Is “Porgy and Bess” an opera or a Broadway musical?
Does “Porgy and Bess” represent the African American community in a racist way?
Did composer George Gershwin and author DuBose Heyward appropriate material from an American subculture and exploit it in “Porgy and Bess?”
The above are three arguments that have haunted America’s greatest opera since its debut in 1935. Genre, racial stereotyping and appropriation. There you have it.
My advice: Set all that aside and see the new Metropolitan Opera production at 10:55 a.m. Saturday in the Vallecito Room of the Fort Lewis College Student Union. From all reports, the Met production, unlike the ones in 1985 and 1990, has been reconceived to tell a mythic tale with contemporary overtones. And as Anne Midgette of The Washington Post put it: “Met Opera offers a ‘Porgy’ of its time that speaks to ours.”
By that, she means that James Robinson’s production highlights the communal aspect of the DuBose Heyward story. The opera is based on “Porgy,” the 1925 best-selling book by Heyward, a privileged white South Carolinian. From that moment forth, the accusation of a white guy telling a story of black lives has stuck. And yet, two years after publication, Heyward and his wife capitalized on the novel’s popularity and crafted a play that also became a sensation.
The story is about a disabled but functioning member of Catfish Row, a small tidewater town in South Carolina. Porgy is not an outsider but very much part of his village. He falls hard for Bess, a troubled young woman who is enthralled by the town bully, Crown.
Gershwin’s monumental work opened on Broadway in 1935. He had read Heyward’s novel and suggested a collaboration. The Heywards agreed to write the libretto, closely following the book. It wasn’t a difficult decision, running on established popularity and by the ’30s, Gershwin was a celebrity, the most famous composer in America.
Gershwin visited the Heywards in South Carolina and spent time listening to the popular music of the place – street singing as well as Gullah church services. With his interest in American jazz, Gershwin had already integrated other styles of music into his own compositions, and that genius for fusion accounts for why “Porgy and Bess” has become canonical, even with the unwieldy issues of genre, stereotyping and appropriation.
In the new Met production, Porgy (the magnificent bass Eric Owens) offers Bess (soprano Angel Blue) protection and they find momentary respite expressed in the beautiful aria “I loves you Porgy.” Then three disasters intervene: a real hurricane and two powerful forms of temptation. Passion surfaces in the form of a resurgent Crown (baritone Alfred Walker) and addiction in the trickster figure of Sportin’ Life (the stunning tenor Frederick Ballentine), a drug dealer from the big city. He disrupts everything and triggers a surprising turn of events.
The opera turns 75 this year, and with each new production, it lifts its characters onto an evolving mythic platform. Whether it’s Thebes or Catfish Row, a community’s religious beliefs, rituals and human connections bind individuals together – until someone or something tears them apart.
Gershwin’s tidal wave of music brings all that mythic energy to life. Hopefully, FLC will have worked out the kinks in live streaming Encore Productions by now – see sidebar. Flaws, arguments and “issues” aside, if you miss this production, you’re missing a historical moment in American cultural history.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.