Saturday, July 25, 2020 Porgy and Bess in the Time of BLM

Counter Punch

by David Yearsley

July 24, 2020

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.

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