The banjo in Seattle Opera's "Porgy and Bess"

Aug 14, 2011

You don't expect to find a banjo in the orchestra pit at Seattle Opera. But there it is, getting warmed up by John Patrick Lowrie, a half-hour before showtime for "Porgy and Bess."

From the first day of rehearsal, Lowrie made an impression upon the orchestra.

"All these wonderful musicians concentrating very hard, marking their parts and when we got to my part and I started playing, everyone in the orchestra kind of went Boing! They all turned and looked at me and started smiling."

George Gershwin wrote the music for "Porgy and Bess." His brother Ira wrote the lyrics.

Conductor John DeMain remembers being blown the first time he heard the score.

"You hear Broadway, you hear jazz. The way he uses brass and the fact that there are saxophones from time to time."

DeMain says Gershwin drew in the American idiom and wanted to evoke the South as well as folk spirituals.

Which is where the banjo comes in.

Lowrie plays it at the top of Act II, in the song "I Got Plenty of Nuttin.'"

In the opera's storyline, Porgy, a crippled beggar, is loving life after finding a woman named Bess.

Gordon Hawkins plays Porgy.

“I think he starts off as a person resigned to his lot. And then the catalyst of Bess is introduced into his personal life and he sees another possibility for himself.”

And what could better express that optimism than the sound of a banjo?

"If the composer wanted the flavor or a certain instrument, like Gershwin wanted a banjo in that particular moment, then I have to come up with an emotion in my mind to justify why he chose that particular instrument," Hawkins says.

And that emotion is: intimacy, folk, familiar, simple. Not grand.

The banjo in the opera is a looker, though: every available inch is engraved on the instrument that dates from the 1920s.

It's also got a colorful story. It was once played on the vaudeville stage and as part of the Paul Whiteman band, an early big band orchestra.

The daughter of the original owner held onto the banjo all these decades.  When Lowrie found out, he told her:

"That I was going to bring the banjo back to life and take it to Seattle Opera and give it a chance to breathe and live again."

The banjo grabs the spotlight in just this one song, in a production that continues through August 20 at McCaw Hall.