The Complex History and Restless Present of "Porgy and Bess" (Released 2019) (2023)

The Complex History and Restless Present of "Porgy and Bess" (Released 2019) (1)

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It has entertained and at times infuriated generations of viewers. Now Gershwin's classic opens the Metropolitan Opera season.

Angel Blue and Eric Owens star in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Porgy and Bess.Credit...Justin French for the New York Times

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VonMichael Cooper

It was one of those mythical New York nights: the 1935 Broadway premiere of the Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

The star-studded opening attracted Hollywood royalty including Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. After the ovation had subsided, the A-listers headed to a glamorous after-party where George Gershwin played excerpts from his score on the piano.

The next morning, however, the questions would begin. These questions - about gender, about representation, about appropriation - have accompanied Porgy through more than eight decades of complicated, sometimes troubled history, and they remain prominent as the Metropolitan Opera opens its season on September 23 with a new production, it first presentations of the work since 1990.

It's "Porgy" that features some of the most beloved songs from one of America's greatest songwriters ("Summertime", "It Ain't Necessarily So", "I Loves You, Porgy"), as well as powerful choruses and bold orchestrations, be it an opera or a musical? It returned to Broadway in a stripped down form in 2012. But since the Houston Grand Opera brought it back to the opera house in 1976, it has often been referred to—you can almost hear the capital letters—as the American Grand Opera.

More urgently, is "Porgy" a sensitive portrayal of the life and struggles of a segregated African American community in Charleston, S.C.? (Maya Angelou, who appeared as a young dancer in a touring production that took her to Milan's Teatro alla Scala in 1955, later praised her as "great art"e"a human truth.“)

Or does it perpetuate demeaning stereotypes about black people, told in a shuddering dialect? (Harry Belafonte turned down an offer to star in the film version because he thought, "racially demeaning.“)

It's a triumph of the American art mix, which brings together George and Ira Gershwin (sons of Russian-Jewish immigrants) with DuBose Heyward (the scion of a prominent white South Carolina family) and his Ohio-born wife, Dorothy, to create an exclusively African-American? Or is it cultural appropriation? The fact that the most-performed opera about the African-American experience is the work of an all-white team has not gone unnoticed by black composers who have fought to have their music heard.

And the Gershwins' insistence that "Porgy" should only be performed by black artists - originally intended to prevent it from being performed in blackface - has helped generations of black singers and given them the opportunity to perform on some of the biggest stages to appear to the world. Or did you classify some of them and limit the roles offered to them?

Or is the answer to all these questions yes?

The Met grapples with the work's complex history as it prepares to perform in its new production, directed by James Robinson and conducted by David Robertson. It brought together a powerful cast, led by bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Angel Blue, and crafted a staging aimed at rescuing Catfish Row and its residents from the realm of stereotypes. That's ithave conversations in the cityabout the work and turned the lens on his own racial past with a performance at the Opera House.

George Gershwin called Porgy and Bess a "folk opera", joining a long line of composers who drew inspiration from real or imagined folk themes. In thean essay he wrote for the New York TimesIn 1935 he wrote that he decided to write "my own spirituals and folk songs" in order to keep the work musically consistent.

BildThe Complex History and Restless Present of "Porgy and Bess" (Released 2019) (3)

And he discussed aspects that critics later denounced as stereotypes, writing: "Because 'Porgy and Bess' is about the life of black people in America, it brings elements into the operatic form that have never appeared in opera before, and I have adapted my method to utilize drama, humor, superstition, religious fervor, dance and the irrepressible elation of the race".

Hall Johnson, a black composer, arranger and choir director, whose"Run, little chillun!"was asuccesson Broadway in 1933, wrote in a 1936 essay in Opportunity, a magazine published by the Urban League, that Gershwin was "as free to write about black people in his own way as any other composer can write about anything else".

But he added that the resulting work "was not Gershwin's black opera, but Gershwin's idea of ​​what a black opera should be". (decades laterreview of the film, James Baldwin echoed this criticism, writing that while he enjoyed Porgy and Bess, it remained "a white man's take on black life.")

The Gershwins were determined not to perform "Porgy" in blackface, an obnoxious minstrel relic that was still common on stage and screen. Al Jolson, who had worn blackface in the groundbreaking 1927 talkie The Jazz Singer, also wanted to put together a musical based on the story and hoped to play Porgy.

"Porgy and Bess" provided work for generations of classically trained African-American singers at a time when discrimination prevented them from entering the Met and other major stages. When the play's first tour arrived at Washington's segregated National Theater, its African-American stars took a stand and threatened not to perform - forcing the theater to integrate, at least temporarily. "Porgy" has helped many black singers launch their careers, including Leontyne Price, who played Bess straight out of Juilliard.

It has become a symbol of American culture around the world. When the play premiered in Europe in Copenhagen during World War II, the staging of a work by a Jewish composer about black Americans was seen as an act of provocation against the Nazis. The inescapable contradictions of a mid-1950s Cold War-era tour of Leningrad and Moscow weretold ironicallyby Truman Capote.

But the controversy has not died down. When Otto Preminger's film version was released in 1959 during the civil rights era, playwright Lorraine Hansberry debated him on Chicago television, stating that stereotypes "constitute bad art" and noting that African Americans suffered "great wounds from great intentions." had. But the popularity of the song "Porgy and Bess" only grew as generations of jazz pioneers, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis, put their own stamp on the songs.

The requirement to cast black performers remains in effect for dramatic performances of "Porgy and Bess" around the world, Sargent Aborn, managing director of Tams-Witmark, which owns the licenses, wrote in an email.

It's an unusual condition at a time when castings are increasingly color blind. Porgy is the only opera not sung by the Met's own choir: the company hired a choir of black singers for its new production. When the Hungarian State Opera staged "Porgy and Bess".with white sheenEarlier this year, against the wishes of the Gershwin brothers' estates, their singers askedsign declarationsthat African-American heritage and spirit are part of their identity, a Hungarian news website reported.


Some black singers are suspicious of "Porgy", both out of discomfort with the track and fear of being labeled and prevented from exploring other repertoire.

Davóne Tines, a bass-baritone who recently starred in "The Black Clown" — a musical adaptation of Langston Hughes' 1931 poem about race and representation — said in an interview that he was uncomfortable being told the only one Black opera in the canon, and still one of the prime opportunities for many black singers, requires them to "dress in rags" and "embody simple stereotypes."

"As we move from aggression to micro-aggression, from analogue to digital and from low fidelity to high definition," he said in an interview, "so too must we move from broad strokes and the pen that outlines the experience, a finer tip give .black."

Some tried to reinvent the play. The first production Golda Schultz, the South African soprano who will sing Clara at the Met, saw was a famous productionCape Town Operathat changed the scene to a South African township.


"By taking place in a township, everyone understood this notion of a struggling community, a tight-knit community, because that's townships," Schultz said recently during a break in rehearsals at the Met. "My father grew up in a community and people knew his Neighbors, you knew people's businesses - because the walls of a shack are very thin, made of corrugated iron."

Director Diane Paulus and playwright Suzan-Lori Parkssignificant changes madefor the 2012 Broadway production, trimming some of the dialect, rewriting scenes, and trying to give Bess more story and action. Some protested: Composer Stephen Sondheimscreamed dirtyabout his plans and called the characters of the work "as alive as any ever created for musical theatre".

The Met asks audiences to get a fresh perspective before even entering the opera house. Artist Kerry James Marshall, known for huge paintings depicting fantasies of black life and history, has created a captivating "Porgy and Bess" banner to hang outside.

It subverts the traditional image of Porgy, a disabled beggar, and the woman he loves, Bess, who has suffered abuse and addiction. Marshall's Porgy - drawn in a muscular social realism, almost comic book superhero style - is ready for action, wielding his crutch like a gun and carrying Bess on his shoulders.

"In most of the imagery that you see of 'Porgy and Bess,' especially the way Porgy is portrayed, he's always on his knees or on the ground," Marshall said in a phone interview, adding that he's always from was impressed by the character's strength in trying to protect Bess: "That's where I started: I wanted to give Porgy at least a moment of heroic presence."

The company is putting together an exhibit, Black Voices at the Met, that explores its history of the race before and after 1955, the year contralto Marian Anderson became the first African-American artist to have a leading role there. And starts onenew CD- "Black Voices Rise: African-American Artists at the Met, 1955-1985" - celebrating Mrs. Anderson and some of the stars who followed in his footsteps including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Robert McFerrin and George Shirley.

Mr. Robinson, the director of the new production, said he envisions his Catfish Row as a working class community of enterprising and ambitious people.

"We must treat these people with great dignity and take them seriously," he said. "When they become caricatures, it looks fake."

Owens, the bass-baritone singer Porgy, said he sees the job as "a part ofAAfrican American experience”. It may define Porgy's role today, but it doesn't. Owens, a star who has appeared in operas by Wagner, Mozart, John Adams and Kaija Saariaho at the Met and will sing Wotan in Lyric Opera's "Ring" cycle in Chicago in the spring, said when he started a decade ago, Singing Porgy came with a conscious decision never to make her operatic debut with him.



"It just made people realize that I'm an artist who does a lot of things," he said in an interview in his dressing room.

The new production shows how much deeper the Met roster of black singers is now than it was when the company first directed "Porgy and Bess" in 1985. This production was spearheaded by two Met stars, Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry - but The Met had to bring in newcomers to cast black singers in many of the other roles. On the other hand, almost every singer has sung in leading roles at the Met this year, including Denyce Graves (a respected Carmen) and younger up-and-coming singers including Mrs. Schultz, Ryan Speedo Green and Latonia Moore.

At a rehearsal earlier this month, shortly after Hurricane Dorian devastated parts of the Bahamas and headed towards the Carolinas, the cast of "Porgy and Bess" took the Met stage and rehearsed the scene of a deadly hurricane hitting Charleston.

The power of Gershwin's haunting and imaginative music shines through, even when played by just a trial pianist in the ditch. The choir sang her painful prayers with passion and precision. However, part of the dialect ("hab misericordia!") still sounded shrill.

The moment offered perhaps the only answer to the many questions that have surrounded Porgy and Bess for nearly a century. The work seemed to take its place that day in an operatic canon full of contradictory, disturbing, sometimes obnoxious works that never fail to demonstrate their relevance and power.


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