PBS is set to present “Porgy and Bess” on July 17, 2020, as part of its Great Performances at the Met series.
The telecast, which starts at 9 p.m., stars Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles. Other cast members include Alfred Walker as Crown, Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life, Latonia Moore as Serena, Golda Schultz as Clara, and Donovan Singletary as Jake. David Robertson conducts the opera, which is hosted by Audra McDonald.
Of the opening night performance of this production, OperaWire’s review noted, “On the whole, audiences will likely walk away thrilled at this new ‘Porgy and Bess,’ the result of smart casting and a solid conception of a classic work.”
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CONTEXT: Porgy and Bess
Porgy and Bess is an English-language opera by the American composer George Gershwin, with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin. It was adapted from Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward’s play Porgy, itself an adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name.
Porgy and Bess was first performed in Boston on September 30, 1935, before it moved to Broadway in New York City. It featured a cast of classically trained African-American singers—a daring artistic choice at the time. After an initially unpopular public reception, a 1976 Houston Grand Opera production gained it new popularity, and it is now one of the best-known and most frequently performed operas.
The libretto of Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a disabled black street-beggar living in the slums of Charleston. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer. The opera plot generally follows the stage play.
In the years following Gershwin’s death, Porgy and Bess was adapted for smaller scale performances. It was adapted as a film in 1959. Some of the songs in the opera, such as “Summertime“, became popular and are frequently recorded.
In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, the trend has been toward productions with greater fidelity to Gershwin’s original intentions. Smaller-scale productions also continue to be mounted. A complete recorded version of the score was released in 1976; since then, it has been recorded several times.
1935 ORIGINAL BROADWAY PRODUCTION – Gershwin’s first version of the opera, running four hours (counting the two intermissions), was performed privately in a concert version in Carnegie Hall, in the fall of 1935. He chose as his choral director Eva Jessye, who also directed her own renowned choir. The world premiere performance took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on September 30, 1935—the try-out for a work intended initially for Broadway where the opening took place at the Alvin Theatre in New York City on October 10, 1935. During rehearsals and in Boston, Gershwin made many cuts and refinements to shorten the running time and tighten the dramatic action. The run on Broadway lasted 124 performances. The production and direction were entrusted to Rouben Mamoulian, who had previously directed the Broadway productions of Heyward’s play Porgy. The music director was Alexander Smallens. The leading roles were played by Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. Brown was a 20-year-old student at Juilliard, the first African-American vocalist admitted there, when she read that George Gershwin was going to write a musical version of Porgy. She wrote him and asked to sing for him, and Gershwin’s secretary invited her. Gershwin was impressed and began asking Brown to come and sing the songs as he composed them for Porgy. The character of Bess was originally a secondary character, but as Gershwin was impressed with Brown’s singing, he expanded the part of Bess and cast Brown. When they had completed rehearsals and were ready to begin previews, Gershwin invited Brown to join him for lunch. At that meeting, he told her, “I want you to know, Miss Brown, that henceforth and forever after, George Gershwin’s opera will be known as Porgy and Bess. The influential vaudeville artist John W. Bubbles created the role of Sportin’ Life; the role of Serena was created by Ruby Elzy.
After the Broadway run, a tour started on January 27, 1936, in Philadelphia and traveled to Pittsburgh and Chicago before ending in Washington, D.C., on March 21, 1936. During the Washington run, the cast—as led by Todd Duncan—protested segregation at the National Theatre. Eventually management gave in to the demands, resulting in the first integrated audience for a performance of any show at that venue.
In 1938, much of the original cast reunited for a West Coast revival that played in Los Angeles and at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. Avon Long took on the role of Sportin’ Life for the first time, a role he would continue to play in many productions over a long career.
1942 BROADWAY REVIVAL – The noted director and producer Cheryl Crawford produced professional stock theater in Maplewood, New Jersey, for three very successful seasons. The last of these closed with Porgy and Bess, which she co-produced with John Wildberg. In re-fashioning it in the style of musical theatre which Americans were used to hearing from Gershwin, Crawford produced a drastically cut version of the opera compared with the first Broadway staging. The orchestra was reduced, the cast was halved, and many recitatives were reduced to spoken dialog.
Having seen the performance, theater owner Lee Shubert arranged for Crawford to bring her production to Broadway. The show opened at the Majestic Theatre in January 1942. Duncan and Brown reprised their roles as the title characters, with Alexander Smallens again conducting. In June the contralto Etta Moten, whom Gershwin had first envisioned as Bess, replaced Brown in the role. Moten was such a success that Bess became her signature role. The Crawford production ran for nine months and was far more successful financially than the original.
Radio station WOR in New York broadcast a live one-hour version on May 7, 1942. The cast included Todd Duncan, Anne Brown, Ruby Elzy, Avon Long, Edward Matthews, Harriet Jackson, Georgette Harvey, Jack Carr, and the Eva Jessye Choir; the WOR Symphony was conducted by Alfred Wallenstein. The 12″-diameter 78 rpm, glass base, lacquer-coated disks were transferred to open-reel tape on February 6, 1975.
RACIAL CONTROVERSY – From the outset, the opera’s depiction of African Americans attracted controversy. Virgil Thomson, a white American composer, stated that “Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935.” An apocryphal quote attributed to Duke Ellington allegedly stated “the times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms,” but the quote was probably invented by a journalist who interviewed Ellington about the opera. Ellington publicly repudiated the article shortly after its publication. Ellington’s response to the 1952 Breen revival was completely the opposite. His telegram to the producer read: “Your Porgy and Bess the superbest, singing the gonest, acting the craziest, Gershwin the greatest.” Several of the members of the original cast later stated that they, too, had concerns that their characters might play into a stereotype that African Americans lived in poverty, took drugs and solved their problems with their fists.
A planned production by the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle in the late 1930s, part of the Federal Theatre Project, was cancelled because actors were displeased with what they viewed as a racist portrayal of aspects of African-American life. The director initially envisioned that they would perform the play in a “Negro dialect.” These Pacific Northwest African American actors, who did not speak in such dialect, would be coached in it. Florence James attempted a compromise of dropping the use of dialect but the production was canceled.
Another production of Porgy and Bess, this time at the University of Minnesota in 1939, ran into similar troubles. According to Barbara Cyrus, one of the few black students then at the university, members of the local African-American community saw the play as “detrimental to the race” and as a vehicle that promoted racist stereotypes. The play was cancelled due to pressure from the African-American community, which saw their success as proof of the increasing political power of blacks in Minneapolis–Saint Paul.
The belief that Porgy and Bess was racist gained strength during the Civil Rights Movement and Black Power movement of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. As these movements advanced, Porgy and Bess was seen as more and more out of date. When the play was revived in the 1960s, social critic and African-American educator Harold Cruse called it, “The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World.”
In the 1976 Houston Opera production, the director, Sherwin Goldman, had trouble finding interested performers. Goldman, a white Texas native and a graduate of Yale and Oxford Universities, recalled, “I was auditioning singers all around the country, I guess thirty cities in all, from theater groups to church choirs, but was having a hard time finding directors … I don’t think there was a single black person, of those who had never been associated with Porgy, who didn’t seriously bad-mouth it.” Nevertheless, a cast was assembled of African American classically trained performers from all around the country.
Gershwin’s all-black opera was also unpopular with some celebrated black artists. Harry Belafonte declined to play Porgy in the late 1950s film version, so the role went to Sidney Poitier. Betty Allen, president of The Harlem School of the Arts, admittedly loathed the piece, and Grace Bumbry, who excelled in the 1985 Metropolitan Opera production as Bess, made the often cited statement:
I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there.
Over time, however, the opera gained acceptance from the opera community and some (though not all) in the African-American community. Maurice Peress stated in 2004 that “Porgy and Bess belongs as much to the black singer-actors who bring it to life as it does to the Heywards and the Gershwins.” Indeed, Ira Gershwin stipulated that only blacks be allowed to play the lead roles when the opera was performed in the United States, launching the careers of several prominent opera singers.
That Gershwin sought to write a true jazz opera, and that he believed that Metropolitan Opera staff singers could never master the jazz idiom, which could instead only be sung by a black cast, seems to indicate he did not intend the work to belittle African-Americans. Some black singers were overjoyed at Gershwin’s work, going so far as to describe him as the “Abraham Lincoln of Negro music”. Much of the racial controversy seems to arise from the miscegenation of Gershwin’s jazz experience. Gershwin wrote Porgy through an idiom of jazz that was influenced by Western European opera traditions, African-American music, and Russian-Jewish music.
During the era of apartheid in South Africa, several South African theatre companies planned to put on all-white productions of Porgy and Bess. Ira Gershwin, as heir to his brother, consistently refused to permit these productions to be staged. But in 2009, Cape Town Opera‘s production, set in 1970s South Africa and inspired by life in Soweto, toured Britain, opening at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff and going on to the Royal Festival Hall in London and Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Most of the cast were black South Africans; American singers involved in the production have found the “passionate identification with the opera” by the South African singers “a wake-up call”.
“I think we’ve got a little jaded in the US with Porgy and Bess,” says Lisa Daltirus, one of two singers who will play Bess on the UK tour. “A lot of people just think that this is a show that is lovely to listen to and happened way back when. They’re not thinking that you can still find places where this is real. And if we’re not careful we could be right back there.”— The Times, London, October 16, 2009
A 2017/2018 staging of the opera by the Hungarian State Opera featured a predominantly white cast. While the opera was presented in the context of the Syrian migrant crisis (moved from Catfish Row to an airport), the controversy of recasting continued. While the Hungarian State Opera, in discussions with the Tams-Witmark Music Library originally agreed to the casting requirements, it ultimately declined to do so when the wording was not included in the written contract. This production galvanized conservative commentators who lauded it as a success over “political correctness”. Ultimately, Tams-Witmark required the Hungarian State Opera to include in its printed material that this production “is contrary to the requirements for the presentation of this work”.
Porgy and Bess. (2020). Retrieved June 26, 2020, from Wikipedia.