Teaching ‘Porgy and Bess’

Spoleto Festival USA presents a blockbuster production of Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess, which opens the 2016 festival. Spoleto is partnering with local artist Jonathan Green, who is designing the sets and costumes, and Charlotte-based Johnson C. Smith University Concert Choir. Adam Parker/Staff

Let no good opera present an educational opportunity unseized.

When Spoleto Festival USA announced it would mount a new production of “Porgy and Bess,” celebrating Charleston’s history and cultural inheritance, many in the community quickly exercised their imaginations: What else could be done to amplify the impact of the opera?

The Gibbes Museum is organizing a special exhibition to coincide with the presentation of “Porgy.” Spoleto Festival is planning a city tour that contextualizes the folk opera’s plot and characters.

And, Engaging Creative Minds, a local nonprofit that advocates for arts-infused school curricula, is collaborating with Chicago-based Ravinia to encourage teachers to take “Porgy” into the classroom and use its musical language and historical setting as educational fodder.

A Feb. 13 workshop that drew about 60 teachers to Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School was a step along the way. Educators from the Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester 2 districts gathered for presentations by Ravinia education outreach director Christine Taylor, Charleston Stage’s Marybeth Clark and local artist Jonathan Green, who has designed the stage set and costumes for Spoleto Festival’s production.

The morning belonged to Taylor, and she took full advantage of it, enlisting teachers to make musical instruments they could play and explaining the Gullah origins of “Porgy,” especially its “ring shout” rhythms. She described the origins of the work and the efforts of the Gershwin brothers and their collaborator, DuBose Heyward, the Charlestonian who authored the original novel and co-wrote (with his wife, Dorothy) the play that preceded the opera, and discussed the controversy about the opera’s stereotypes.

Taylor also referred to a list of relevant musical terms, such as timbre, tempo, aria and chromaticism, that teachers could use with their students. Finally, she presented the music itself.

Taylor, a trained singer, performed with baritone Bill McMurray. They were accompanied on piano by Ravinia President and CEO Welz Kauffman.

The teachers were not bored.

Engaging Creative Minds’ lead coach Susan Antonelli addressed the gathering and encouraged teachers to absorb as much as they could. The idea is to enhance the standard curriculum, whether for math, science, social studies or English, with elements drawn from the arts.

“It gives children the opportunity to understand concepts in a different way, through music,” Antonelli said.

Sarah Crowe, a seventh-grade math teacher at C.E. Williams Middle School, is using sweetgrass baskets and Green’s paintings to help teach her students about ecology and circles. She also likes to use paintings by Mondrian and Escher to reinforce ideas about geometry.

Crowe said sculpture can help teachers explain volume; rhythm can help with fractions. The list goes on.

“Arts integration is important,” she said. “Many kids are not exposed to art (otherwise).” Yet it’s a universal way to present ideas. “We can all connect through the arts.”

The “Porgy” project includes a magazine-like resource guide for educators called “From the Opera House to the School House,” which contains details about Gershwin’s work as well as lesson plans and resources, activity sheets, discussion questions and a bibliography.

Kauffman said the “Porgy” initiative originated in his hometown with “One Score, One Chicago,” an outreach effort organized in conjunction with a concert version of the folk opera Ravinia produced. Boeing, one of Ravinia’s big corporate supporters, figured it’d be a good idea to replicate the effort in other cities where the aerospace giant does business. Boeing put Ravinia in touch with Engaging Creative Minds, and the seed was planted.

Kauffman said this was the first time Ravinia has taken its education outreach show on the road. There’s plenty of need in Chicago to keep the organization busy forever, but this opportunity to work with educators to highlight the qualities of “Porgy and Bess” in the city of the show’s origin was impossible to resist, he said.

What’s more, the arts provide a rich cornucopia of material that can enhance the classroom experience, helping teachers teach better and students learn better. All it requires is exposure and commitment.

“Anybody can teach the arts, you just have to have the tools to do it,” Kauffman said.

Reach Adam Parker at 843-937-5902. Follow him at facebook.com/aparkerwriter.