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Sportin’ Life (Chauncey Packer, from the San Francisco Opera’s 2009 staging of Porgy and Bess) is the gambler who leads Bess astray.

Sportin’ Life (Chauncey Packer, from the San Francisco Opera’s 2009 staging of Porgy and Bess) is the gambler who leads Bess astray.

01 February 2010

Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” Celebrates Its 75th Anniversary

(Beloved, once-controversial opera showcases America’s rich musical heritage)

By Lauren Monsen
Staff Writer

Washington — The opera Porgy and Bess is now recognized as an American masterpiece, but when it was first performed in Boston and New York in 1935, it generated both controversy and acclaim.

Composed by George Gershwin — a white, Jewish New Yorker with Russian immigrant roots — Porgy and Bess is part of the international operatic repertoire. Several of its songs, particularly “Summertime,” have become classics. Yet since its premiere 75 years ago, the opera has been viewed by some critics as perpetuating racial stereotypes.

Set in a vibrant African-American community in Charleston, South Carolina, called Catfish Row, Porgy and Bess tells the story of a crippled beggar and the woman he loves. Their lives are touched by poverty, violence and, in Bess’ case, drugs. The work “was introduced as a folk opera, occupying a midway point between opera and Broadway musical,” according to John Edward Hasse, curator of American music at the Smithsonian Institution.

At the time of its debut, the subject matter of Porgy and Bess was considered daring, Hasse said. During the era of racial segregation, U.S. audiences were unaccustomed to music that gave serious artistic expression to the lives of African Americans. Also, the principal roles were sung by black performers instead of white performers in black roles, the common practice then.

Gershwin (whose brother Ira wrote the opera’s lyrics) considered Porgy his finest work. As it happened, the public enthusiastically embraced Porgy, while music critics were divided. The New York press, for the most part, disliked Gershwin’s unconventional approach, especially his incorporation of distinctly American musical elements (jazz, blues, traditional spirituals) into an operatic framework. However, The Christian Science Monitor proclaimed Porgy and Bess “Gershwin’s most important contribution to music,” and The Boston Transcript said, “Gershwin must now be accepted as a serious composer.”

MIXED FEELINGS IN THE AFRICAN-AMERICAN COMMUNITY

African Americans often were ambivalent about Porgy and Bess. Some felt it was demeaning and promoted racial stereotypes, but others defended it as a work of surpassing beauty and tremendous emotional power. Classically trained African-American singers have wrestled with the question of whether to accept a role in the opera, and even now, “I think there’s still some sensitivity around it,” said Hasse.

Duke Ellington, the legendary jazz musician and composer, complained that Porgy and Bess lacked social commentary, “and I think he also had some issues about its authenticity,” Hasse said. Harry Belafonte declined to play Porgy in the 1959 film version, and mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry expressed reservations about singing the role of Bess.

When Gershwin decided to adapt the 1924 novel Porgy (by Southern writer DuBose Heyward) into an opera, he traveled to Charleston and spent a great deal of time absorbing and transcribing African-American music. He wanted to faithfully capture the feel of that music in Porgy and Bess, but his own background raised doubts in some quarters about his ability to convey the essence of African-American life in the Deep South.

Among the opera’s admirers was the late William Warfield, an African-American bass-baritone considered one of the foremost interpreters of the role of Porgy. Warfield, who appeared in the 1952 revival of Porgy and Bess that toured internationally under the U.S. State Department’s sponsorship, told critic John Ardoin that Porgy and Bess never was intended as a social statement and should not be faulted for not being one.

“To me, Porgy is mainly a beautiful and good story,” he said. “You don’t see Porgy and think ‘this is wrong’ or ‘this is right.’ You are touched by the tale of a cripple who falls in love with a wayward woman and tries to save her with his love. I do think, however, audiences today see Porgy in a different way than they did in the 1930s,” because the social landscape has been transformed.

“Americans have produced many fine things when it comes to opera — [such as] Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and Samuel Barber’s Vanessa,” said Warfield. “But to me, Porgy towers over all of them.”

With its references to jazz, blues and spirituals, “this piece of music could only have been produced by an American,” Hasse said.

Porgy and Bess is not supposed to be a pure sampling of the music that African-Americans created” in the 1920s, “any more than [Georges Bizet’s opera] Carmen is a sampling of Spanish Gypsy music,” he said. Rather, “it’s a new creation that interprets the music of African Americans through the lens of a white, Jewish, big-city composer who is well versed in ragtime, jazz and popular song, and well trained in classical music.”

Hasse said Porgy’s recognition as an operatic masterpiece was prompted by several decades of dramatic change in U.S. society, especially the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. When the Houston Grand Opera unveiled its production in 1976, the verdict was nearly unanimous: Gershwin’s most ambitious work was a magnificent achievement that could hold its own in any opera hall. The Houston production was followed by an equally triumphant staging at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1985.

If he were addressing people who are seeing Porgy and Bess for the first time, Hasse said, he would offer this advice: “Open your ears, heart and soul to the melodies — at times haunting, at times soaring, and at almost all times memorable.”

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