Marquita Lister has performed the role of Bess in the Gershwins' opera "Porgy and Bess" around the world. And while the stages and the co-stars may change, one thing never does.
"I have to tell you, 'Porgy and Bess' sells out everywhere I have ever been, from the most minute city in the United States to the most minute city in Europe," said Lister, who will perform the role of Bess next week in The Atlanta Opera's premiere production of the classic opera set in 20th century Charleston, S.C.
In "Porgy and Bess," which is sung in English, a love story between the two title characters in Catfish Row unfolds. The themes of love, commitment and community are set against a backdrop that includes a fight, a murder and a hurricane.
Lister said the characters' situations are easy for the audience to identify with.
"It is timeless because the people involved are no different than who they are today," she said. "It just goes to show that people are people, no matter what year it is."
"Porgy and Bess" also features classic songs that have been recorded by artists ranging from Billie Holiday to Frank Sinatra to Janis Joplin. The opera's most well-known song is "Summertime," but it also features songs such as "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'."
"It's a piece that you're going to leave and be humming and whistling the tunes," Lister said. "It's very memorable, and something I think makes something brilliant is how much you remember when you leave. There is a wonderful simplicity to it all."
Atlanta's "Porgy and Bess" brings a talented cast that is also led by Alvy Powell, who is an Army sergeant in addition to an active opera singer, as Porgy. Stefan Lano, who has ties to the Metropolitan Opera, will conduct the orchestra, and Larry Marshall will make his Atlanta Opera directing debut.
Lister herself has had too many leading roles to name. Her impressive resume includes performances with the Houston Grand Opera as Fiordiligi in "Cosi fan tutte," Vitellia in "La Clemenza di Tito," Micaela in "Carmen" and Bess in the company's production of "Porgy and Bess" in Houston, La Scala, Paris and Tokyo. She has played roles such as Aida, Tosca, Salome, Susannah, Alice Ford in "Falstaff," Nedda in "I Pagliacci" and Mimi in "La Boheme" with leading opera companies around the world.
Although she has played the role of Bess many times, Lister said she keeps the role fresh because she is committed to the character and puts an emphasis on the dramatic aspects of the performance - letting the emotion of the plot influence her singing.
"I believe that the drama is the roadmap to how it should be sung," she said. "The drama is in the voice."
Lister said audiences aren't as concerned about flawless singing as they are about feeling that the performer is fully committed to the role they are playing. That's what makes the theater such a powerful experience, she said.
"Around the globe, all people want is for you to take them someplace," she said. "If you just want to hear a voice, just put on a CD. When you go to see live theater, that's what you want: theater."
And the music, plot and themes of "Porgy and Bess" makes it easy for audiences to become invested in the show.
"It has such a huge legacy in so many different ways," she said. "I think that's why so many people love Porgy and Bess."
n What: The Atlanta Opera presents "Porgy and Bess"
•When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Nov. 19, 3 p.m. Nov. 20
•Where: Atlanta Civic Center, 395 Piedmont Ave. N.E.
•Cost: Tickets range from $19 to $135
•Info: Call 404-881-8885 or visit www.atlantaopera.org
•Notes: A free, half-hour lecture on the history and synopsis of the opera is offered one hour before each performance. Also, The Atlanta Opera does not allow late seating, so ticketholders should arrive early. "Porgy and Bess" is sung in English.