Jonita Lattimore

A decade ago, doing the legwork for a Reader story about what’s now known as the Ryan Opera Center—the elite hothouse where Lyric Opera nurtures a dozen or so up-and-coming American vocalists at a time—I got a tour of the facility and an invitation to sit in on a coaching session. The singer was a Chicago native, a serious young soprano, who’d begun piano lessons at the age of three and soon after was singing at church and in the Chicago Children’s Choir. Her name was Jonita Lattimore, and her voice was ravishing. Her brief performance in an empty room has remained a highlight of my years on the arts beat.

Lattimore still lives in Chicago, and teaches at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts, but her singing career has since taken her around the world. It’s been possible to hear her on local stages now and then—she has a gig at least once a year with the Grant Park Symphony, for example. But there’s an exceptional opportunity coming up: when Lyric does Porgy and Bess this fall, with Gordon Hawkins and Morenike Fadayomi alternating with Lester Lynch and Lisa Daltirus in the title roles, Lattimore will be there, too, as Serena, whose husband’s murder sets the plot in motion. She’ll mourn his loss with the majestic “My Man’s Gone Now.”

That aria, which takes the universal human wail in the face of death and turns it into a thing of transcendent beauty, is wrenching under any circumstances. But Lattimore says it will have a special meaning for her when she performs it at Lyric. It’s the piece she sang four years ago at the University of Illinois’ memorial tribute to her mentor, baritone William Warfield—and she’ll be singing it on the stage he occupied over a half century ago when he played Porgy.

The Porgy and Bess Warfield starred in was a traveling production, booked into the Civic Opera House as a rental for four weeks in 1952. Directed by Robert Breen, it featured Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life and another Lattimore idol, Leontyne Price, opposite Warfield as Bess. The chemistry between Warfield and Price must have been palpable: by the end of the Chicago run, they were married.

Chemistry notwithstanding, the production was a hard sell. Promoter Danny Newman had to give away all the tickets for the first week to create the word-of-mouth that sold the rest. But along with his Joe in Show Boat, Porgy became one of Warfield’s signature roles.

Lattimore met Warfield—Uncle Bill to her, though not a blood relative—while she was still in high school at Kenwood Academy. When she took first place in voice and second in piano at a national music competition, Warfield advised her to apply to his alma mater, the Eastwood School of Music. She attended on the William Warfield scholarship and later, following his advice again, went to grad school at the U. of I., where he’d been a professor.

This Porgy and Bess will be the first on the Lyric stage since Warfield did it.

aPorgy and Bess, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and lyrics by the Heywards and Ira Gershwin, opens Tue 11/18, 7:30 PM. Through 12/19: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker, 312-332-2244, $32-$197. —Deanna Isaacs