In February 1936, the famed composer George Gershwin came to Washington. He was here to perform with the National Symphony Orchestra, but when he met reporters at his hotel, Gershwin said he had some other business to take care of: He wanted to thank Washington for the “loan” of an opera singer named Todd Duncan.
Duncan was the Howard University voice teacher who, four months earlier, had debuted the role of Porgy in “Porgy and Bess” on Broadway. It’s a role Kevin Deas will sing Saturday at the Music Center at Strathmore in a concert presentation by the National Philharmonic. Soprano Marlissa Hudson is portraying Bess. The performance will include the Duke Ellington School of the Arts concert choir.
Duncan gave the opera a Washington connection. Gershwin had spent more than a year assembling the cast for “Porgy and Bess,” which is set in a black community in coastal South Carolina. As a 1935 article in The Washington Post put it: “Through night clubs, cotton clubs, yeah-mans and cabarets, he searched for colored men and women who could be depended upon to sustain an opera about Negroes, based on blues and spirituals.”
The hardest role to fill was the most important: Porgy. Then he heard Duncan’s audition.
Years later, Duncan described that audition to an interviewer: “The paradox is that I sang an old Italian song, ‘Lungi dal caro bene,’ by Secchi. Now I say paradox because here was a Negro singing for a Jew and singing an old Italian aria of the eighteenth century, auditioning for an opera whose site was to be in South Carolina.”
Gershwin was bowled over and offered the baritone the job on the spot. Duncan wasn’t so sure. He was an opera singer. Gershwin had gained fame for Tin Pan Alley pop songs, lightweight stuff. Plus, Duncan was well established at Howard and with the private voice students he taught in his home studio at 1600 T St. NW.
It was only after hearing more of the new opera’s music that Duncan was convinced.
Of its pre-Broadway stint in Boston, a Post critic wrote: “Its hectic jumblings of mythological, Afro-religious and American folklore elements, permeated with Gershwinion harmonies, seasoned with typical Gershwin musical comedy interludes and with a Negro cast, scored a success down East by the sheer audacity and merit of its exotic and irrational entertainment.”
New York critics weren’t sure what to make of what Gershwin called a “folk opera.” Several panned it. It closed after 124 performances.
A national tour followed, ending in March 1936 with a week of performances at Washington’s National Theatre. This was a whites-only house, meaning African Americans would not be allowed to see an opera that featured an entirely black cast.
Duncan and the soprano playing Bess, Anne Brown, protested, refusing to perform unless the audience was integrated.
Negotiations ensued with the theater’s management. What if blacks were allowed to Wednesday and Saturday matinees? No, said Duncan. How about if African Americans sat in the balcony?
“I have too many friends at Howard University who take baths every day and are clean,” Duncan responded. “They don’t smell, and they are very intelligent, and they can sit beside anybody.”
The theater finally relented. Interracial audiences were allowed to buy tickets, which ranged from balcony seats at 85 cents a pop to seats in the orchestra at $2.75.
And after the run? The National went back to its segregated ways. It wasn’t fully integrated until 1952.
Duncan went on to an esteemed career, performing around the world and teaching generations of singers here in Washington, at his house on T Street and, later, a house on Upshur Street.
“He was generous with his students, and he was generous with me,” said Duncan’s grandson, Charles Todd Duncan, 69, a journalist who lives in St. Louis. “I was always allowed into his studio. I had a specific set of rules: I had to knock, and I had to be absolutely quiet.”
The young Duncan would lie under the grand piano and listen.
In the summer, the Duncan family would leave the city behind for their house at Arundel-on-the-Bay, a resort south of Annapolis.
“Frequently when we were in the car, he would without provocation start singing in full operatic tone,” Duncan remembered. “And it was never amazing, because he did it frequently, but, still, you listened. You can’t have an opera singer in the front seat belting out ‘Porgy and Bess’ without paying attention to that.”
Todd Duncan died in 1998. He was 95.
“On his last day, he had a voice student in the waiting area of his studio, waiting for his morning lesson,” his grandson said. “And my grandfather was upstairs in his bed, dead. He had died overnight and not been discovered. . . . He died with his boots on.”
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/people/john-kelly.