Porgy Through The Eyes Of April Haines

Before soprano April Haines joined the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in 1995, she saw the world touring with Porgy and Bess, which returns to the Met stage for the first time in almost 30 years. Besides her intimate knowledge of the show through numerous roles she played over the course of her career, she also experienced the piece on a different level through another important connection: her former teacher, the famous baritone Todd Duncan, who played Porgy in the original 1935 production of Porgy and Bess.

as told by April Haines, with contributions from Lianne Coble-Dispensa

Mezzo-soprano April Haynes of the Met Chorus.

Mezzo-soprano April Haynes of the Met Chorus.

Interestingly, the first opera I ever saw was also the first one in which I was ever cast: Porgy and Bess. It was a joint production with Tulsa Opera and my hometown company, Baltimore Opera.

I had studied voice & had been a soloist in my college choir at Morgan State University. But after attending a Shirley Verrett recital, I was convinced that the training I was getting was not on par with the talent I saw on that stage, and I requested another teacher. Though that teacher only taught masters students, I ended up studying with him: the great American tenor George Shirley. I shared my story with him, and to this day, he reminds me that as a Met chorister, I obviously found my heart's desire.

After a decade of a successful data processing career, I began to study with Elizabeth Kolker, a recommended teacher at Baltimore's prestigious Peabody Institute. She herself was a student of the baritone Todd Duncan, who was made famous as the first Porgy in the premiere performance of Porgy and Bess in 1935. I asked her if there was any possibility that I could audit one of her lessons with Mr. Duncan. She said yes, and that “yes” changed the trajectory of my life.

April and Manning, from their Porgy & Bess days!

April and Manning, from their Porgy & Bess days!

At that point, with a couple years of touring, I had over 400 performances of Porgy under my belt, but no concentrated vocal study. My goal was to get a "red dress" (Bess's iconic costume) of my own in five years. (I had already performed the soprano solo lines in the prayer, as well as the Strawberry woman.) And may I say (whenever possible, of course) that my only son, C. Manning Haines, debuting as a 5-year-old with Baltimore Opera, played Serena's son Scipio in a number of productions. It was four years before I got that red dress, debuting in Munich as the Bess cover, but the trajectory was set. By that time, I'd seen the 13 iterations of Houston Opera's Porgy and Bess run, and traveled to numerous cities and countries on tour with the opera: Tokyo, Kyoto, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Lisbon, Ljubljana (Slovenia), Den Hagg, Amsterdam, Paris (all over France, really), all the major Italian cities, and countless others. Back off the road, I'd been cast to sing a modern version of Le Nozze di Figaro as the Countess in 1995, but then the Met called and invited me to become part of their family. As an older family member used to say, your life can change on a dime.

I remember Mr. Duncan laughing the morning he heard me for the first time and saying, “you have the nerve to be out there making money and never studied! Come on back here next Wednesday morning at 9 o'clock. We'll get you what you need. We'll get to work!"

Todd Duncan, baritone and the original 1935 Porgy!

Todd Duncan, baritone and the original 1935 Porgy!

My life was forever changed. He became my teacher, friend, father, grandfather and confidant. I traveled from Baltimore to Washington D.C. every Wednesday and spent the entire morning, until Mr. Duncan stopped teaching at noon, listening to all the students who came after me. His studio was graced with 30" x 24" images of the 1935 Porgy. I literally sat at his feet many, many days as he shared stories of those turbulant, racial-charged times in America, when people had little tolerance for a lieder singer of an Irish, piano teaching mother and (in his words) a "negro" father when he was "expected" to become Pullman Porter at best.

"Po-or-gy, Po-or-gy...dat you der, ain't it?"

I sang this to greet my beloved teacher before every lesson as he was descending the stairs from his elegantly appointed home to join me in his basement studio.

These are the the first words Bess utters after rousing out of unconsciousness after her encounter with her old lover, Crown, on Kittiwah Island. It was our little "thing".

Mr. D's health declined in 1997, but he lived to see me join the Metropolitan Opera Chorus and was indeed extremely proud that the Met was willing to have me join their family.

He was certainly a special guest the night of the Porgy and Bess premiere here at the Met in 1935. Confidentially though, he felt it would never be performed here again. I never got a chance to ask him why, but I'm sure he'd be delighted that this glorious piece has returned to the Met stage.