or international stature in a field not related to wrestling.

"Starting with my father, who was a principal at Lackey [and] a football coach; my mother's brothers, who are all excellent musicians; and then I got to Morgan [State University] . . . all along, these people were in place. I felt like I was riding a cushion," said Short of his mentors.

Short's parents live in La Plata.

"He has always loved music," said Jane Short, his mother. "I didn't know he had this type [of talent] until Dr. Lillian Pailen, his choir director at Lackey, said to me, 'You know, Kevin has a lot of potential, and I feel that he's serious enough to move ahead in this direction.'

"And, so, we started paying attention," she said. "We've always felt that you should encourage your children no matter what they're interested in."

Hawkins puts his father at the top of his list of supporters. Thomas Nathaniel Hawkins was the pastor of Union Bethel A.M.E. Church in Brandywine during the 1970s.

The singer's great-grandfather, Jeff Hawkins, "was a slave who was sold and brought here, and became one of the founders of the church," said Wilbert Hawkins Jr., the performer's cousin and a Union Bethel church member.

Gordon Hawkins said Union Bethel is where he began singing.

"Practically every black person I know of started singing in church," he said, "and that's where the love for singing started. You sing because it's a part of your community."

"We're excited that Gordon recognized the importance of the church in his life," said the Rev. Dr. Harry L. Seawright, Union Bethel's pastor. "We try to do everything we can do to encourage" young people in the church.

Though he loved singing and launched his career by winning third place in a competition at the New York Metropolitan Opera, Hawkins initially had no interest in singing professionally, he said. When he was a kid, he said, he wanted to be a professional baseball player. "He had tremendous talent as a pitcher," said Wilbert Hawkins Jr. "He had a contract offered to him by the Texas Rangers." But he injured his arm "and lost his fastball."

Hawkins and Short both understand the particular difficulties of being professional black singers.

During a recent rehearsal, while soprano LaQuita Mitchell practiced her rendition of "Summertime," the opera's opening number, Short talked about the different attitudes of audiences here and abroad.

"You could write a whole book about that," Short said. "Here, visually, we're influenced by other media -- theaters and movies and things like that." So if a traditional role, especially one set in the 16th or 17th centuries, has been played by only one type of actor or singer, Short said, that interpretation will probably not change.

"In Europe, they are more inclined to expand the art form," he said. "They sometimes turn it over on its ear." For him, he said, that means his options increase outside of the United States.

"I miss my family," Short said of living abroad. "But I'll tell you what," he added with reference to the differences between living as a black performer in the United States and in Europe, "it's nice not to have to make those subtle adjustments that we all have to make [in America]."

After "Porgy and Bess," Short heads to Boston to perform in Handel's "Messiah" with the Handel and Haydn Society. Then, he said, "I go back to Switzerland." The free big-screen simulcast of "Porgy and Bess" is scheduled at 2 p.m. today on the Mall, near the Capitol.

Ticket information for performances at the Kennedy Center is available through the Washington National Opera at 800-876-7372, 202-295-2445 orhttp://www.dc-opera.org.

National Public Radio will broadcast a live performance of the show Saturday. It will be carried locally on WETA 90.9 FM.

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