It has entertained, and sometimes enraged, generations of audiences. Now the Gershwin classic is opening the Metropolitan Opera’s season.
It was one of those mythic New York nights: the Broadway premiere of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” in 1935.
The starry opening drew Hollywood royalty, including Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. After the ovations died down, the A-listers headed to a glamorous after-party, where George Gershwin played excerpts from his score on the piano.
By the next morning, though, the questions would begin. Those questions — about genre, about representation, about appropriation — have followed “Porgy” through more than eight decades of convoluted, sometimes troubling history, and remain salient as the Metropolitan Opera opens its season on Sept. 23 with a new production, its first performances of the work since 1990.
Is “Porgy,” which features some of the best-loved songs by one of America’s greatest songwriters (“Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Loves You, Porgy”), as well as mighty choruses and bold orchestrations, an opera or a musical? It returned to Broadway in 2012 in a stripped-down form. But since 1976, when Houston Grand Opera brought it back to the opera house, it has often been claimed — you can almost hear the capital letters — as the Great American Opera.
More urgently, is “Porgy” a sensitive portrayal of the lives and struggles of a segregated African-American community in Charleston, S. C.? (Maya Angelou, who as a young dancer performed in a touring production that brought it to the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1955, later praised it as “great art” and “a human truth.”)
Or does it perpetuate degrading stereotypes about black people, told in wince-inducing dialect? (Harry Belafonte turned down an offer to star in the film version because he found it “racially demeaning.”)
Is it a triumph of melting-pot American art, teaming up George and Ira Gershwin (the sons of Russian Jewish immigrants) with DuBose Heyward (the scion of a prominent white South Carolina family) and his Ohio-born wife, Dorothy, to tell a uniquely African-American story? 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 been lost on black composers who have struggled to get their music heard.
And has the Gershwins’ insistence that “Porgy” be performed only by black artists — originally aimed at keeping it from being done in blackface — helped generations of black singers by giving them the opportunity to perform on some of the world’s great stages? Or has it pigeonholed some of them, limiting the roles they are offered?
Or is the answer to all these questions yes?
The Met is engaging with the work’s complex history as it prepares to stage its new production, directed by James Robinson and conducted by David Robertson. It has assembled a strong cast, led by the bass-baritone Eric Owens and the soprano Angel Blue, and designed a staging that aims to rescue Catfish Row and its inhabitants from the realm of stereotype. It is holding talks around the city about the work and turning the lens on its own checkered racial past with an exhibition at the opera house.
George Gershwin called “Porgy and Bess” a “folk opera,” which placed him in a long line of composers who drew inspiration from folk themes, real or imagined. In an essay he wrote for The New York Times in 1935, he wrote that to keep the work musically unified, he had decided to write “my own spirituals and folk songs.”
And he discussed aspects critics later decried as stereotypes, writing that “because ‘Porgy and Bess’ deals with Negro life in America it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in opera and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race.”
Hall Johnson, a black composer, arranger and choir director whose musical “Run, Little Chillun!” had been a success on Broadway in 1933, wrote that Gershwin was “as free to write about Negroes in his own way as any other composer to write about anything else” in a 1936 essay in Opportunity, a journal published by the Urban League.
But he added that the resulting work was “not a Negro opera by Gershwin, but Gershwin’s idea of what a Negro opera should be.” (Decades later, reviewing the film, James Baldwin echoed that critique, writing that while he liked “Porgy and Bess,” it remained “a white man’s vision of Negro life.”)
The Gershwins were determined to avoid performances of “Porgy” in blackface, an offensive relic of minstrelsy that was still common then onstage and onscreen. Al Jolson, who had worn blackface in 1927 in the breakthrough sound film “The Jazz Singer,” had also wanted to mount 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 barred them from the Met and other leading stages. When the work’s first tour reached the segregated National Theater in Washington, its African-American stars took a stand and threatened not to perform — forcing the theater to integrate, at least temporarily. “Porgy” helped many singers of color launch their careers, including Leontyne Price, who played Bess right out of Juilliard.
It became a symbol of American culture around the world. When the piece had its European premiere in Copenhagen during World War II, staging a work by a Jewish composer about black Americans was seen as an act of provocation aimed at the occupying Nazis. The inescapable contradictions of a Cold War-era tour of Leningrad and Moscow in the mid-1950s were chronicled wryly by Truman Capote.
But the controversies did not abate. When Otto Preminger’s film version was released in 1959, during the civil rights era, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry debated him on Chicago television, declaring that stereotypes “constitute bad art” and noting that African-Americans had suffered “great wounds from great intentions.” But the music of “Porgy and Bess” only grew in popularity, as generations of jazz pioneers, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis, put their own stamps on the songs.
The requirement to cast black performers remains in effect for dramatic performances of “Porgy and Bess” around the world, Sargent Aborn, the chief executive officer of Tams-Witmark, which licenses it, wrote in an email.
It is an unusual stipulation in an age where casting is increasingly colorblind. “Porgy” is the one opera the Met’s own chorus does not sing: The company hired a chorus of black singers for its new production. When the Hungarian State Opera staged “Porgy and Bess” with a white cast earlier this year, against the wishes of the Gershwin brothers’ estates, it asked its singers to sign declarations that African-American origins and spirit formed part of their identity, a Hungarian news site reported.
Some black singers are wary of “Porgy,” both out of discomfort with the piece and concerns that they could get typecast and kept from exploring other repertoire.
Davóne Tines, a bass-baritone who starred recently in “The Black Clown” — a new musical adaptation of Langston Hughes’s searching 1931 poem exploring race and representation — said in an interview that it made him uneasy that the only black opera in the canon, and still one of the main opportunities for many black singers, requires them to “don costumes of rags” and “embody flat stereotypes.”
“Just as we have moved from aggression to microaggression, from analog to digital, and from low-fidelity to high-definition,” he said in an interview, “so, too, must we move from broad brush strokes and put a finer point on the pen that delineates black experience.”
Some have tried to reinvent the piece. The first production that Golda Schultz, the South African soprano who will sing Clara at the Met, ever saw was a famous one by the Cape Town Opera that moved the setting to a South African township
“Setting it up in a township, everyone understood this notion of a struggling community, a tight-knit community, because townships are like that,” Ms. Schultz said during a recent rehearsal break at the Met. “My dad grew up in a township and you knew your neighbors, you knew people’s business — because the walls on a shack are really thin, corrugated iron.”
The director Diane Paulus and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks made substantial changes for their 2012 Broadway production, cutting some of the dialect, rewriting scenes and trying to give more back story, and agency, to Bess. Some objected: The composer Stephen Sondheim cried foul about their plans, calling the work’s characters “as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater.”
The Met is asking audiences to take a new perspective even before they enter the opera house. The artist Kerry James Marshall, acclaimed for huge paintings that are fantasias of black life and history, has created an arresting “Porgy and Bess” banner that hangs outside.
It upends the traditional image of Porgy, a disabled beggar, and the woman he loves, Bess, who has suffered from abuse and addiction. Mr. Marshall’s Porgy — drawn in a muscular social realist, almost comic-book-superhero style — stands braced for action, wielding his crutch like a weapon and carrying Bess, on his shoulders.
“Most of the images you see of ‘Porgy and Bess,’ particularly the way Porgy is represented, he’s always on his knees, or down on the floor,” Mr. Marshall said in a telephone interview, adding that he had always been struck by the character’s strength in trying to protect Bess: “That’s where I started: I wanted to give Porgy at least one moment of heroic presence.”
The company is mounting an exhibition, “Black Voices at the Met,” that delves into its history with race both before and after 1955, the year contralto Marian Anderson became the first African-American artist to perform a principal role there. And it is releasing a new CD — “Black Voices Rise: African-American Artists at the Met, 1955-1985” — celebrating Ms. Anderson and some of the stars who followed in her footsteps, including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Robert McFerrin and George Shirley.
Mr. Robinson, the director of the new production, said he envisioned its Catfish Row as a working-class community of entrepreneurial, aspirational people.
“We have to treat these people with great dignity, and take them seriously,” he said. “When they become caricatures, it just seems to ring false.”
Mr. Owens, the bass-baritone singing Porgy, said that he viewed the work as “one part of an African-American experience.” He may define the role of Porgy these days, but it does not define him. A star who has performed in operas by Wagner, Mozart, John Adams and Kaija Saariaho at the Met and will sing Wotan in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Ring” cycle in the spring, Mr. Owens said that when he started singing Porgy a decade ago, he made a conscious decision never to make his debut at an opera house with it.
“It just put people on notice that I’m an artist who does many things,” he said in an interview in his dressing room.
The new production shows how much deeper the Met’s roster of black singers is now than it was when the company first staged “Porgy and Bess,” in 1985. That production was led by a pair of Met stars, Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry, in the title roles — but the Met had to bring in newcomers in order to cast black singers in many of the other roles. This year, by contrast, almost all of the singers in the main featured roles have already sung at the Met, including Denyce Graves (a distinguished Carmen) and rising younger singers including Ms. Schultz, Ryan Speedo Green and Latonia Moore.
At a rehearsal earlier this month, shortly after Hurricane Dorian had devastated parts of the Bahamas and as it was heading toward the Carolinas, the “Porgy and Bess” cast was on the Met’s stage rehearsing the scene in which a deadly hurricane strikes Charleston.
The power of Gershwin’s terrifying and inventive music came through, even when played by just a rehearsal pianist in the pit. The chorus sang its anguished prayers with passion and precision. Yet some of the dialect (“hab mercy!”) still sounded jarring.
The moment suggested perhaps the only answer to the many questions that have surrounded “Porgy and Bess” for almost a century. The work, on that day, seemed to be taking its place in an operatic canon full of contradictory, discomfiting, occasionally offensive works that time and again nevertheless demonstrate their relevance and power.
Michael Cooper covers classical music and dance. He was previously a national correspondent; a political reporter covering presidential campaigns; and a metro reporter covering the police, City Hall and Albany. @coopnytimes • Facebook
A version of this article appears in print on Sept. 22, 2019, Section AR, Page 10 of the New York edition with the headline: Revisiting ‘Porgy and Bess’.
Seeing Marshall’s huge banner outside the Met opera House, the ugly drawing turned me off. What a disappoinment to publicize this great occasion of this revival. Porgy and Bess look like unpleasant, overly exaggerated comic book characters. This opera is unique in the quality, the poignancy and expressiveness of the music. But it is a good idea to show Porgy ‘braced for action’, as a strong hero, protecting Bess. He’s courageous. At the wonderful end of the opera Porgy resolves to follow Bess to NY to find her. He sings: Oh, Lawd, I`m on my way, I`m on my way to a Heavenly Land, I`ll ride that long, long road. If you are there to guide my hand. Oh, Lawd, I`m on my way, I`m on my way to a Heavenly Land – Oh, Lawd. It`s a long, long way, but You`ll be there to take my hand.pleasant. That’s the style they picked. I’ve admired Eric Owens singing. Judging from the wonderful photos of his facial expressions in this role, he will do it justice — and will be way more than a comic book character.
Heyward was not trying to reproduce the “Negro” dialect. He had studied the Gullah idiom for years — as had his mother — and he had lived and worked with the people. That was the dialect (and way of life) he was trying to capture — not the “Negro” dialect or the “Negro” way of life per se.
The Gershwins wrote a masterpiece that has been interpreted by God knows how many black artists over the decades, and are now catching flak for it from people who, in my opinion, don’t have a clue. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes great art is simply great art.
I’m a distressingly white guy of mongrel Brit and German heritage, who briefly sang as a semi-pro bass-baritone. While a callow 20-something, I dressed up as aged Italian kings, Nordic gods, a couple of incarnations of the Devil, a mostly destitute French wannabe philosopher, an Austrian trickster, and an Oriental lord. Doubtless Mr. Owens has sung every one of those roles, hugely better. I bloody hope nobody castigated him for the “cultural appropriation” of interpreting the superb bass roles in Verdi or Wagner, Puccini or Tchaikovsky – instead (justly) celebrating the artistry and perspective he brought to the stage. Surely, though, “cultural appropriation” is a broad-ranging concept, if it has legitimacy. The problematic nature of Gershwin writing a piece about some African Americans is actual – how about Puccini writing “La Fanciulla del West?” Verdi writing Aida or MacBeth, or Wagner writing … anything? Who has the gravitas and cultural claim to sing Wotan, after all? Mr. Owens, for one. Though God knows, the most correct among us might reserve the role only for singers blessed with one eye.
I recognize the worthy motive for the stipulation to require an “all black” cast, BUT when a whole new chorus is hired to replace the GREATEST opera chorus in the world, one which is incredibly diverse as well–well, I think that stipulation goes too far. The best IS the best, and one wants to hear it. Further, to complain that the black characters are dressed in rags and their community is terribly poor as evidence of stereotyping shows an amazing ignorance of how things were in Savannah and the South in the 1930’s. Black or white, the poor were in rags there and in a lot of other places! Further, they were out of work, black and white alike and living hand to mouth where and as they could. Porgy and Bess represents not just black life, but black life as a segment of the Great Depression in the South. Accept it, love it for itself, but don’t demonize it.
New York City
Was lucky to attend the dress rehearsal today September 19. Without going into unnecessary details, I can say that Angel Blue as Bess moves the audience at every moment, in the tradition of high bel-canto. The duet before the picnic at the end of act 1 is pure opera: Gershwins’ brassy score, rhythmic and evoking the purest feelings and Porgy and Bess declaring their love to each other. Unique. Some of the best singing I’ve heard in 20 years. Brava Angel Blue! She was fully into the role acting and projecting feelings which matched the text and the notes — she took this to new heights. Kudos to production, choreography and costumes. Go see it!
A cubicle somewhere
I can’t wait… I really can’t wait until the generation that follows Z is old enough to weigh in on Millenials’ obsessive need to pick apart anything and everything and label it “problematic.” What have they offered us (artistically) as an alternative? My own, admittedly limited, experience has been a lot of diverse casts in moderately enjoyable productions that are far more worried about being safe and acceptable than they are in grabbing the audience by the throat. Performance art in 2019 = “Meh.” Generation Whateverwecallthem is going to enjoy tearing down all the Millenials’ sacred cows as all generations did before them. I hope they keep the equity part and skip the sanctimony part. I suspect “Porgy and Bess” will live on.
All of the “questions” raised about Porgy and Bess are simply wrong, are disguised attacks based on misunderstanding, and a simply negative attitude. Porgy provides vital employment for many singers as there are always touring productions, for some it is their entire careeer. The characters are not stereotypes. They may be types, but I defy anyone to write about that time and place with characters who would not be “types.” I recall a glorious production at Radio City Music Hall, in which Porgy was clearly a strong man. His handicap only underscores his power. For singers to be “afraid” of appearing in Porgy is tragic. I assume, then, they would not do Showboat, either.
Yes but you forget to mention Porgy and Bess would have gone to the grave of many productions if it hadn’t been for the Drama Critic Douglas Watt. Read your own obit published in 2009 of Mr. Watt
It’s the music, dammit. The novel it’s based on is unreadable, but the adaptation presents a heroically doomed couple as tragic as any other in opera. And then there’s the music, forever and unforgettable. Gershwin is the American Puccini, but uniquely himself. If they ban the work I will hoard my copies til I die.
Porgy and Bess is a spectacular work of art that has just about as much to do with the African American experience as Turnadot has to do with China. And that lack of verisimilitude couldn’t matter less.
Listen to this score! It is as great an opera as any written and a purely American one to boot. To reduce it to a mere musical is an insult to Gershwin. Gorgeous and moving.
George Gershwin wrote a “folk opera” (his words) that over the decades many people—black, white and other—have found very enjoyable and entertaining. If anyone does not like Porgy and Bess for whatever reason, let him or her write his or her own opera and see if it is or becomes as popular as Gershwin’s—good luck with that. Or is it that because Gershwin was a Jew he should only write operas and song about Jews? I don’t think so.
@Mon Ray . I can see someone missed some of the finer points in the article. The author is trying to get you to view it from all sides. Clearly, the juxtaposition of thought for some big names (Belafonte and Baldwin) allows you to expand your idea of Gershwin’s work as both the controversy as well as the triumph you like to focus on. Plenty thought and think it’s entertaining … we can have that thought at the same time we think about the fact that it was the only way for Black talent to get on some stages it is also viewed as a means to an end.
I guess everything these days is viewed through a political lens. Perhaps Porgy and Bess continues to be performed because it’s good. A lot of modern-day composers may complain, but while their operas may have culturally significant stories, the music doesn’t resonate with audiences. The lead character in Die Meistersinger has a late-show rant that’s straight out of National Socialism. Cav and Pag don’t portray Italians in a flattering light. Traviata is all about a prostitute, Don Giovanni is about a rapist. Let opera be opera. It’s entertainment, not the solution to social issues.
I grew up in a small rural community. I got my music from the Columbia record club. Once a month, whether we needed it or not. I first listened to the music of Porgy and Bess in 1953. Like my first real adult length book, I have never forgotten it. The nuances of the story escaped me, there were no black people in our county, but it didn’t matter, the music was so powerful, and not a little bit personal. Every time a new release is available, I buy it. Same with South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel, and Victory at Sea. I’m much older now and think I understand the plot beneath the plot, but, it still doesn’t matter. The music matters!
Like all the “great works” of theatre (performance) art existing in the universal canon that challenge the minds and hearts of both performer and perceiver in a ‘human collective’ connection to its creator’s initial ‘idea’ (as she/he sees it in their creative moment), in the way “Porgy and Bess” does, will always bounce back into place, at the top of the heap, to be translated anew by the next, and next to further inspire us to continue “our most needed conversations” about ourselves, during our infinite human evolution — the nature of art. This gem of theatre/music/dance (art) couldn’t have come back at a more opportune time than now to spur our needed talking, listening, experiencing and, hopefully, growing. Bravissimi, Met & performing artists!
Norman Canter, M.D.
How did the composers of Porgy and Bess get it right? How did they cross cultural barriers to create a great opera? Puccini did that in Madame Butterfly and Girl Of The Golden West. Gilbert and Sullivan did that in The Mikado. The answer is “genius” which is hard to explain. We find it in Ravel’s orchestration of Pictures At An Exhibition….genius producing perfection in music. Let’s just be grateful even for what can’t be fully understood.
My wife and I were lucky enough to be able to see the Lincoln Center version with the Houston Opera in 1976. It was an absolute dream like experience. Probably the most beautiful presented piece of art I have ever experienced. I felt I had died and gone to heaven. Luckily we are still on earth and look forward to a deja vu experience.
So the gist of this is that people are complaining about stereotypes in operatic characters? Really? There isn’t an operatic character from any culture’s tradition that doesn’t lean heavily on broad-brush character painting. It’s the nature of the beast. The details of “Porgy and Bess” aren’t necessarily any more historically accurate than the “deserts of Louisiana” on which the protagonists of Puccini’s “Manon Lescaut” perish. All good drama is about human stories (and in opera the music, too), not historic detail.
Wesley Chapel, FLSept. 19, 2019
I first saw Porgy and Bess in a 1939 (?) revival. It has stayed with me since then. If Porgy is a stereotype, then so is Carmen, Pagliacci, and a host of other operas. I have a recent recording, “cleaned up”. It is jarring. No one living on a Catfish Row spoke like that. And African Americans of the time were terrified of the police, and to perform otherwise is a misrepresentation. Keep in mind that the Gerswhwins and DuBose Heyward traveled to the barrier islands to get the 1939 flavors of the places, and then maintained that flavor in the finished work. To censor Porgy and Bess is the same as censoring a revival of a work in the Yiddish Art Theater, and every bit as artistically objectionable.
FloridaSept. 19, 2019
@Dirtlawyer The original Theater Guild production opened in New York on 10 October 1935, running for 124 performances. It was then taken on the road on a tour of several major cities, finishing on 21 March 1936. It was revived in California in 1938. The Cheryl Crawford revival of 1941–44 made major cuts for the popular Broadway stage, including a smaller cast, an orchestra of 27 pieces (instead of the original 44) and elimination of recitative in favor of spoken dialogue.
Wesley Chapel, FLSept. 19, 2019
@Wiltontraveler Then I must have seen the Crawford revival at some point. And I can still recite some of the lines from it. Thanx.
FloridaSept. 19, 2019
There are a couple of things to note: first, the original creative team spent time in Charleston trying to absorb the dialect, and even though it’s not really Gullah (which most audiences wouldn’t understand), it does use some authentic black speech patterns. Second: this “full” version would never have been endorsed by the Gershwins. They ran the production in Boston and made (as savvy theater people will) cuts to their original for the New York run. Charles Hamm wrote extensively on the damage done by “restoring” the Gershwins’ “original” in the Journal of the American Musicological Society. In short, we usually see a bowdlerized of the piece. And I remind myself every time I give the Met (or any other) version a try, that I’m not seeing what the Gershwins actually put on stage, the version they thought most effective.
CincinnatiSept. 19, 2019
@Wiltontraveler The Gershwins put on stage the version they thought would succeed in a Broadway theater — the world they knew best and the one that had the wider audience. That was a practical decision more than an artistic one, and I simply do not believe that they wouldn’t approve of a full, operatic staging.
FloridaSept. 19, 2019
@cincytee No, they didn’t design it for the Broadway theater but as a “folk opera” for the operatic stage. The cuts involved numbers that were diffuse, not operatic features such as recitative. The creative team made purely “artistic decisions”—Gershwin saw the cuts and actually said they improved the piece. You really need to get hold of Hamm’s article for the history of the “folk opera.”
Cambridge, MASept. 19, 2019
The original production was mounted on Broadway, for a theatre audience whose constraints—including the times of suburban commuter trains that limited the length of a show—had to be respected. The Met is an opera house and doesn’t have to conform to those same limits. Also they don’t have to account for singer fatigue in the same way because they’re not mounting “Porgy and Bess” eight times a week. It would be a shame if the Met didn’t present the whole work as written.