George Gershwin intended his opera "Porgy and Bess" to combine the romance of Bizet's "Carmen" with the beauty of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," according to Joel Rosenberg, music director of the American West Symphony.

" `Porgy and Bess' has the melodic, lyrical, beautiful songs that you find in `Carmen' and also the big choral scenes and the difficult solo roles that characterize `Die Meistersinger,' " he added.Rosenberg will lead the American West Symphony and Chorus in a performance of the concert version of "Porgy and Bess" on Thursday and Friday, May 28 and 29, in the Assembly Hall.

This will be the first performance of Gershwin's operatic masterpiece in Utah in 18 years, Rosenberg said. "We'll be doing a condensed version of the opera. I've chosen most of the recognizable pieces." He will also preserve the musical cohesion to allow the audience to follow the plot through the songs.

Rosenberg explains that Gershwin conceived the idea for an opera in 1926 after reading "Porgy," a novel by black writer DuBose Heyward. "Gershwin was so fascinated by the story that he read the novel in one night, and then immediately called Heyward about doing an opera based on his story."

Thus began a 10-year relationship between Gershwin and Heyward, with Gershwin taking numerous trips to South Carolina, the setting for both the novel and the opera, to immerse himself in the traditions of black music.

"Gershwin was interested in ragtime, blues and jazz as a teenager," Rosenberg said, adding that the composer was already fairly well-versed in this musical idiom by the time he began working on "Porgy and Bess." Nevertheless, Gershwin spent a month each summer in South Carolina, "visiting black churches to get the feel for spirituals and black folk music." He completed work on the opera in 1935.

Gershwin expected his singers to have a good understanding of jazz, and for this performance of "Porgy and Bess," Rosenberg has assembled four highly talented soloists with considerable experience in both opera and musical theater to sing the leads. Three of the soloists are well-known local singers who also have performed extensively throughout the United States, soprano Margo Watson, tenor James W. Miller and bass Barry Bounous.

Rounding out this acclaimed cast is soprano Cora Johnson Lockheart, a native of the Bahamas who now makes her home in Las Vegas. She says she fell in love with opera as a college student in Texas after seeing Joan Sutherland perform in Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment."

Lockheart first sang in "Porgy and Bess" during the late 1970s in Houston Grand Opera's production of the opera. She also performed with the production on Broadway, at the Kennedy Center and in Canada.

"My first collaboration with Houston, though, was in Scott Joplin's `Treemonisha,' " Lockheart notes, "where I was the original Lucy."

Lockheart and the other soloists agree with Rosenberg that "Porgy and Bess" contains some of the most demanding roles in the operatic repertoire. Bounous concedes that "much of Puccini and Mozart is easier than `Porgy and Bess.' "

Despite the demands Gershwin places on the singers, these soloists are thrilled to be part of the American West Symphony's performance of this American stage classic, noting that "Porgy and Bess" is as popular in 1998 - the centennial year of Gershwin's birth - as it was when the work premiered more than 60 years ago.

Watson believes that the popularity of Gershwin's opera lies in the fact that there are so many beautiful numbers in this work. "Everyone has a favorite song that for them is `Porgy and Bess.' "

As always, the concerts in Assembly Hall are free of charge.