Saturday, January 21, 2012

Joe Nocera, “'Porgy and Bess' — arguably the most important piece of American music written in the 20th century”

[“Porgy and Bess”: Excerpts from the New York City Opera’s version of “Porgy and Bess,” produced by Sherwin M. Goldman. Includes “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and others.]
By Joe Nocera
January 21, 2012 
“WHEN George Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess' — arguably the most important piece of American music written in the 20th century — first opened on Broadway in 1935, the opera's libretto was littered with a word now shunned as an antiblack slur. The African-American residents of Catfish Row, the only slightly imaginary block in Charleston, S.C., where the opera is set, used it liberally, and so of course did the white characters during their occasional menacing visits.
“None of the opera’s early critics seemed to notice; whether black reviewer or white, they primarily critiqued 'Porgy and Bess' as a theatrical experience, focusing in particular on the highly original way Gershwin fused blues tonalities, spirituals and other elements of African-American music into a full-length opera."

'Porgy and Bess' has always struck me as something of a miracle. A powerful, empathetic portrayal of poor black city dwellers in the South, it was written by three white men, two of whom had spent little time in the South. The one Southerner, Heyward, was a Charleston insurance salesman turned poet who had written a novel, 'Porgy,' the inspiration for which had come from a news story about a crippled beggar he used to see around town. Heyward spent years pushing Gershwin to collaborate on an opera; once Gershwin agreed, Heyward mailed him lyrics — the only ones he ever wrote in his life — that are some of the most sublime ever written. Stephen Sondheim described them as 'the most beautiful and powerful in our musical theater history.' 

“'Porgy and Bess' was also Gershwin’s first opera — and his last; he was dead within two years, killed by a brain tumor at the age of 38.” 

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