The American soprano reflects on the dangers of typecasting and the status of Gershwin’s opera today.

Where do you stand on the question of is it an opera, a musical or something in between?

Of course, people know Summertime and I Got Plenty of Nothing, but learning the rest of the piece convinces me, it’s an opera. It’s very tough, and it definitely requires a voice that would get drowned out if you were to sing it in another style. So I’m definitely of the opinion that this is an opera – one of the greatest American operas – and it requires genuine operatic singing in order for us to do justice to it.

So how did you first come to know the music?

I knew it the way a lot of people know it, which is through jazz. I listened to a lot of Ella Fitzgerald when I was a teenager and so I was familiar with how she and Louis Armstrong interpreted this music, but I didn’t start listening to the opera until I studied music seriously. I touched on it a little bit through singing portions of Catfish Row – that’s the reduced orchestral version – when I was at the Eastman School of Music. This introduced me to some of the pieces I don’t get to sing as Bess – great songs like My Man’s Gone Now and Summertime. Afterwards, I was in Chicago and I had the opportunity to record the role of Clara, so that was my opportunity to learn the opera in its entirety.

American soprano Nicole Cabell

You mentioned Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong. For you, who else are the great interpreters of these songs?

Of course, Leontyne Price, and William Warfield, the old school singers, these are the greats. Cynthia Haymon did a version – I really enjoy that – but those are my go-tos. You just can’t go wrong with Leontyne!

It’s an extraordinary piece for all sorts of reasons, but what do you think are its great strengths as a piece of music drama?

Everybody comes out of Porgy and Bess toe-tapping to six or seven different melodies that just bury themselves in your ear and stay there. It’s written in this incredibly accessible way and yet it happens to be very deep, interesting and intricate music. It speaks of people in a situation doing the best they can, remaining positive, even after tragedy upon tragedy and faced with consistent poverty and racism. I know this remains controversial because it depicts an African American community in not exactly the best light. They may not be the most successful examples of African Americans, but considering the time it was written, you have to look at the positives, which are these incredibly interesting three-dimensional characters that sing some of the best music in all opera.

This is certainly the case with Bess who really changes and goes back and forth. She’s addicted to cocaine or heroine – ‘happy dust’ is what they call it – and her life is not great. She’s living with this man who is very abusive, but then she goes to Porgy’s world where she sees a bit of hope. But she continues to be tempted – or rather dragged back – into this other world. She is always fighting with her addiction, and always fighting with her tendency to rely on Crown who has this complete control over her. She has a lot of battles to fight and it remains open as to whether she wins the ultimate battle.

When you think about it, I can’t think of many operas written that early in the 20th century that deal so confrontingly with things like drug use and domestic violence. Does it seem an extraordinarily radical piece to you?

That’s absolutely true. A lot of operas can be interpreted now to represent those things, but I think maybe the controversy surrounding this opera might have something to do with that. Did they use the African American community as a voice and expression that is going on everywhere? Maybe it was considered safer to do this in a context of an African American community. That’s an interesting question, but I think whether or not you look at it in a positive or negative way, it was absolutely very forward thinking.

It’s got sex, it’s got drugs, it’s got violence and it has a central character who has a disability. I guess the only thing it doesn’t have is a gay character…

[Laughs] They should put that in. They should definitely put that in!

Nicole Cabell as Pamina in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte

A lot of people like Audra McDonald, for example, have thought hard before embracing Porgy and Bess. The director George Wolfe I know has very strong views, which are completely the opposite. Have you ever had to say, “How do I feel about this?”

I think you have to take some of it with a grain of salt. People perform Die Zauberflöte despite the misogyny and the racism. When you do Meistersinger you understand that Wagner was anti-Semitic. If you want people to hear these pieces – like in Zauberflöte where you can take away the racism by making Monostatos green or blue or an alien or something – you need to understand that it’s the time period. Do you still want to do it? Yes I do, for the music. The music’s amazing. 

Thinking about the collaborators – DuBose Heyward and the two Gershwin brothers – how ‘black’ were those white guys when they came to write music for African American characters? How does that feel to you?

[Laughs] I know what you mean! How accurate is this music? I have to say my background is very mixed, racially, and culturally. So how invested I am with the African American community and their music is an interesting take. I didn’t grow up singing gospel music. When I was younger, I didn’t listen to R’n’b or soul music, just a little bit of jazz. In a way, maybe I understand this piece in a similar way to how the Gershwins did – from a distance. The more people I meet, the more I can understand where the music comes from and what the style is. I’d like to say it’s based on music that they heard. You have composers, like Ravel for instance, who wrote Greek songs and listened to Greek melodies, and yet he’d interpret them with a French angle.

And what about taking on such a popular and defining role?

I was of the impression for a long time that if you do something like this early in your career it can typecast you. And that’s aside from your views about whether or not you want to participate in an opera that interprets the African American community this way. A lot of people start doing it and then that’s all they do. The advice I was given early on was to make sure that people look beyond your physicality first and foremost. Make sure you establish yourself in every type of opera. So it was never that I would never do Porgy, but rather that I would also sing Juliette and Pamina.

I should also say that in my case I have a voice that’s closer to a role like Clara. I have a light lyric soprano voice, but because this is a concert version it’s possible for me to sing Bess. I probably wouldn’t sing the role in a huge opera house, at least at this point in my career I would not.

There are some stunning songs, but also intense dramatic scenes. What are you looking forward to the most?

The confrontation between Bess and Crown is for me the climax of her character. She’s been waiting to say this to Crown the entire opera. This is her moment, and it’s a big dramatic climax. Her music with Porgy of course is beautiful and passionate, but it doesn’t have the anger and desperation that this confrontation with Crown has. So that’s is what I’m really looking forward to singing.

Nicole Cabell is in Porgy and Bess at Sydney Opera House from November 26 to December 3