ESCONDIDO — The very first time Cedric Cannon performed the role of Porgy in “Porgy and Bess,” he said he didn’t think he was going to make it through the entire opera after the first scene.
“I did make it through the opera,” Cannon said proudly. “But I realized how taxing and physical it was for me to sing this role on my knees,” he said.
That was a number of years ago, he said, and since then, Cannon has performed every baritone role in the production. But by far, the most taxing role is Porgy, the noted actor and singer added.
Imagine having to sing from your knees for an entire performance nearly three hours long.
“It was very trying, but it’s a beautiful role,” Cannon said. “It’s become a part of me over the years.”
Musically, Cannon said, it’s probably one of the most challenging operas out there. He’s performed the production with other orchestras (he won’t mention which ones) that he said have embarrassed themselves, having looked at it and being shocked by the difficulty, complexity and depth of the piece.
He doesn’t have to sing the part of the poor beggar on his knees anymore like performers did almost 80 years ago when George Gershwin debuted the production.
Written during the Harlem Renaissance, “Porgy and Bess” has been a source of controversy, though rising through the years to what’s now typically referred to as “America’s first great opera.”
Cannon explained that when people tend to talk about “Porgy and Bess,” they talk about the time period and how terrible it was for black folks and the drugs and the violence.
“But basically, what ‘Porgy and Bess’ is, is a love story — it’s an American love story,” Cannon said. “And I personally look at it as the greatest American opera thus far.”
Cannon, with his wife LaRose Saxon Cannon, aren’t bringing the full operatic production to the California Center for the Arts, Escondido this weekend, but rather a concert version of it.
The story is about Porgy, a beggar, who finds love and the trials and tribulations he goes through and the woman he meets in Bess.
The characters are based on the Gullah people of South Carolina, which have been described as a “very misunderstood” people.
And that’s maybe where some of the controversy of the production comes from, said Cannon.
“It’s a very separate African American community that even a lot of African Americans didn’t quite understand them,” Cannon said. “So, maybe a lot of African Americans, when this piece was first done, saw them as an embarrassment. And I think with time and knowledge, we’ve learned that they are part of the rich fabric of American and African American history.”
In the end, though, it’s a love story, said LaRose, adding that people could, from the very beginning, connect with the opera.
“Because you first hear this beautiful piece, ‘Summertime,’ — everyone knows that piece — it’s a mother rocking her baby to sleep. And I think that that sets the tone of it, but I think that there may be people that are offended by some of the storylines.
“But it’s just like any other opera,” she added.
“It’s a love story,” said LaRose.
The couple has done the opera many times together. “Even though we’re married, when we get on stage, we’re not LaRose and Cedric — we’re Porgy and Bess,” she said.