On October 10, 1935, George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess premieres on Broadway.
Porgy and Bess began its journey to the Broadway stage in 1926, when George Gershwin wrote a letter late one night to the author of a book he was reading proposing that the two of them collaborate on an operatic adaptation. The American writer DuBose Heyward, author of the novel Porgy, immediately agreed to Gershwin’s proposal, but commercial commitments in New York prevented Gershwin from actually beginning work on the project for another seven years. In the meantime, singer Al Jolson attempted to mount a musical version of Porgy starring himself in blackface, but that effort foundered in 1932, leaving the way open for the Gershwin-Heyward collaboration that would feature an all-African American cast of classically trained singers—revolutionary casting in 1930s America.
Over the course of more than two years beginning in the spring of 1933, DuBose Heyward and the two Gershwins—George’s brother, Ira, joined on as co-lyricist in 1934—collaborated mostly by mail, with only occasional face-to-face meetings. In this fashion, they nevertheless managed to create some of the greatest songs in American musical-theater history, including “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
The critics of the day were decidedly mixed in their reception of Porgy and Bess, however. While Olin Downes of The New York Times found “much to commend it from the musical standpoint,” composer/critic Virgil Thomson, writing for the New York Herald-Tribune, was less kind, calling Gershwin’s incorporation of blues and jazz influences into a “serious” operatic score to be “falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed…crooked folklore and half-way opera.”
Many of the songs had been cut from show between its trial run in Boston and its Broadway debut, however—a fact that may well have hurt Porgy and Bess with critics. In fact, the full George Gershwin score of Porgy and Bess would not be performed again until a triumphant 1976 revival by the Houston Grand Opera helped establish its current place in the standard operatic repertoire.
George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward died in 1937 and 1940, respectively, not knowing that the poorly-received Porgy and Bess, which premiered on this day in 1935 and closed some four months later, would later gain recognition as one of the most important American musical works of the 20th century.
Behind the Scenes of Porgy and Bess
Great Performances at the Met premieres Gershwin’s famous folk opera, Porgy and Bess on July 17 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings). For the first time in nearly 30 years, the production returns to the Met stage starring the stunning Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles. Audience members travel to Catfish Row, a fictional town inspired by the African American Gullah culture of South Carolina. This dynamic production features masterful singing, contagious dance and a tragic love story that will stimulate all your senses.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be in the cast of a Metropolitan Opera production? WNET’s Jasmine Wilson chatted with three Porgy and Bess cast members who made their ensemble debut in the production: lyric soprano Denisha Ballew (ensemble, featured soloist, and covered the role of Annie), lyric soprano Rebecca Hargrove (ensemble), and dramatic mezzo-soprano Karmesha Peake (ensemble). Check out this special insider’s view to discover what it was like behind the scenes of this magical production.
*Responses have been edited for clarity.
- Jasmine Wilson: So many singers dream of touching the Metropolitan Opera stage. How did the rehearsal process feel?
Denisha Ballew: The first day of rehearsal was full of excitement and nerves for all of us, especially me. I was so excited to see all my fellow cast mates. And it was kind of like a reunion. We were excited to be in the building, and to finally see who was actually in the ensemble with us. Day one was just a really beautiful moment of beautiful, Black, excellent, artists coming together and celebrating such a classic piece from American music—one of the most beautiful pieces of American repertoire and opera.
Rebecca Hargrove: Out of the 64 of us, there had to be less than 20 people I had not already met or worked with yet. More than half of this group were people that I had already worked with and formed a bond with, or I worked with and formed a sisterhood with. To walk into a room at the Met with 60+ Black people in it was exhilarating and overwhelming at the same time.
Karmesha Peake: Everyone was on their A-game. It was interesting how many people knew all the lyrics, and all the melodies to all the parts that were not their own. I remember one time in rehearsal, Denyce Graves was out, and her cover was out as well. And we were in a scene that had some lines for Maria, and while we were going through it, everyone was singing it audibly. The ease and comfort for us to do that audibly speaks volumes of how relaxed the atmosphere was. It was a great experience.
- JW: It sounds like such a magical experience. What was your favorite part of being in the Metropolitan Opera production of Porgy and Bess?
DB: There were many great moments! It’s hard to name one. However, sharing my Met debut with over 60 of my dear friends and colleagues was one very special moment. Also, the opportunity to collaborate with Camille A. Brown again was a highlight. She brings such a beautiful spirit to the space. Her expertise in dance and her unapologetic attitude to be Black, beautiful and bold is amazing! She created and reminded us to not be afraid to express our culture in its true authenticity. Lastly, the opportunity to be onstage with some of the great artists that we’ve all looked up to Angel Blue, Eric Owens, Latonia Moore and especially Denyce Graves! They welcomed us into the Met family with open arms, warm spirits and encouraging gestures. I am forever grateful to God for these memories.
RH: Towards the second half of the run, Denyce Graves would bake us treats for every show. She brought them out on stage and mixed them in, because there’s a bit where she pulls a peach cobbler out of the oven. They actually had a chef that made us peach cobbler every night. The first night Denyce Graves brought treats and every subsequent performance after that, we would all try to get to that table before the next downbeat to get whatever cookie, scone, or muffin she had made that night.
KP: My favorite part was getting on the stage because up until that time, we were in a rehearsal room where they had portions of the set and/or props. But it wasn’t full to scale. So being on the stage for the first time, on the actual set, was probably my favorite part because that was when it becomes real, and the whole story comes alive. Being on the set with orchestra made it so real.
DB: It shows people that we are capable of singing in an art form that wasn’t necessarily created for us. We have the skills, talent, and expertise to execute opera in such a way that people want to keep coming back, and they want to hear it and see it. The Met is now going to be bringing the first production by an African American composer. And they’re going to add Porgy and Bess to their rotation of operas within their season. I think it’s important that this production represents American history it’s not just Black history. Black history is American history. And Black music needs to be celebrated.
RH: The beauty in this production is that I did it with my community. When you walk in a rehearsal room and you’re the only one, whatever that thing is that makes you feel “othered”, that’s a whole different layer to try and combat on top of wanting to be your best. It can feel like I’m representing my entire race, and I have something to prove. Porgy is like a family collective. It feels safe.
KP: A part of the Black American experience is that we give what we have to anyone who needs it. And even in performing, we give what we have to those that need it. Every show before the curtain would rise, we got in a huge circle and prayed to God for another successful show. And I think that speaks volumes to our community as well. We’ve long been a faith-based community, and nothing was different about that even at the Metropolitan Opera. We fostered that sense of community. We were there, present, in the moment together.
- JW: There is a dramatic shift happening right now in the performing arts world when it comes to diversity, equity, and inclusion. What would you like to see in the future of opera and classical music?
DB: I believe that everyone that came into audition for Porgy and Bess was important because they opened up the creative team, the casting, and the people “behind the table.” It enabled them to see all the amazing voices that exist that so happen to have brown skin. We sing well, and we’re also capable of singing so many other operas, not just operas in English. Auditioning for this production, I remember a lot of my colleagues said, “Oh, you know, I offered Mozart, French, or a German piece.” This is something we have discussed in our new group on social media, the Black Opera Alliance. We are Black, and we received the same schooling and training as our white counterparts. Now we just need the opportunity.
RH: For this industry as a whole, from the board of trustees to the janitor, I want to see theatres reflect the world I live in. And the world that I live in is not all white. If you walk out at Lincoln Center, you’re going to see people of all shapes, sizes, colors, ethnicities and backgrounds. So why would the theatre, which is supposed to be a reflection of the real world, not reflect the real world?
KP: Include Black singers that are prepared. No one is asking to be cast when they’re not prepared. But at the same time, only hiring someone for the “Black show,” or two or four Black singers in the regular chorus needs to change. I would love to see more representation of people of color on stage. I would also like to see more Black people as directors, set designers, and lighting designers. We’re here. We exist.
- JW: It’s clear that a lot of thought and detail went into creating this production. What’s one thing for audience members to look for while watching the broadcast?
DB: The audience should keep their hearts, minds and ears open to the glorious sounds and storyline that Black voices make and give. I’m reminded of the Langston Hughes poem that states, “I Too, Sing America!” What we need most is the opportunity to be heard, not just in “Black shows” but also in all the operatic repertoire from Strauss, Mozart, Bellini and Puccini. We sing Gershwin well. He wrote it so that we may be expressive and show the glory of our culture. But we are multifaceted. The audience should listen. The next great voices are potentially coming from Black artists!
RH: For our broadcast, which is the moment people are watching on PBS, they actually took the house lights up for us when Angel Blue walked out for her final bow. And we had never seen the house full of people. It was always dark. When we could see that the orchestra to the family circle was packed with no empty seats, every single person on stage was crying hysterically just thanking God, so thankful and moved.
KP: Look out for the community. There is a fabric of relationships happening on the stage, whether it’s spouses or groups that gather, like the church ladies that gather together to gossip. There’s community within the community. Little pockets of interactions happen while Porgy and Bess are experiencing their own world. Look out for those little interjections and instances that lend to the flavor of the whole production.
ANN ARBOR—”Porgy and Bess” has been called the first great American opera, made all the more significant by being set in a black American community and performed by black artists in 1935, a time when black culture was exoticized by the country’s white majority.
John Bubbles performing “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Alvin Theatre, NY. Image credit: Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts
Over the following 80 years, it became one of the most celebrated American works of the 20th century, while simultaneously igniting controversy every time it was performed due to its themes, characterizations and appropriative nature—an opera about black Americans created by white artists.
Despite its fame and undisputed place in American music history, “Porgy and Bess” has never had a definitive score. Over the last three years, editors at the University of Michigan’s Gershwin Initiative have been hard at work righting this wrong, creating a new edition of the opera.
And now, Ann Arbor audiences will have the chance to experience a crucial step of the editorial process. A test performance of the new score will take place at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 17 at Hill Auditorium.
Through a partnership with the University Musical Society, led by Kenneth Kiesler and featuring critically acclaimed professional soloists, “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” will be performed by the University Symphony Orchestra, U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance choruses, and members of Emeritus Professor Willis Patterson’s Our Own Thing Chorale.
The concert will provide audience members and performers alike the chance to experience the newly edited score, which restores material often cut in past productions. The score now includes an onstage band in Act II, which has not been performed since the opera’s preview in Boston in 1935 (prior to its first production that year on Broadway).
This unstaged concert is another in a series of test performances at U-M for The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition, following readings of “An American in Paris” and Concerto in F in September 2016, and the 1924 jazz band version of “Rhapsody in Blue” in October 2014.
John Bubbles (Sportin’ Life) and Anne Brown (Bess), 1935. Image credit: Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts
The test performance will be a highlight of the USO’s concert season, featuring distinguished soloists, including Morris Robinson as Porgy, Talise Trevigne as Bess and Chauncey Packer as Sportin’ Life. Current SMTD voice student Rehanna Thelwell will sing the part of Maria, and eight other SMTD students—Dorian Dillard, Darius Gillard, Julian Goods, Camron Gray, Lenora Green, Goitsemang Lehobye, Edward Nunoo and Yazid Pierce-Gray—will perform solo parts. SMTD alumna Janai Brugger, who is making her mark on opera stages across the globe, will sing the role of Clara.
While the critical score of “Porgy and Bess” remains several years away, the performance materials being developed now will receive their official world premiere in 2019 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
In conjunction with the performance, students and community members are invited to attend or livestream a scholarly symposium on issues of race in “Porgy and Bess,” which will unpack the opera’s complexities and controversies. Speakers—including students, scholars and performers—will confront the wounds of prejudice within this work, from both historical and contemporary perspectives.
UMS and SMTD present a test performance of the new critical edition of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and address its complex place in American history.
It has been called the first great American opera, made all the more significant by being set in a black American community and performed by black artists at a time when black culture was exoticized by the country’s white majority. Over the following 80 years, Porgy and Bess (1935) became one of the most celebrated American works of the 20th century, while simultaneously igniting controversy every time it was performed due to its themes, characterizations, and appropriative nature—an opera about black Americans created by white artists. Porgy and Bess , both beautiful and problematic, forces us to confront these issues.
Remarkably, despite its fame and undisputed place in American music history, this monumental work has never had a definitive score. Over the last three years, the editors at the University of Michigan’s Gershwin Initiative have been hard at work righting this wrong, creating a new edition of the opera, and Ann Arbor audiences will have the chance to experience a crucial step of the editorial process in February. Through a partnership with UMS, the University Symphony Orchestra, SMTD choruses, and members of Emeritus Professor Willis Patterson’s Our Own Thing Chorale will present a test performance of the new score for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess at Hill Auditorium, led by Kenneth Kiesler and featuring critically acclaimed professional soloists.
“Oh, I Can’t Sit Down,” Alvin Theatre, NY. Photo by Vandamm Studio. Photo courtesy of the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.
The concert will provide audience members and performers alike the chance to experience the newly edited score, which restores material often cut in past productions. Most exciting, the score now includes an onstage band in Act II that has not been performed since the opera’s preview in Boston in 1935 (prior to its first production that year on Broadway).
This unstaged concert is another in a series of test performances at U-M for The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition , following readings of An American in Paris and Concerto in F in September 2016, and the 1924 jazz band version of Rhapsody in Blue in October 2014. Each of these tests gives SMTD students a special opportunity to be the first to perform the new editions, while bringing insights to the project and improving the accuracy of performance materials.
George Gershwin, Folly Beach, South Carolina, June 1934. Photo courtesy of the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts
The test performance will be a highlight of the USO’s concert season, featuring distinguished soloists, including Morris Robinson as Porgy, Talise Trevigne as Bess, and Chauncey Packer as Sportin’ Life. Current SMTD voice student Rehanna Thelwell will sing the part of Maria, and eight other SMTD students—Dorian Dillard, Darius Gillard, Julian Goods, Camron Gray, Lenora Green, Goitsemang Lehobye, Edward Nunoo, and Yazid Pierce-Gray—will perform solo parts. SMTD alumna Janai Brugger (MM ’09), who is making her mark on opera stages across the globe, will sing the role of Clara.
In conjunction with the performance, students and community members are invited to attend a scholarly symposium on issues of race in Porgy and Bess , which will unpack the opera’s complexities and controversies . Speakers—including students, scholars, and performers—will confront the wounds of prejudice within this work, from both historical and contemporary perspectives. Despite its musical and lyrical triumphs, Porgy and Bess requires audiences to consider America’s ongoing struggle with bigotry , not only in terms of racism, but also the vulnerable intersections of race, class, gender, and disability.
This project builds upon a long tradition of fruitful artistic collaboration between UMS and SMTD, including the Grammy-winning Naxos recording of Emeritus Professor of Composition William Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience in 2004, and a complete performance of Darius Milhaud’s epic opera triptych The Oresteia of Aeschylus, featuring the USO and SMTD choruses, which celebrated the centennial of Hill Auditorium in 2013. These collaborations showcase the incredible resources available to students at the University of Michigan, and the rich opportunities they have to hone their abilities while working with leading artists on an internationally recognized stage.
The Road to a Critical Edition
Established in 2013, the Gershwin Initiative is a historic partnership between the University of Michigan and the Gershwin family estates, who have granted our scholars unprecedented access to all of the Gershwins’ personal papers, compositional drafts, and original manuscript scores, in order to create the first-ever critical edition of their works. Now in its fourth year, The George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition is making excellent progress, with its first completed scores coming to fruition.
George Gershwin & cast taking their bows after opening night performance, Alvin Theatre, NY, Oct. 10, 1935. Photo courtesy of the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.
This past September, An American in Paris was given its world premiere in Paris by the Cincinnati Symphony, while the Atlanta Symphony presented the first U.S. performance and the BBC Proms will present the United Kingdom premiere of the work in July 2018, performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. Along with Rhapsody in Blue, these initial editions are scheduled for publication in 2018. While the critical score of Porgy and Bess remains several years away, the performance materials being developed now will receive their official world premiere in 2019 at The Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Editor-in-Chief and professor of musicology Mark Clague is enthusiastic about the project, its scope, and its successes. “ I’m enormously proud of the work we are doing on campus,” says Clague, “and I can think of no place better suited than the University of Michigan to bring the necessary depth of expertise, reflection, and careful devotion not only to the Gershwins’ legacy, but to their relationship to America’s cultural heritage as a whole.”
At the head of this laborious undertaking is volume editor Wayne Shirley, a former specialist in the Music Division at the Library of Congress and an authority on 20th-century American music and the Gershwins in particular. Before the establishment of the Initiative, Shirley had already been at work for two decades preparing this new edition of Porgy and Bess .
Todd Duncan (Porgy) and Anne Brown (Bess), 1935. Photo courtesy of the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.
Making the new 720-page edition of Porgy and Bess is a daunting task for the Gershwin Initiative, due to both its length and the complex web of archival source materials associated with it. SMTD students are involved with every step of the process. Coordinated by Managing Editor Jessica Getman, they work closely with Shirley to confront numerous discrepancies between the current rental score and the instrumental parts, as well as between that score and George Gershwin’s original manuscript. The published piano-vocal score is also problematic. It was prepared from the composer’s sketches and not his orchestrated manuscript, leading to yet more inconsistencies. This amounts to a quagmire of conflicting sources through which the editors must wade to construct an accurate edition.
Performing the opera has long been challenging the instrumental parts in particular contain many wrong notes and material cuts that frustrate performers. It was, in fact, the need for a new score of Porgy and Bess that served as the initial catalyst for the U-M Gershwin Initiative.
Ultimately, two full-score editions will be produced: one will be the critical score, heavily annotated with editorial commentary intended for research use, and the other will be a clean score and parts, optimized for performance. An updated piano-vocal score and a new choral score will be created as well, which will mark the first time in the opera’s history that the piano-vocal score has the same number of measures as the full score.
The day before the test performance, the Gershwin Initiative will host a public symposium at U-M that will address the complex representations of race, class, disability, and gender present in the work. A series of panels will explore the opera’s significance as an historical document and its cultural resonance in 21st-century America. Performing Porgy and Bess within the University of Michigan community offers a rare opportunity to enhance this test performance with scholarly commentary, pairing the creative process of musical realization with the intellectual rigor of the academy.
The “American Folk Opera” and Its Controversies
Porgy and Bess was the product of a collaboration between George Gershwin and Southern Renaissance author Dubose Heyward, whose libretto was based on both his 1925 novel Porgy and the successful Broadway stage adaptation co-written with his wife Dorothy two years later. In addition to the Heywards, George’s brother and main collaborator, Ira, also made contributions to the lyrics. Authorship of the work is credited to both the Gershwins and the Heywards.
Musically, Porgy and Bess is a kaleidoscope of styles, referencing European operatic traditions, Tin Pan Alley tunes, and black-American vernacular idioms of jazz, spirituals, and blues Gershwin’s idiomatic voice is characterized by the synthesis of these different musical languages. The music also shows him at the height of his compositional abilities, having spent three years in intensive study with composer and teacher Joseph Schillinger. As Gershwin’s voice was silenced by his untimely death in 1937 at the age of 38, Porgy and Bess represents his most advanced and ambitious compositional achievement.
John Bubbles performing “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” Alvin Theatre, NY. Photo courtesy of the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.
Despite an initially lukewarm critical reception, Porgy and Bess has since emerged as a cornerstone of the American operatic repertoire, and produced such Gershwin standards as “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” The presence of distinct songs in the work led early critics to debate whether Porgy and Bess was really an opera or a musical.
The opera tells the story of the African American inhabitants of an impoverished tenement near the docks of Charleston, South Carolina called “Catfish Row.” The story itself has been a source of controversy concerning the depiction of southern black life by white authors.
U-M SMTD professor Daniel Washington has played Crown in productions of “Porgy and Bess” internationally, including this opera comique production in Paris.
Although Gershwin made an extended trip to Charleston to attend church services and absorb black musical idioms, he elected to compose his own original “spirituals” rather than incorporate existing African American melodies, and this drew criticism in light of the work’s subtitle, “An American Folk Opera.” The fact that the composer claimed “folk” authenticity in his original music remains problematic. However, the opera—and its music in particular—resonates with a broad sense of American identity, making “American Folk Opera” a complex description that warrants scholarly consideration.
Since its premiere, Porgy and Bess has come under fire for its treatment of black themes and black music. In a 1936 review in the black journal Opportunity , Hall Johnson wrote, “What we are to consider…is not a Negro opera by Gershwin, but Gershwin’s idea of what a Negro opera should be.” In other words, Porgy and Bess was a caricature of black artistry. In The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), Harold Cruse, a professor in U-M’s Department of Afroamerican and African Studies (DAAS), attacked this aspect of Porgy and Bess . He argued that the work “must be criticized from the Negro point of view as the most perfect symbol of the Negro creative artist’s cultural denial, degradation, exclusion, exploitation and acceptance of white paternalism.” Cruse went so far as to call for a permanent boycott of the opera.
The opera’s characters themselves have likewise drawn criticism, as they engage in racial stereotypes that echo blackface minstrelsy. Naomi André, associate director at U-M’s Residential College and associate professor in DAAS and Women’s Studies, has studied the opera and its complex characters in depth. “ Porgy and Bess is a double-edged sword for many people,” says André. “It has heartfelt melodies and terrible stereotypes that reference minstrel images, it shows an inner depth to its main characters and also dooms them to terrible outcomes.” André explains that the opera “is a product of its original time in the early 1930s during the Depression and Jim Crow, but it also has had continual resonance up through the present as race relations in the United States remain complicated . ” ( André’s book Black Opera: History, Power, and Engagement is forthcoming from University of Illinois Press, and includes a chapter on Porgy and Bess. )
Emeritus professor George Shirley as Sportin’ Life in a 1998 production of “Porgy and Bess” mounted on the floating stage at the Bregenz festival in Austria.
One of the defining facets of Porgy and Bess is that the Gershwin family maintained a contractual requirement that in staged productions, all black characters in the cast and chorus must be performed by black singers in non-staged performances, the chorus need not adhere to this restriction. This has made Porgy and Bess an important vehicle for celebrating black operatic talent.
SMTD Emeritus Professor of Voice, George Shirley, a Grammy-winning operatic tenor and the first black tenor to sing at The Metropolitan Opera, has played the role of Sportin’ Life many times and has a pragmatic viewpoint on the opera’s depictions. “As in Cavalleria Rusticana or Alban Berg’s Lulu, Porgy and Bess reflects the realities of life that exist amongst communities where poverty of circumstance dictates morality to a considerable degree, as well as the mode of survival,” says Shirley, “a fact no different for the black community than for any other.”
Shirley went on to say that bringing this work to the stage at U-M provides “opportunities to address the lack of works that could serve to balance the negative views of blacks.” He simultaneously praised Porgy and Bess for its dramatic power and musical excellence.
The Power of a Performance
Porgy and Bess is a product of 20th-century American culture. But how will its life and resonance change in the 21st century? Mark Clague sees not only a contemporary relevance, but an urgency in its themes.
John Bubbles (Sportin’ Life) and Anne Brown (Bess), 1935. Photo courtesy of the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.
“ Porgy and Bess should be antiquated, but it’s not,” says Clague. “Its dramatic momentum comes from interpersonal conflict in the context of the impossibility of justice. In the opera, the residents of Catfish Row are all black all the police are white. Cell phone videos today show an undeniable reality that justice is not equally available to all Americans because of race and class. The same is true onstage in Porgy and Bess , and thus the opera remains a contemporary call to action for all who witness it.”
The goals of the February test performance are threefold. First, it will allow editor Wayne Shirley to make important adjustments to the developing performance and critical editions. The new editions, in turn, will preserve the work as a monument of music, while making it more accessible to performers. Second, it will give SMTD students the opportunity to engage with a work that is both culturally relevant and musically demanding, and to perform with internationally renowned singers. Finally, it will allow performers and audience members to join together at Hill Auditorium to experience an iconic work of American operatic art, and confront its complex history.
Kai West is a PhD pre-candidate in historical musicology and an editorial assistant at the Gershwin Initiative. He also holds a master’s degree in double bass performance from U-M.
Leading image: George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, & Ira Gershwin, Boston, September 30, 1935. Photo by Vandamm Studio, NY. Photo courtesy of the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.
By George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin
Saturday, February 17, 2018 at 7:30 PM
U – M School of Music, Theatre & Dance Choruses
University Symphony Orchestra
Kenneth Kiesler, conductor
Morris Robinson, Porgy
Talise Trevigne, Bess
Norman Garrett, Crown
Chauncey Packer, Sporting Life
Janai Brugger, Clara
Reginald Smith, Jr., Jake
Karen Slack, Serena
Rehanna Thelwell, Maria
For tickets, visit ums.org or call 734.764.2538.
Feb. 16–18, 2018
Rackham Graduate School
Sponsored by the School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the University Musical Society, and the Gershwin Initiative.
For the complete schedule of symposium events, visit the Gershwin Initiative website.
'Porgy and Bess' is a milestone in American racial politcs
The high-culture condescension and controversy that have long dogged "Porgy and Bess" die hard. That seems the likeliest explanation why it has taken Lyric Opera of Chicago so long to catch up with George Gershwin's beloved work, generally considered to be the Great American Opera.
The company premiere that opens Tuesday night at the Civic Opera House brings to town the highly acclaimed production by director Francesca Zambello that originated in 2005 at the Washington National Opera. John DeMain, one of America's foremost authorities on "Porgy and Bess" (he has conducted more than 300 performances of the work) will preside in the pit.
The 13 performances will be largely double-cast, with Gordon Hawkins and Morenike Fadayomi singing the first pair of principals Lester Lynch and Lisa Daltirus, the second. Lynch and Terry Cook will share the role of the brutish stevedore, Crown, with Jermaine Smith as the drug dealer Sportin' Life.
The rocky performance history of "Porgy and Bess" parallels the struggle within American society to narrow the racial divide in the 73 years that have elapsed between the opera's premiere and the election of America's first African-American president.
As far back as 1935, when the folk opera (as Gershwin described it) opened on Broadway with an all-black cast and an all-white production team, it was widely criticized by African-Americans as well as whites for trading in racial stereotypes (this sentence as published has been corrected in this text).
Critics such as Virgil Thomson found dubious authenticity in a tale about disadvantaged Southern blacks by a white novelist, DuBose Heyward, set to music by a Jewish songwriter-lyricist team from New York -- Gershwin and his brother Ira Gershwin.
What the detractors failed to recognize was that Gershwin's tune-laden slice of life in the Charleston slum known as Catfish Row (based on Heyward's 1925 novel and the subsequent play) did not flinch from confronting issues of race and class. Those issues -- grinding poverty, domestic abuse, racist bigotry, crime, drugs and prostitution -- remain very much with us today.
Which is why "Porgy and Bess" is as much a study in topical sociology as a fount of hit songs -- "Summertime," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now" and others that have become iconic anthems of our popular culture.
Zambello feels the greatness of "Porgy and Bess" as art and the universal appeal of its music have moved the opera irrevocably beyond the cultural and political wars of yesteryear.
"We have evolved past that whole bad stereotyping of the piece," the director says. "The microcosm of society that is represented in Catfish Row could be any closed society."
Zambello and her team of designers -- Peter J. Davison (sets), Paul Tazewell (costumes) and Mark McCullough (lighting) -- have updated "Porgy and Bess" from the 1920s to the '40s to bring it closer to what the director calls "our recent collective consciousness."
"I felt it was important to show the levels within the society of Catfish Row -- the doctors, lawyers, fishermen, the church-going people, as well as the lowlifes. The genius of the score and the text is that they capture that sense of the archetypal and the mythic in people of humble social station."
Several generations of African-American singers have had countless career doors opened to them because of the Gershwin work. And young black artists now seem to be embracing the opera with a palpable pride of heritage and ownership.
"It really is a piece that's important for African-Americans to perform now," declares bass-baritone Lynch, who will double in the Lyric production as the villain Crown and the crippled beggar Porgy. "The stigma has been lifted, and we are proud to be onstage [with it]. The piece survives because the music is so great. And it is the music that keeps bringing us back to 'Porgy and Bess.'"
Before composing the score, Gershwin spent weeks in black churches, homes and nightclubs where he researched the music of the indigenous South Carolina culture. Yet, contrary to popular belief, his opera quotes not a single spiritual, blues or jazz tune -- every note is original.
Gershwin's genius enabled Tin Pan Alley's great songsmith to capture the denizens of Catfish Row with strength, depth, even nobility. And he made no bones about his lofty ambitions for "Porgy."
"If I am successful," the composer wrote in 1934, "it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of 'Carmen' and the beauty of 'Meistersinger.'"
Dmitri Shostakovich agreed that he achieved just that. When the Russian composer heard "Porgy and Bess" in Moscow in 1945, he ranked Gershwin alongside Borodin and Mussorgsky as a composer of great national operas.
There is no telling which creative directions Gershwin would have taken American music following his one and only achievement for the operatic stage. The composer died of an inoperable brain tumor, at 38, in 1937. "Porgy and Bess" stands as perhaps his most important legacy.
A "problem" opera? Only for opera companies that would treat "Porgy and Bess" as a quaint artifact rather than a living masterpiece of American music theater.
See related story, "7 THINGS TO LEARN ABOUT . 'Porgy and Bess'," Arts & Entertainment section, Page 13
GP at the Met: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess
Enjoy this classic American folk opera that brings 1920s Charleston to life with a beloved score from George Gershwin in a new production directed by James Robinson. Eric Owens and Angel Blue star in the title roles and David Robertson conducts.
Season 14 of Great Performances at the Met continues Friday, July 17 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) with Gershwin’s folk opera The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Eric Owens and Angel Blue star as the sympathetic duo Porgy and Bess in this primetime production. The all-star ensemble features 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.
James Robinson’s production takes place in the 1920s inside Catfish Row, a tenement neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina, beginning with its inhabitants relaxing after a day’s work. Drug-dealer Sportin’ Life, Jake and some of the other men gather to play craps under the disapproving eye of the religious Serena. Disabled beggar Porgy arrives and is about to join the game when Crown and his partner Bess appear. Drunk and high on drugs, Crown loses, starts a fight and kills Robbins, Serena’s husband. Before the police arrive, Crown runs off to hide, telling Bess that he’ll be back for her. Sportin’ Life offers to take Bess to New York with him, but she refuses. Only Porgy is sympathetic to Bess he offers her shelter and his protection, which she accepts. A collection is being taken to meet the cost of the burial, and Bess offers Serena a contribution which she refuses, thinking it must be Crown’s money. Serena finally accepts when she realizes the money is from Porgy.
A month later, Sportin’ Life enters, but before he has an opportunity to peddle any of his “happy dust,” Maria, the matriarch of Catfish Row, chases him away. Sportin’ Life asks Bess to come to New York with him again and tries to give her more drugs, which she refuses. Porgy threatens Sportin’ Life and chases him away he and Bess reflect on their happiness. That evening, Crown, who has been hiding on the island since Robbins’ murder, calls out to Bess. He wants Bess to come with him, but she explains that she now has a new life with Porgy. Crown forces her to stay with him. A week later, the fishermen leave for a day’s work at sea despite a storm warning, and Bess is heard talking deliriously from Porgy’s room. Serena prays for Bess’ recovery, and her prayers are answered when Bess emerges into the courtyard, free of the fever. She explains to Porgy that she wants to stay with him, but when Crown returns she’ll be forced to go back to him.
As a hurricane rolls in, everyone cowers together in Serena’s room to pray for deliverance from the storm. At the storm’s height, Clara sees Jake’s boat overturn and rushes out to save her husband. Bess calls for one of the men to go after her, and Crown responds. The women grieve for those who have been lost, including Jake, Clara and possibly Crown. Under the cover of darkness, Crown appears and approaches Porgy’s door. Porgy is ready for him and kills him instantly. Detectives, accompanied by the coroner, return to Catfish Row to investigate Crown’s murder. They go to Porgy’s room and tell him he must come with them and identify Crown’s body. Horrified to look at Crown’s face, Porgy refuses to go but is dragged away. Taking advantage of Porgy’s absence, Sportin’ Life tries to convince Bess that Porgy will go to prison for the crime, and he attempts to lure her away to a new life. A week later, Porgy returns from jail in a jubilant mood and distributes gifts he bought with money won by playing craps in jail. He calls out for Bess and learns that while he was in jail, Bess took off to New York with Sportin’ Life. Now, Porgy must make a decision. Audra McDonald hosts.
Historical Context and Production Approach:
- “Porgy and Bess” is a 1935 opera by 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.
- This Met Opera production takes a fresh approach to a complicated masterpiece, which has been criticized for its African American stereotypes since its 1935 debut. The setting — Catfish Row, a Charleston, South Carolina neighborhood – is now a close-knit, aspirational working-class community in which everyone is doing his or her best to get by , instead of an abandoned slum.
- Great Performances at The Met: The Gershwins’Porgy and Bess features the original 1935 libretto, lyrics and music with new staging from director James Robinson, who says: “The inhabitants of Catfish Row are integral to everything that’s going on with every other character. You get to know how this community functions. It’s a very religious community—they’re bound by their faith. Every individual in that community of Catfish Row, every member of the chorus, has a story.”
- Regarding the characters, Great Performances at The Met: The Gershwins’Porgy and Bess director James Robinson said, “We have to treat these people with great dignity, and take them seriously. When they become caricatures, it just seems to ring false,” in an interview with The New York Times .
- For more information about the history and context of the Met Opera production of The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess, please refer to these resources:
- Met Opera’s The Gershwins’ PorgyandBess Educator Guide
- Met Opera: American Experience
Enjoy the American folk opera set in 1920s Charleston with a classic score by George Gershwin.
Enjoy this classic American folk opera that brings 1920s Charleston to life with a beloved score from George Gershwin in a new production directed by James Robinson. Eric Owens and Angel Blue star in the title roles and David Robertson conducts.
- Eric Owens – Porgy
- Angel Blue – Bess
- Alfred Walker – Crown
- Frederick Ballentine – Sportin’ Life
- Latonia Moore – Serena
- Golda Schultz – Clara
- Denyce Graves – Maria
- Donovan Singletary – Jake
- Audra McDonald – Host
Run time: 3 hours
- David Robertson – Conductor
- Gary Halvorson – Director
- James Robinson – Production
- Camille A. Brown – Choreographer
- Catherine Zuber – Costume Designer
- Donald Holder – Lighting Designer
- Luke Halls – Projection Designer
- David Leong – Fight Director
- David Horn – Executive Producer, Great Performances
For the Met, Gary Halvorson directs the telecast. David Frost is Music Producer. Mia Bongiovanni and Elena Park are Supervising Producers, and Louisa Briccetti and Victoria Warivonchik are Producers. Peter Gelb is Executive Producer. For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell is Series Producer David Horn is Executive Producer.
Corporate support for Great Performances at the Met is provided by provided by Toll Brothers, America’s luxury home builder®. Major funding is provided by The Sybil B. Harrington Endowment Fund and M. Beverly and Robert G Bartner. This Great Performances at the Met presentation is funded by The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, Ellen and James S. Marcus, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Jody and John Arnhold and public television viewers.
Great Performances at the Met is a presentation of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET, bringing the best of the Metropolitan Opera into the homes of classical music fans across the United States.
Under the leadership of General Manager Peter Gelb and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, The Metropolitan Opera is one of America’s leading performing arts organizations and a vibrant home for the world’s most creative and talented artists, including singers, conductors, composers, orchestra musicians, stage directors, designers, visual artists, choreographers, and dancers. The company presents more than 200 performances each season of a wide variety of operas, ranging from early masterpieces to contemporary works. In recent years, the Met has launched many initiatives designed to make opera more accessible, most prominently the Live in HD series of cinema transmissions, which dramatically expands the Met audience by allowing select performances to be seen in more than 2,200 theaters in more than 70 countries around the world.
After a 30 Year Absence, the Controversial ‘Porgy and Bess’ Is Returning to the Met Opera
Porgy and Bess, which made its New York debut in 1935, is known as the “first great American opera.” But Porgy and Bess has also long been called out for cultural appropriation and stereotyping. Now, as Playbill reports, the controversial show will be performed at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera for the first time in 30 years.
Tonight, Porgy and Bess will kick off the Met’s new season, with Eric Owens and Angel Blue starring in the titular roles. According to Michael Cooper of the New York Times, the Met is not shying away from the opera’s fraught history, hosting a number of talks—featuring conductor David Robertson and director James Robinson, among others—about the show. And in celebration of the return of Porgy and Bess to its stage stage, the Met is launching an exhibition that explores the impact of black performers on the company.
Porgy and Bess—set amid a fictional African-American tenement in Charleston, South Carolina, where love and friendship are tempered by addiction and violence—has long occupied a complex space on the American cultural landscape. The opera was created by the famed composer George Gershwin and the novelist DuBose Heyward, whose 1925 novel Porgy inspired the opera. Gershwin’s brother Ira and Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, also contributed to the work. All four members of the team were white.
In three acts, Porgy and Bess tells the doomed love story of beggar who is disabled and an unmarried mother who are plagued by Bess’ violent former boyfriend, Crown, and a cynical drug dealer named Sportin’ Life. Gershwin insisted that the opera be performed only by a black cast—rather than white actors in blackface—which initially made it difficult to find a home for Porgy and Bess on Broadway, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Gershwin lost money on the production.
Reviews of the show were mixed one critic derided it as a “crooked folklore and half-way opera.” But its songs—like “Summertime” and “I Loves You Porgy”—became iconic, performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. According to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, the cast members would often protest at segregated venues, leading to “the integration of audiences in many theaters across the world.”
The show created rare opportunities for classically trained black performers—“There were so few places for black singers trained in European classics to work,” Maya Angelou, who was once featured in a touring production, told NPR in 2010—and represented black life in a serious theatrical piece. At the same time, the nature of that representation rankled many critics, who lambasted the show’s dialect, the stereotypical nature of the characters and the depiction of black culture as rife with gambling, addiction and violence.
“What we are to consider . . . is not a Negro opera by Gershwin,” the composer Hall Johnson wrote in 1936, “but Gershwin’s idea of what a Negro opera should be.”
Robinson, the director of the Met production, says that he always thought of the characters as enterprising, aspirational and altogether human while tackling this new iteration. “We have to treat these people with great dignity, and take them seriously,” he tells Cooper. “When they become caricatures, it just seems to ring false.”
But it’s hard to shake the opera’s problematic qualities, even for the performers who are embodying its characters. Owens, the bass-baritone who sings Porgy, has played the character before Porgy and Bess, he tells Cooper, represents “one part of an African-American experience.” But Owens has also been careful to never make his debut at an opera house in that role. “It just put people on notice,” he explains, “that I’m an artist who does many things.”
Musical Accompaniment and Porgy and Bess Songs
You can always turn to a professional essay writing service for help. But, for your classes, it would still be great to know who composed Porgy and Bess.
In this block of our article, we are going to focus on the musical component of this piece.
As you already know, the main Porgy and Bess composer is George Gershwin. He was the one to make the biggest contribution to this opera.
Of course, the libretto for Porgy and Bess Gershwin couldn’t handle all by himself. He worked together with the novel’s author DuBose Heyward and his brother, lyricist Ira Gershwin.
George Gershwin Porgy and Bess music was inspired by New York jazz roots, as well as different folk songs inherent in southern black culture, such as blues, work songs, praying songs, etc.
Porgy and Bess contains lots of songs, many of which became standards in blues and jazz. If you look it up on the Internet, you should be able to find a complete Porgy and Bess song list. But, if we had to name several most famous songs from this opera, here they are:
- “My Man’s Gone Now”
- “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin”
- “Bess, O Where’s My Bess”
- “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York”
- “It Ain’t Necessarily So”
Porgy and Bess Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So are the two most famous songs of all. These songs were so famous that they were numerously recorded by well-known artists. To name a few, you can find Porgy and Bess Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald Porgy and Bess recordings.
The Complex History and Uneasy Present of ‘Porgy and Bess’
It has entertained, and sometimes enraged, generations of audiences. Now the Gershwin classic is opening the Metropolitan Opera’s 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
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 he ard.
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.
Aftermath and assessment
Gershwin was known as a gregarious man whose huge ego was tempered by a genuinely magnetic personality. He loved his work and approached every assignment with enthusiasm, never suffering from “composer’s block.” Throughout the first half of 1937, Gershwin began experiencing severe headaches and brief memory blackouts, although medical tests showed him to be in good health. By July, Gershwin exhibited impaired motor skills and drastic weight loss, and he required assistance in walking. He lapsed into a coma on July 9, and a spinal tap revealed the presence of a brain tumor. Gershwin never regained consciousness and died during surgery two days later. He was at the peak of his powers with several unrealized projects ahead of him (among them, some sketches for a new string quartet and a new symphony, a proposed ballet score, and musical comedy collaborations with George S. Kaufman and DuBose Heyward). His death stunned the nation, whose collective feelings can be summed up in a famous statement from novelist John O’Hara: “George Gershwin died on July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”
Ira Gershwin, so devastated that he could not work for more than a year after George’s death, became the keeper of his brother’s legacy. In later years, he supervised the release of several unpublished Gershwin compositions, including several works for piano, the Lullaby for string quartet, and the Catfish Row Suite from Porgy and Bess (a work cobbled together after the show had closed and now considered to be the last orchestral work to be composed and scored by Gershwin). Ira also put lyrics to tunes from George’s notebooks, creating “new” Gershwin songs for the films The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) and Kiss Me, Stupid (1964). He had continued success with other collaborators, including Kurt Weill, Jerome Kern, and Harold Arlen.
Gershwin’s music remains a subject of debate among prominent international conductors, composers, and music scholars, some of whom find his works for orchestra to be naively structured, little more than catchy melodies strung together by the barest of musical links. In 1954, Leonard Bernstein summed up the feelings of many classical musicians, saying, “The themes are terrific—inspired, God-given. I don’t think there has been such an inspired melodist on this earth since Tchaikovsky. But if you want to speak of a composer, that’s another matter.” Nevertheless, Gershwin’s accomplishments are considerable: he ranks (along with Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, and Richard Rodgers) as one of the four greatest composers for the American musical theatre, as well as the only popular composer of the 20th century to have made a significant and lasting dent in the classical music world. He had great admirers in the classical field, including such luminaries as Arturo Toscanini, Fritz Reiner, Arnold Schoenberg, Maurice Ravel, Sergey Prokofiev, and Alban Berg, all of whom cited Gershwin’s genius for melody and harmony. His orchestral works, now performed by most of the world’s prestigious symphony orchestras, have attained a status for which Gershwin longed during his lifetime. Aaron Copland and Charles Ives may rival Gershwin for the title of “great American composer,” but their works tend to be admired, whereas Gershwin’s are beloved. As the noted musicologist Hans Keller stated, “Gershwin is a genius, in fact, whose style hides the wealth and complexity of his invention. There are indeed weak spots, but who cares about them when there is greatness?”
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, Corrections Manager.
Watch the video: George and Ira Gershwins Porgy and Bess- The complete 2002 Lincoln Center Production