Brilliantly Problematic Porgy & Bess

Don’t let the headline fool you.

When you see that the Metropolitan Opera are producing The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess for the first time in almost thirty years, seemingly selling every ticket to every performance, you might well ask them: “hey what took you so long”?

It’s a hit. The principals are brilliant singing actors. The staging, sets & costumes are conservatively faithful to the score as written.

The high definition camera gave us an intimate look at a pair of remarkable performances.  I remember watching Angel Blue as Mimi here in Toronto, so totally enraptured that I dared believe she might survive at the end, and here I was again daring to dream about a happy ending as we see Bess go off to NY with Sporting Life & a nose full of happy dust.  The voice is superb but she’s especially sympathetic in such a complex role.    We’ve seen Eric Owens’ towering presence as Alberich changing the landscape of the Ring Cycle.  The Canadian Opera Company brought him in to play Hercules a few years ago.  The voice is still there, even more expressive now that he’s singing in a language where I can understand his subtlest nuances.

Frederick Ballantyne was a remarkable Sportin’ Life, explaining in the intermission interview that he’d been given some latitude to improvise some of his performance, especially the call & response of “It Ain’t Necessarily So”.  The tightness of the ensemble is crystal clear in his quirky phrases, always perfectly echoed by the chorus.  And yes, that chorus plus the dancers are like another character, singing some very difficult music, always part of the action and sometimes taking over.  Director James Robinson and Choreographer Camille A Brown emphatically brought the town of Catfish Row to life although at times the show becomes more artificial & stagey, whereas the three principals I named are always persuasive even in close-up.


George Gershwin

The Gershwin stipulations represent a kind of trap. They (composer George & librettist Ira) insisted that the cast must be 100% Afro-American. While it gives the show authenticity it means that if your company can’t come up with the required black principals & chorus, they can’t mount the show. And that’s why we haven’t seen more productions of Porgy & Bess.

There are two intriguing exceptions to that rule to mention.

1) During the intermission we heard from Golda Schultz, the South African singer who played Clara, aka the one who sings “Summertime” as a lullaby to her baby. So while Porgy & Bess may be a rarity in North America (for instance the Canadian Opera Company wouldn’t be able to produce it without violating the Gershwins’ stipulations) Schultz told us that Porgy & Bess has been staged a fair bit in South Africa, which of course makes sense.

2) The other one isn’t nearly so nice. You may recall the furor over a production in Hungary done with an all-white cast, and as a Hungarian-Canadian I’m very conflicted about the conversation. Director Szilveszter Ókovács had the nerve to suggest that the Gershwins were being racist. The author György Lázár explains the rationale as follows:

“Ókovács… called Gershwin a “Jewish genius” while blasting his casting requirement. Connecting Gershwin’s Jewishness to the all-black cast requirement has a hidden message in Hungary: Jews are oppressing Whites; racism is their fault. This is eerily similar to the mantra of American fascist David Duke. It is important to note that Ókovács was hand-picked for his post by right-wing Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán who thinks that “ethnic homogeneity” is key to Hungary’s success. He opposes race mixing in Hungary.”

But here we are in 2020 and perhaps the world has caught up to the Gershwins. There are now plenty of good black singers in the USA. Perhaps this production will play every season, becoming a cash-cow for the Met.  I’d like to see it again and I’m sure I can’t be the only one.

And there are other problematics at work.

One is right in the work’s history. I can see it for myself in the score that I took out of the library, published in 1935 and therefore still using the language of the premiere. Ira Gershwin & DuBose Heyward wrote the libretto. In the versions extent since 1951 the N word has been removed, replaced by other safer epithets: or so I’ve read.  That early score though is full of language that’s no longer permitted.

And as I alluded in a recent piece I wrote about the Cambridge Companion to Gershwin, the composer and his music faced challenges from the more conservative musical establishment.

For a first opera, it’s an amazing and original piece. I can’t help imagining what his later work might have sounded like, knowing that he died at the age of 38.

The story of the opera is a troubling one.

The score has several melodies that stick in my head. Between “Summmertime”, “It ain’t necessarily so”, “Bess you is my woman now”, “There’s a boat that’s leavin’ soon” (my personal favorite) or “I got plenty of nuttin’” one or more is always rattling around inside me afterwards: but not the final number. If Gershwin wanted us to believe that Porgy was going to find Bess, he needed to write a better number than what he creates for his finale.

I heard that the box office for the run of Porgy & Bess is over 100%, a remarkable achievement. They extended the run. I’m sure we’ll see the production again, perhaps next year, perhaps every year. Why not after all. We’ve been watching Zeffirelli’s bohème for years, why shouldn’t we get a chance to watch this genuinely American opera?

There will be encores of Porgy & Bess available. See it, see them, if you can.

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3 Responses to Brilliantly Problematic Porgy & Bess

  1. Fred FORD says:

    Interesting article in the NY Times:

    The Gershwins stipulated an all-black cast and chorus to avoid the possibility of it being performed in blackface and degenerating into a minstrel show. I think that shows a degree of sympathy to Afro-Americans (both their dignity and their talents) that was by no means usual at the time. Nobody in the entertainment industry today (except maybe Justin Trudeau) would think of performing Porgy and Bess in blackface, but is it time for the Gershwins restrictions to sleep? Would a production set amid the pogroms of Tsarist Russia work? Would it draw the work closer to the Gershwins own ethnic milieu and family history, theoretically ending the accusations of cultural appropriation? Or would it be a betrayal of the opera’s original artistic impulse and vision?

    Harry Belafonte called it “racially demeaning”. And it is, but not because the Gershwins wished to demean blacks, but because it depicts the characters living under racially demeaning conditions, an all-too-sad reality of their times, and ours. That’s merely the backdrop, and – as you note – a bit of scrubbing of the libretto can remove the most egregious causes for offense. I haven’t seen the Met production (yet), but any production should seek to depict the hopes, loves and aspirations (however misplaced) of the characters. Porgy and Bess may not be a factual depiction of life in 1930’s South Carolina, but I believe it’s as humanly honest as the Gershwins could make it.

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