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The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess and the Quest for American Opera

This essay is written in conjunction with The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. UMS Presents Opera in Concert: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess Saturday, February 17th at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. 

“The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the Quest for American Opera” is written by Mark Clague, the Editor-in-Chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition.

Photo: Porgy and Bess. Courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

For me, the opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is about resilience, about a community’s hope for a better future despite the cruel evidence of experience. Catfish Row amplifies the struggle of American society with racial injustice, poverty, sexism, addiction, sexual violence, natural disaster, murder, and the divisions of society into north and south, sacred and secular, black and white. I wish that performing this very human drama—written and premiered more than 80 years ago—was simply an act of remembrance. I wish that it served only as a reminder of a past forgotten at our peril, of inequities and diseases vanquished, of civil rights heroes who, responding to injustice across the nation, bravely confronted and solved these very American problems. If this were true, Porgy and Bess would celebrate a transcendent human spirit while serving as a warning about an era that should never return. Unfortunately, Porgy and Bess is not simply a memory, but a living document. The injustices it confronts remain.

It is thus with tragic intensity that in 2018 Porgy and Bess still expresses a potent and contemporary urgency that resonates with our everyday lives. The opera’s plot is propelled by the bias of white law enforcement—false accusations, facile assumptions, a rush to judgment in the absence of real justice—while today black men in America are disproportionally killed by the police. In Act II, a hurricane kills most of the men of the fishing village, while stealing both mother and father from an infant in whom hopes of a bright future had been placed. This past year in the U.S., three major hurricanes—Harvey, Irma, and Maria—hit American shores, making the storm’s warning bells in the opera that much more potent. When Crown attacks Bess during the Kittiwah Island picnic, it recalls the growing list of accusations of sexual misconduct in today’s news. At the end of the opera, addiction enslaves Bess to a life of prostitution, while in 2016 opioid addiction killed more than 20,000 Americans. In facing these issues, performing Porgy and Bess offers an opportunity for dialogue—not just about the past but about the present.

The insidious danger of Porgy and Bess as a cultural monument is that its black characters can be interpreted as caricatures, not dramatic personae. In a society in which whites are privileged and blacks are not, the enthralled listener to Gershwin’s music can experience Catfish row uncritically. Crown can be seen not as a troubled contradiction caught in a desperate cycle of survival and addiction, but as a stereotype reinforcing white fears of black violence. Read in racist terms, the poverty of Catfish Row becomes emblematic of black (in)capability rather than a depiction of a community of working class strivers facing a mountain of unequal opportunity.

To sponsor a performance of Porgy and Bess, then, is to take on the responsibility for contextualizing and informing the opera’s audience of both its racist dangers and its artful activism.

As a white man leading the Gershwin Initiative at the University of Michigan, I have struggled with the meaning of preparing the score of Porgy and Bess for posterity. What is the opera’s legacy? I admit that in 2013, when we began work on the new score only months after the re-election of the United States’ first black President, the question seemed all but answered. Today the question is again potent. On one hand, I, too, am enchanted by George Gershwin’s music, Ira’s words, and the Heyward’s story, which combine to forge what for me is the opera’s very human expression of passion, pain, and possibility. I was further driven by personal loyalty to my fellow scholar, Wayne Shirley, as I want to help bring his virtuoso feat of scholarly editing to print.

Yet, ultimately, the answer to this question cannot be mine. I am sensitive to the call from former U-M professor Harold Cruse (1916–2005) asking black artists of the 1960s to boycott Porgy and Bess. As described in his 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, Gershwin’s opera was “a symbol of that deeply engrained, American cultural paternalism” that obscured black artists’ originality in “Negro theatre, music, acting, writing, and even dancing, all in one artistic package.” For Cruse, the success of Porgy and Bess became a barrier to the realization of other new works of black authorship.

Photo: Porgy and Bess. Courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

The way out of this paradox of appropriation is to democratize the controls of cultural production such that African American writers, lyricists, and composers can tell their own stories. And it cannot stop there. #OscarsSoWhite must give way to more than Selma, Moonlight and Get Out. The theater must go beyond Hamilton. Works by women, Latin Americans, Native Americans, Asian American—any and all authors—deserve a chance to thrive on their artistic merits and message.

Studying Porgy and Bess has convinced me that its all-white creative team, while writing from their own necessarily limited perspective and experiences, saw the opera as an opportunity to bring the talents of black artists to the cultural mainstream. Their activism—if it can be called that—balanced entertainment with a focus on an American experience typically excluded from popular production. While African American composers such as Scott Joplin, Harry Lawrence Freeman, and James P. Johnson had written operas about the black experience before Porgy and Bess came on the scene, the celebrity of George Gershwin was necessary in 1935 to bring the story of black America to Broadway. That the composer turned down a $5,000 commission from New York’s Metropolitan Opera (about $100,000 in today’s dollars), in order to avoid the use of white choristers in blackface, speaks to the composer’s own growth since the failure of his 1921 blackface musical drama Blue Monday.

Countless musical moments in Porgy and Bess speak to the Gershwins and Heywards’ respect for black creativity. The composer spent nearly ten years preparing for the work, after reading DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy in 1926. Gershwin’s creative gifts were so facile that such a period of study and preparation was unprecedented in his professional life. He seemed to know that Porgy and Bess would be the most challenging project he had yet faced.

The lullaby “Summertime” is the first aria heard in the opera. It gives voice to the dreams of a mother for her child. The beauty of its first note—a difficult entrance, soft and high in the soprano’s tessitura, belies the challenges facing Jake and Clara’s newborn son. The song’s hope and soaring lyricism serves as a tragic foil that foreshadows the loss to come, yet its endless melody is also the seed of the resilience that will allow Catfish Row to carry on after tragedy.

Gershwin did not quote African American music in Porgy and Bess verbatim, but created original music that evokes its style and sensibilities. His music draws from the performances of Cab Calloway in New York, and especially from the music of the Gullah people, who lived on and around the Georgia Sea Islands near Charleston, South Carolina, where the opera is set. Gershwin resided on one of these islands—Folly Island—for a month in the summer of 1935 to experience its soundscape. Echoes of his research can be heard throughout the opera, as when Robbins is killed and his wife Serena sings “My Man’s Gone Now,” an intimate cry of love lost and dreams thrown into disarray. In response, the Catfish Row community rallies to support his widow and their children, mirroring their devastation in the spiritual-like anthem “Gone, Gone, Gone.”

The paternalism of which Cruse complained is evident in the Heywards’ introduction to the play Porgy, upon which the opera’s libretto is based. However, it also reveals the playwrights’ excitement to invite black actors into a collaborative process in which they would contribute their own creativity to the storytelling. In fact, the vendors’ cries—selling deviled crab, honey, and strawberries—were not part of the original novel, but instead were added to the text by the black actors themselves to increase the drama’s realism. In the opera, singers can steal the show with these evocative calls. The Strawberry Woman and Crab Man’s rising slides give voice to the day-to-day struggle for existence with virtuoso power and emotional eloquence. The collaborative legacy hidden in these moments between art and artist continues to nourish the opera as a whole today, as a new generation of singers bring their own talents, character research, and emotional understandings to some of most demanding and artistically challenging vocal roles in all of opera’s repertory.

Photo: George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward. Courtesy of Ira and Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

Finally, Porgy’s climactic expression of duty in the face of the impossible—“Lord, I’m On My Way”—fulfills for me the essential message of DuBose Heyward’s novel and the newspaper clipping that served as its inspiration. Heyward had read a brief notice in a Charleston paper about Samuel Smalls, a local character and disabled beggar known as “Goat Sammy.” Smalls was apparently wanted by the police on the charge of attempted murder, and, for Heyward, the thought that a black man, crippled both physically and economically, could be so bold as to attempt to take another’s life seemed the inspiration for a powerful story. Born and raised in Charleston, the writer changed “Sammy” to “Porgy,” resulting in the 1925 novel. It is a tale of the transformation of a weak beggar into a determined, strong, and dynamic force.

Prior to studying Heyward’s novel, the ending of Gershwin’s opera always left me disappointed. Gershwin’s optimistic music seemed to say it was possible that Porgy could find Bess, but I heard Porgy’s determination as delusion. Now, it seems to me that the opera is really the tale of Porgy’s transformation. He begins the opera as a smart, but impotent survivor who scrapes subsistence from coins dropped by sympathetic passersby. By the end of the opera, he has defeated Crown—the opera’s symbol of ultimate strength and manhood—inheriting his mantle. Thus, I have come to see Porgy’s determination to rescue Bess not as fantasy but as his newfound duty, whatever the odds. Catfish Row, too, moves on. The community itself may, in fact, be the true hero of the opera. Its heroism lies in its resilience, the inevitability of its resolve to continue in the face of repeated tragedy.

I find this same resilience in the opera itself. Porgy and Bess is a survivor. While Gershwin’s early death two years after the opera’s premiere made Porgy and Bess the heartbreaking finale of an American creative legacy, the composer certainly never intended this work to mark an endpoint. His folk opera was just another waystation on a creative journey, an improbable quest to create a credible American contribution to a European art form, using Broadway song and African American spirituals as musical inspiration. Gershwin hoped to forge a distinctively American music that gave voice to his age, with all its promise and problems. That quest does not end with Porgy and Bess.

This essay is written in conjunction with The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. UMS Presents Opera in Concert: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess Saturday, February 17th at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. 

“The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and the Quest for American Opera” is written by Mark Clague, the Editor-in-Chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition.