The story of Porgy and Bess is as tragic as it is powerful. And for this alumna, the lessons from a summer spent on the set of the opera went far beyond the struggles of the titular characters. The crescendo of those soulful ballads opened the door to her own metaphorical journey.

by Deborah Lipman Cochelin ’74

The significance of the year 1970 in my life was twofold. I was a graduating senior in high school, and Charleston was celebrating its 300th birthday. One of the many tricentennial celebration projects and festivities in which I partook was painting downtown fire hydrants to resemble colonial soldiers. However, the most thrilling was volunteering as the only assistant property mistress to preside over at least 1,000 props in the production of Porgy and Bess at the Gaillard Auditorium.

My actual and metaphorical boundaries as a 17-year-old rising freshman at the College of Charleston were just as limited as Porgy’s when he vows to find Bess “up Nort’ – pas de Custom House.” The social, political and cultural ramifications of this local production were lost on me completely. Working on Porgy and Bess was just a larger-than-life adventure, an enlargement of the technical craft I had learned at the Dock Street Theatre under the tutelage of Norman Weber. It was the chance to be swept up and spread my wings further into the theater by the passionate and soulful music of a great love story sung and acted by my community.

By 1970, Porgy and Bess had already become a period piece at just 35 years old, and the opera had arrived home a little tired, tattered and badly in need of a rest. The uniqueness of this production, however, was that it was the only amateur production of Porgy and Bess the Gershwin family had ever permitted in the United States with authentic, native Charleston performers, excluding the actors in the principal roles.

Ella Gerber was a world-class director who had held the rights to direct Porgy and Bess for many years from the Gershwin family. I will never forget her wild, black curls shorn closely to her head, framing her pale skin. She mostly wore ballet slipper-style flats, peasant blouses and full cotton skirts that flounced while directing in the hot, fetid air of the College’s old gym, known today on campus as the Silcox Gym. Her husband, Sam, reminded me of a Jewish Colonel Sanders, always seeming to be dressed in white. He was always at her beck and call, and seemed to know exactly what to do. Twelve-hour rehearsal days stretched all of us, and patience ran thin. The rehearsal venue was thankfully a familiar locale to me because of the many joyful summers I spent there during full-day sports camps offered by the College.

In June 1970, the curtain finally rose on the residents of the crowded Catfish Row tenement, and the overture began. The whirring trills and rapid scales of the trombones, violins, xylophone, oboe, piccolo, cello and flute crescendoed like a swarm of bees stinging the senses as a prelude to the enduring aria “Summertime.”

I did not appreciate the implications of the first integrated audience attending the Gaillard Auditorium, not only because of my naiveté, but because I was so caught up in doing what I was supposed to be doing amid the intoxicating backdrop of the story’s narrative and music. As the scenes changed swiftly, there was a lot of hushed tittering going on backstage by the neophyte thespians. And their stifled merriment was infectious. While waiting for entrances, we all danced quietly in the wings, mimicking the words to the songs. When the curtain finally went down, the audience rose to its feet, and the sustained applause continued for at least six curtain calls. As soon as the headiness of opening night was over, the production settled into a comfortable, but not necessarily less exuberant, rhythm through closing night. Many moments in the opera entertained me, while I was oblivious to others. However, they slowly came by their repetition and exposure to represent ideas and circumstances that to this day haunt, enlighten and even trouble me.

A dinner to celebrate the end of the production’s run took place at the Francis Marion Hotel, where we embraced, sang and danced. As typical with most theatrical productions, we had become one great family. A commemorative print of the setting of Porgy and Bess designed by theatre professor Emmett Robinson ’35 for this Charleston Symphony production (and later reproduced in 1985 for the golden anniversary of the symphony and Porgy and Bess) was presented to each person in the cast, crew and symphony. Today, this print hangs in my office and serves as a daily reminder that captures a moment in time of my maturation and that of Porgy and Bess, as well as the societal changes and upheaval along the way.

Forty-six years later, the same music and drama that shaped my existence on those hot, sultry summer days of rehearsals and performances resonate even more deeply. They’re synonymous with my having “come of age” as well as the boundaries and dreams which have extended far past “de Custom House.” No matter when or where I am when I hear it, from the first musical note of the overture, I’m always transported home to Charleston, and that priceless experience of working on the set.

As for Porgy, he’s indeed not down on his luck anymore – Porgy and Bess has taken to heart that final stirring hymn: “I’m on my way to a Heav’nly Lan’” – “and oh, yes, ‘Oh Lawd,’ it’s a long, long, way.” Porgy and Bess has been a long, long way since it came home to “recharge” in 1970. And at this year’s Spoleto Festival USA performance in May and June, it had at long, long last reached the “Heav’nly Lan” again.

An attorney and active arts enthusiast, Deborah Lipman Cochelin ’74 has supported her Seattle community through leadership, advocacy and arts management, with an emphasis on ballet and modern dance.

Illustration by Gracie Cole-Rouse