Alvy Powell, one of the world's best-known singers of the role of Porgy, returns to his home state for Virginia Opera's "Porgy and Bess."
Alvy Powell knew he'd be a bass baritone when his voice changed around the age of 16. Like most young men, he explored various hobbies, noodling on the clarinet for 15 years, running track, playing some basketball and singing in church. "I really didn't know [how I felt] about being a singer until I got to college," he says. Powell, who grew up in Cheriton on the Eastern Shore, discovered that he had an operatic voice while studying music at the University of Maryland at College Park, where the curriculum demanded classical singing.
When he visits Richmond to star in Virginia Opera's production of George Gershwin's American classic folk opera, "Porgy and Bess," Powell will have an aunt and a few cousins in the audience. Gently, Powell admits that performing to the home crowd can be more nerve-racking than usual. Sighing measuredly and deeply, he observes, "Oh yes, it can be more stressful if family wants your time before the show." Like most opera singers, Powell needs quiet time before a performance. The feat of opera singing requires special care of the instrument. "The voice and the body are muscles," he says, "and you have to continue to use them and stay in touch with them so that they work the way you want them to when you need them. [It's] kind of like a track runner or someone who lifts weights. Singing is the same way."
Powell sang as a soloist in the U.S. Army chorus for 10 years, most notably singing at George Bush's presidential inauguration. However, that career path proved less than fulfilling for Powell. "I guess I knew my limitations in the military," he says. "I just wanted to get out and see if I could do it on my own. I really wanted to sing in the great opera houses, so that's kind of what made me do it the challenge of the whole thing." The career switch was a wise one. "I'm a working singer," he says. "It's a nice feeling that things are going well right now, and I hope they continue."
Things are going ever so slightly more than well for Powell. "Actually, Alvy Powell is now the world's greatest Porgy of his generation," says Peter Mark, Virginia Opera's general and artistic director. "He has given over 800 performances of this [role] all over the world."
Powell has a special connection to Virginia Opera, having begun his association with "Porgy and Bess" by delivering the role of Crown in a 1980 student matinee performance of Gershwin's masterwork.
Mark expects this current production to be "one of our biggest and one of our best." The performance dates in Richmond feature the Richmond Symphony in the pit for first time in many years, a partnership brought about because of scheduling conflicts with the Virginia Symphony. This is also the first time the Opera has ever brought its fifth production of the season to Richmond. "I think this is really one of the productions I and many people will remember for a long time," Mark says.
If this proves to be the case, it in large part will be due to Powell's awe-inspiring presence. When Powell recently made his New York City Opera debut as Porgy, New York audiences declared Powell's interpretation astonishing, especially considering the physical demands of the role of a crippled beggar.
"If anybody gets on their knees and stays there for five minutes they'll see what I'm talking about," Powell explains. "It's a grueling role in that way it's very physical and then you're expected to sing, and it's a difficult role. It's a challenge."
Having appeared in so many different productions of "Porgy and Bess" (at least 20 by his own reckoning) doesn't faze Powell. "Most directors are very pleased with what I do and spend time working on the rest of the show," he notes. "They tell me you're just fine you just do what you