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.
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.
Speight Jenkins, the executive director of the Seattle Opera, has recruited Hawkins to perform Verdi and Wagner. This season, Hawkins is doing "Macbeth" for him. "He is a true Verdi baritone. He has a rich voice with a wonderful top and wonderful bottom," Jenkins says. "You've got to have an easy high G because Verdi writes you up there. And you have to have a big voice to get over the orchestra."
Wayman Hawkins says the successes have come naturally to his brother. "He is in his element. The stage is second nature to him," says Hawkins, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Postal Service.
As he discusses his interpretations, Gordon Hawkins says one of the values he appreciates is stillness. It is a trait that comes from watching people in general and also from those years on the mound, patiently working batters. His pitching heroes are from the Jim Palmer era of the Baltimore Orioles, and baseball is still his escape. He got up at 3:30 a.m. to watch the 2004 World Series on Sky TV while he was performing "Tosca" in Dusseldorf, Germany. He mourned when Randy Johnson moved to the New York Yankees. "I just can't pull for the Yankees," he says brightly.
Informed that the person interviewing him is an avid Yankees fan, he backtracks just a little, saying it is actually the team's owner and fans that drive him batty. We agree to disagree about baseball and return to Verdi. "I could sing 'Rigoletto' for the rest of my life. I just love the melodies," he says. " I think the one most like me is Simon Boccanegra because he is flawed, because he thought one thing and it took him down one path and when he got to that fork, he realized, 'Wait a second, I have to make an adjustment here.' He made that adjustment based on his heart."
When Hawkins sang "Rigoletto" with the Michigan Opera Theatre last October, Lawrence B. Johnson, a critic for the Detroit News, said Hawkins was the "production's one solid reward."
In recent years, Hawkins has been doing about six roles a season. As he matures, he finds that his understanding of how to create a rich character has matured. He was ready when he was tapped to play George in Carlisle Floyd's adaptation of John Steinbeck's "Of Mice and Men" -- a story of dashed hopes.
"For me it was the luck of timing. I was able to come to a piece like that at a time in my life when I knew what it was about. I knew the emotions of . . . the dreams that George had." Hawkins explains that he had been dealing with the failure of a long-term, long-distance relationship and that informed his approach.
When Charles Ward of the Houston Chronicle watched the production in February 2002, he noted: "As George, baritone Gordon Hawkins generally pushed his sound a lot, but he poured out the hopes and seething frustration with tremendous passion."
Hawkins says he thinks a lot about the lessons he's learned.
"I would hope at 46 I would have a good understanding of how my technique works. Now it becomes a matter of what you want to say," he says. "I am never at that place where I just want to make that sound. I am at a place where I want to say that truth. That is just where I am."
Gordon Hawkins rehearses a scene from "Porgy" with Jermaine Smith, left, as Sportin' Life and Indira Mahajan as Bess.