Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Good Porgy and Bess or Bad Porgy and Bess

The Columbus Symphony is performing selections from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess this weekend. John DeMain conducts. He was in (superb) charge of the Sherwin M Goldman-Houston Grand Opera
production that ran on Broadway thirty years ago. As I recall, this production took the work very seriously as an opera. In New York, Porgy and Bess played in a large theater : the Gershwin, albeit named the Uris in those days, God bless us and spare us.

As I further recall, this massive revival was the first time many people had seen Porgy and Bess. I get the sense that the work was neglected since the early 1950s-when the Breen/Blevins production played Broadway (with Leontyne Price) and toured the world. The troupe's 1953 sojourn to the Soviet Union has been immortalized in Truman Capote's The Muses are Heard Worth reading.

George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin, Dubose Hayward
The Met waited until 1986. The Gershwin Estate demands an all black act. The Met complied.  Most of these Met debutantes were not heard again once Porgy and Bess closed. Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry introduced Porgy and Bess to the Met. Miss Bumbry said, "I don't really like the piece, but they were going to do it anyway, with or without me." Mr. Estes's take shows a resistance to (racial typecast) "I told them I could not come there unless I was given a different opera first."

And So I Sing:African American Divas in Opera and Concert by Rosalyn M. Story, goes into the trap Porgy and Bess can be for the African American artist.

A more recent Broadway revival featured the sublime Audra MacDonald, in a production reportedly heavily cut. No less that Stephen Sondheim wrote the to New York Times claiming desecration. I wasn't there.

Whats the problem? I can't imagine anyone arguing with the dramaturgy or the music. Nobody needed to tell George Gershwin how to write a tune. He may have been new to writing for the unamplified voice. That's a criteria I use to shuttle between opera and musical. Opera does not use mikes (I know, I know.) If you can't project over an orchestra into a big hall, you don't belong in opera. To my knowledge, the operatic experience of the original casts was limited, because they were black. Opportunities were not matching talent.,

Todd Duncan, the first Porgy,  and Anne Brown, who created Bess were classically trained singers. The world should have heard Duncan's Figaro, Escamillo and Rigoletto. He did have a berth at the New York City Opera, God bless them, but not approaching his talents. Ms. Brown settled in Norway, hoping Scandinavia would prove less restrictive to the career she deserved. Plus ca change. Marian Anderson was kept out of opera until the end of her career. It was impossible for anyone to ignore Leontyne Price's gifts, and soon the black artist was admired for voice, personality and presence, color be damned.

That was far from true when Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935. Would you believe it was a flop? No one knew what to do with the Gullah people of South Carolina and the drugs,sex and violence depicted to Gershwin's music. Dubose Hayward's novel Porgy had been widely admired. But that was a book and you could put it down. The stage was up close and personal,and Gershwin's tunes were haunting and a tad disturbing:

After all, George Gershwin on Broadway meant dancing, sophisticated melodies, gorgeous girls, dapper fellas and stories that got in nobody's way. What they got was drugs and violence, and the only booty on view was the title character's, described as a "no good liquor guzzling slut"

Then  there's the cast problem.  I know many fine singers who make a good living going from Porgy and Bess company to Porgy and Bess tour and back again. They sing in the chorus, they sing the leads. They sing all the time. And the more they stay, the firmer the doors to opera houses remain closed to them. They are typed as Broadway singers. Nobody thinks to ask them for Handel or Verdi. Other singers stay in just long enough. Some like the great Shirley Verrett stayed away. "I don't like what it says to my people" said Verrett.

Porgy and Bess has in the 21st century found a home in the opera house. The Goldman Houston production showed the way. A staging from Glyndebourne was filmed and widely admired. San Francisco and Chicago have staged Porgy and Bess, and the Met did two revivals.
The one great work in music about a black culture shows some spirit but a lot of decadence and suffering. It's a long show is Porgy and Bess.  It can clock in at four hours. And why is it always described as an American folk opera? So the music theater patrons are scared away? Because black artists don't sing opera? I hope all of these views are waaaaaay dated today.Go out and sing Porgy and Bess. It's a magnificent piece, worthy of the best talents. Just like Mozart, Verdi, Handel.....