Under Blue Skies, Thunder for 'Porgy'

Thousands gather on the Mall to watch George Gershwin's
Thousands gather on the Mall to watch George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" on an 18-by-32-foot video screen. (By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 7, 2005

Jerry Ford decided to take a break from his work as an art appraiser yesterday and stand under a tree on the Mall to watch an unusual broadcast of the opera "Porgy and Bess."

"This is a cultural moment," he said, sizing up the crowds who were carrying rickety lawn chairs and brand-new collapsible stadium seats onto the spotty green expanse to see a free opera. "I'm enjoying the weather and the people. This is like going to Wolf Trap without the mosquitoes and without that slippery slope."

Ford had plenty o' company. About 13,000 people showed up to watch a live simulcast by the Washington National Opera of its current production, George Gershwin's "Porgy." As a gift to local residents on its 50th anniversary, the opera erected an 18-by-32-foot video screen, facing into the Mall near Seventh Street, and six huge speakers. The weather cooperated and the sound was spectacular. Occasionally the screen looked as if the performers were behind a veil of copper or green. But when Bess had that red dress on, it was truly crimson.

Seated in the front row -- seats that would have cost $190 each at the Kennedy Center -- was Wattie Harmon, a special education teacher at H.D. Woodson High in Northeast Washington. "My students did an English assignment on 'Porgy and Bess' last year, so I know the story. I wanted to see it because it is an African American opera," Harmon said. Next to her was Joe Berdin, the special education coordinator at McGogney Elementary in Southeast. "I've seen bits and pieces on PBS," Berdin said. "It's wonderful to be outside and participate with the masses."

Back in what would be the first tier at the Opera House, three friends had spread out their blankets, their lunches and their dogs' water bowls. Lisa Bass, an attorney who'd brought her pit bull, a 3-month-old named Jordan, said the outing was as much for the puppy as herself: "I haven't taken him out much. I was waiting until he had all his shots," said Bass. "I sang opera in high school and college but I've never seen 'Porgy.' "

On the Mall yesterday, the etiquette was quite different from the Kennedy Center. There must have been a dog for every five people. Shirtless joggers ran right down what would have been a side aisle. Bikers paused to listen, drained their water bottles and then rode on. Picnic baskets and shopping bags of baguettes, apples and sandwiches were plentiful. At intermission, a few couples started necking, but maybe that goes on at the opera now and then, too.

Right before the show began at 2 p.m. Placido Domingo, the great tenor and the general director of the company, urged the crowd to "stop and just listen for a little while." He said he hoped the free show would entice new audiences: "You might be the next people coming to the opera."

Tony Garcaldi, a local retiree, was seated under a tree and thumbing his copy of "Magical Thinking" by Augusten Burroughs. He didn't have to be told twice about the free performances. "I remember when it first came out," he said of the 1935 opera. Sharon Bell Mathis, a local author, also remembered a long-ago production that her mother took her to see in New York. Yesterday she set up a chair in the front row for her granddaughter, Safari Mathis, 7. "I wanted her to have this experience," said Mathis. "The stereotypes abound but the voices are so wonderful."

What this production of "Porgy and Bess" had in common with all others was the music. The opera has two casts alternating on "Porgy," but this was the one with top billing. When Angela Simpson sang Serena's lament "My Man's Gone Now," the applause was thunderous. And the cheers were repeated for almost every song from Indira Mahajan as Bess and Gordon Hawkins as Porgy. And for once, the cheers and the notes weren't trapped by the chandeliers of the Opera House but floated off into the blue sky over the Mall.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company