Porgy and Bess in the Time of BLM

Last Friday night while protesters were being shoved into unmarked vans in Portland by federal paramilitaries, PBS broadcast George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in its Great Performances series. The opera was a strange choice for these times. The live recording had been made on February 1st, little over a month before the Covid crisis darkened American theatres.

I didn’t watch the PBS broadcast, but instead took in the opera a few days later thanks to Met: Live in HD streaming available through the university where I work.

Though Porgy and Bess has long been criticized for its treatment of race, the Met Live performance was introduced without any acknowledgement of that history. The host was Audra MacDonald, a black actor and singer with six Tony Awards to her name (is it also fair to note that among her many recordings are The Wonder of Christmas with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square). MacDonald’s script praised the work as “one of the greatest of American operas” and “the moving story of the citizens of Catfish Row.” MacDonald did at least say that this “close-knit community” was oppressed. Though the on-stage cast was black (except for the non-singing cops), the conductor (David Robertson) was white like his baton. The stage director (James Robinson) was also white, and, however vibrant, his production was unquestioning—stubbornly disengaged from the world that has overtaken this kind of entertainment since February.

I’d last seen a live performance of Porgy and Bess in 2008 in Berlin presented by the touring company Cape Town Opera. That production, so much sparer than the opulent Met presentation, was set not in a singing and dancing waterfront slum in Jim Crow Dixie, but in a South African township: that historical dissonance—and congruence—didn’t blunt the cultural appropriation and violence of the work, but instead brought them into sharp relief.

Having recently watched Hamilton on my living room screen, I couldn’t help but imagine what would happen if Porgy and Bess were given the reverse treatment: if the Founding Fathers can be black, what about an all-white cast for Porgy and Bess? Yes, the opera is a product of its time. Yes, some leading black figures, such as Langston Hughes, praised the work even in the 1930s. But whiteface Porgy would, I couldn’t help but feel, shine a brutally alienating spotlight on the fantasy.

I saw Porgy and Bess for the first on June 9th, 1995 in Los Angeles, three years after the riots after the exoneration of the policemen who brutally beat Rodney King. The O. J. Simpson trial was a few days from getting underway at the courthouse a brick’s throw from L. A. opera’s home at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Earlier that spring, the provocative American theatre director Peter Sellars had brought to the same stage Debussy’s Pélleas et Mélisande with the jealous, homicidal king Golaud sung by the great Willard White, a black man. Leaving no room for ambiguity, Sellars parked a white Bronco at the lip of the stage. No one thought that was product placement for the local Ford dealerships. Club-wielding, gun-brandishing LAPD cops periodically stampeded across the stage.

By contrast, the L. A. Porgy and Bess was lively (and long: performed without cuts), but Hope Clark, the first African-American ever to direct the show at a major venue, danced around the question of race and its portrayal by the work’s creators. When I attended that performance in 1995, I had been the music critic for America’s last real country newspaper, the Anderson Valley Advertiser for a few years, and filed a piece from L. A. on the production. Here, with all its faults, is that twenty-five-year-old review. Not much has changed.

Now Da’s Opry, Boss
Anderson Valley Advertiser, June 14th, 1995

I discovered George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, or at least a dozen of its most famous songs, through Miles Davis’ 1958 recording. With the nonchalant intensity some call “cool,” Miles shaped the melodies into their ideal forms, his improvisations provided the definitive commentary. Crucial to the recording’s perfection was Gil Evans, who led the big band and whose arrangements were equal to Miles’ genius. The Davis/Evans recording was Gershwin’s opera for me. As a result I heard Porgy and Bess as a sort of absolute music almost completely divorced from the song lyrics; I knew the words of the first two lines of “Summertime,” but I had no idea of the work’s plot. Until a few years ago I thought Porgy and Bess was a Broadway musical.

We arrived at Friday’s performance of Porgy and Bess at the Los Angeles Music Center an hour early to buy the cheap rush tickets, then sat out in the plaza and ate our picnic dinner surrounded by the spectacle of opera- and theater-goers arriving. In the center of the plaza is a fountain made up of more than a hundred inch thick geysers shooting up from ground level. The spouts are divided into four matrices about twenty-five feet square arranged in cruciform around a large statue. Each matrix sprays up for ten or twenty seconds then falters and goes dormant for an indeterminate length of time, never more than five seconds. After studying the rhythms of the geysers over the course of our dinner, I pleaded with Annette to let me try to dash across the fountain during an inactive phase: “Can you imagine the thrill of making it across without getting wet, and in front of all these people?” Temperamentally opposed to this kind of pre-teen grandstanding, neither was she eager to spend three hours of opera sitting next to a soaked someone should things go wrong.

The L.A. performance of Porgy and Bess—the production itself is in large part that of the Houston Grand Opera—comes at the end of a typical season of works by European masters. Gershwin’s opera offers audiences a distinctly American music drama that depicts Southern black life and features an all-black cast. General directors of opera companies can count on Gershwin’s “folk opera” to provide some cultural diversity to this most rarefied of musical mediums. And although still a small minority of the audience, there were far more black people at the L.A. Porgy and Bess than is usual at performances of operas from the European canon.

Taking my seat inside the Music Center I flipped through the program in search of the expected essay on the opera. After fighting through the pages of benefactor lists and advertisements for cars and luxury homes I realized that, unlike the other operas in this year’s series, Porgy and Bess had not even rated an essay. In its place were obnoxious articles on “California Cuisine” and the “Summer Bonanza: a look at what’s Hot and New in the Southern California Housing market.” There was no information in the program on the genesis of the opera, and nothing about the librettists (Heyward and Dorothy DuBose, Ira Gershwin) or the composer—not even their dates.

The imperatives of corporate advertising aside, I can understand why no essay was included. Any honest writer would have undoubtedly followed the injunction of Duke Ellington, who, on seeing the first production of the opera in 1935, wrote that “The times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms.” It goes without saying that debunking is not one of this opera producers’ favorite pastimes, especially when it concerns an American classic that draws full houses. Rather than confront the problems posed by Porgy and Bess, the L.A. production chose simply to ignore them.

Porgy and Bess is based on Heyward Dubose’s novel (and the play that followed on which the author’s wife, Dorothy collaborated) about the poor black residents of “Catfish Row,” a fictional section of Charleston. Dubose converted the book into a play which enjoyed tremendous success on Broadway, and in 1930 attracted the attention of Gershwin, who easily convinced Dubose to collaborate on an opera. Gershwin, who once described opera as nothing more than “singing in costume,” cast himself in the role of musical visionary; just before Porgy and Bess opened in New York he claimed that it was “the greatest music composed in America,” and that it had “the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger.” But unlike these works, his opera would appeal “to the many rather than to the cultured few.” The opera’s critics, however, found the contradictory impulses of musical pretension and mass appeal aesthetically distasteful; Ellington complained that Gershwin had “borrowed from everyone from Liszt to Dickie Wells’ kazoo.”

Both Dubose and Gershwin were, by varying degrees, removed from black life, although this should not necessarily have disqualified them from the subject. Dubose was descended from South Carolinian patricians and Gershwin was a New Yorker, the son of Russian Jews. Although both men were enthusiastic observers of black culture in Charleston, South Carolina—Gershwin made several trips to the city while preparing the score—the characters of the opera reflect the cultural prejudices of their creators. As the black composer Hall Johnson wrote in 1935, Porgy and Bess is “an opera about Negroes rather than a Negro opera.”

Dubose’s inhabitants of Catfish Row are superstitious and gullible, often unable to control their animal urges. They are utterly servile to the police and are easily tricked and brow-beaten by them; a predatory black lawyer easily dupes the hapless cripple, Porgy. Crown, Porgy’s competition for Bess’s affections, is a hulking beast who, in a fit of cocaine rage, kills an innocent man. Still, when Crown surprises Bess, momentarily left alone after a picnic on Kittiwah island, she cannot resist his “hot hands” and, although she loathes him, she yields willingly. The Catfish Row pusher, Sportin’ Life, finds a captive market for his cocaine and at the end of the opera uses the “happy dust” to lure Bess off to New York, leaving behind her adopted baby and Porgy, himself more of a sap than a tragic hero. Heyward wrote the libretto (Gershwin’s brother Ira contributed some of the song lyrics) in pidgin, and in contrast to Mark Twain’s brilliant use of dialect, the language of Porgy and Bess sounds crude and inauthentic. In the L.A. production the lyrics were projected above the stage, forcing the audience—it is virtually impossible to ignore supertitles—to read phrases like “I ain’t care who you takes up with while I’s away.” One cannot help but sense Heyward looking down with amusement at the quaint foolishness of his characters.

Gershwin’s music suffers from similar delusions of omnipotence, an overweening confidence that in Porgy and Bess he had expressed “the humor, superstition, religious fervor, the dancing, and the irrepressible high spirits of the race … qualities that are inherent in the Negroes, as a race.” Gershwin’s orchestration, in particular, constantly undermines the humanity of his characters, as a stale catalog of flute glissandos, percussion effects (marimba, xylophone, clavés, and snare drum), and string tremolos provides condescendingly ironic comment on the misbegotten actions of the simple folks on stage. Gil Evans—it is perhaps necessary to say that he was white—redeemed those songs he arranged for the Miles’ recording by integrating the soloist and orchestra in a way Gershwin could not.

But Gershwin had a truly great gift for melody and his songs were brought to life by a wonderful L.A. cast. The chorus—Gershwin insisted that the cast be black—was particularly convincing, bringing an ecstatic quality to the spirituals, such as “Leavin’ for the Promised Land,” and swing to the fishermen’s song “It Takes a Long Pull to Get There.” Terry Cook sang the lead, and with his rich bass voice gave Porgy a depth not to be found in Heyward’s shallow patter. Luvenia Gardner sang the role of Serena, the widow of the man murdered by Crown, and her performance of “My Man’s Gone Now” was the highpoint of the evening. She used the melody as a point of departure, elaborating Gershwin’s fabricated spiritual with some real church singing. Gerswhin’s ingenious contrapuntal ensemble writing also inspired the finely-wrought rapture of Cook and Roberta Laws (Bess) closing duet of the first act duet “Bess, You is My Woman.”

The degrading pidgin kept rearing its ugly head as when some cast members delivered their text with excellent diction, singing “morning,” for example, when the supertitle read “mornin.” This is not necessarily meant as a criticism of the singers, who should probably be thanked for ignoring the clumsiness of the text. But their poised elegance simply made the supertitles all the more obnoxious. (In the original New York production Heyward and the brothers Gershwin instructed the predominantly black cast in the “authentic” pronunciation.) For the pidgin to work it has to be overdone, although the risk of caricature is high. Terry Cook was the only singer who succeeded in making Heyward’s silly linguistic conceits at all believable.

In the end, the singers gave the opera all of the plausibility it could hope to claim. They almost overcame the opera’s dramatic shortcomings with their music, claiming Gershwin’s melodies as their own. With the beauty of their voices, the finest of Friday’s performers reinforced what Miles proved in 1958: that in the ideal world, music is more powerful than words.


DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com