Ken Howard / Met Opera
Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles of Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’Ken Howard / Met Opera
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Porgy and Bess

How George Gershwin’s stipulation that his opera, currently at the Met, be performed by an all-black cast, plays in the America of then and now

Paul Berman
November 05, 2019
Ken Howard / Met Opera
Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles of Gershwin's 'Porgy and Bess'Ken Howard / Met Opera

The Metropolitan Opera in New York is presenting George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess this season, and a couple of essays in the Playbill, by Matt Dobkin and by Helen Greenwald, remind us of an unusual feature of the opera, which is Gershwin’s insistence on an all-black singing cast. He composed the score over the course of the early 1930s, with the première, at a Broadway theater, in 1935. Dobkin and Greenwald remind us that, in those days, blackface was still regarded—by some people, anyway, and not just the retroguard champions of the past—as a legitimate theatrical device. And blackface was a popular device. The pressure to put on a blackface production of Gershwin’s opera was substantial. Al Jolson, the “Jazz Singer,” expressed interest in the project.

Gershwin himself, earlier in his career, had not been a foreigner to racial grotesqueries. Greenwald in her essay points out that he wrote a short opera, set in Harlem, called Blue Monday, for white singers in blackface. I would add that, even apart from the single technique of blackface, racial absurdities were a fashion in the music world, and the absurdities clung naturally to any white musician who, like Gershwin, drew inspiration from the grandeurs of jazz and the broader currents of African American music. In 1924, Gershwin composed the “Rhapsody in Blue” for the Paul Whiteman Orchestra, and, to see what the aburdities were like, you might want to take a peek at a YouTube of the Whiteman Orchestra performing the work. Paul Whiteman himself, the “King of Jazz,” introduces the performance with the explanation that “Rhapsody” combines the “modern” and the “primitive”—“for jazz was born in the African jungle.” And then, before the music begins, comes a special “Voodoo” dance, which is extraneous to the “Rhapsody,” but is meant to illustrate the primitive.

By the mid-1930s, Gershwin evidently wanted to liberate himself from that sort of thing. But what was his reasoning, given that theatrical grotesqueries were, after all, popular, and popularity is not something to disdain? I would imagine that, from a human standpoint, he did have an appreciation of how degrading were some of these absurdities to blacks, and perhaps also to the whites who were obliged to take part in them. I think that a good many white musicians who drew on black musical inspirations understood pretty clearly the excellence of the black musicians, and would very much have liked to work with them, and felt ashamed at not doing so. Only, they did not believe themselves to be in a position to do anything of the sort, given the demands of nightclubs and concert halls, which is to say, the white public, for a strict adherence to the code of segregation. Paul Whiteman is said to have been such a person, a good musician and a well-meaning man, who was sorry not to have any blacks sitting among the sections of his orchestra.

By the ’30s, though, Gershwin had come to be a figure of extraordinary prestige in the world of music, sufficiently to believe that, in his case, he could dictate his own preferences. His reputation, as it turned out, was not great enough to force the Metropolitan Opera to stage Porgy and Bess, given how difficult it was going to be to assemble from scratch a cast of black singers. (It would be another 20 years before the Met gave a leading role to a black singer, who was Marian Anderson.) His opera opened on Broadway, instead, and the Broadway production did it Gershwin’s way. And he felt sufficiently confident of his prestige and the appeal of his opera to stipulate that, in future productions, too, the cast of Porgy and Bess would have to be black.

I would guess, though, that fundamentally he went at these questions from a musician’s standpoint, and his motivation was not just democratic or philosophical. I would guess that he was all too aware of a peculiar oddity in white American musical culture, and doubly so in European culture, which was (and is) a propensity on the part of any number of white musicians to delude themselves into supposing they have mastered a black musical idiom, when they have done so only imperfectly, or not at all. The same self-delusion sometimes overtakes the critics, too, not to mention the white audiences, who are capable of witnessing a hopelessly flattened performance of a black-inspired music by white musicians, and mistaking it for genius. My guess is that Gershwin, having seen that kind of thing all too often, predicted to himself that, if he didn’t prevent it, a white producer was going to put together an all-white production of Porgy and Bess, and the propensity for self-delusion was going to devastate his own beloved creation.

Leontyne Price, in ‘Porgy and Bess,’ 1953  (Photo by Carl Van Vechten: Library of Congress)
Leontyne Price, in ‘Porgy and Bess,’ 1953  (Photo by Carl Van Vechten: Library of Congress)

The ebullience that he had intended in his score was going to be systematically deflated; the elegance, coarsened; the subtlety, lost; the spirit of invention, shriveled; the emotion, narrowed. And a production of that sort was all too likely to end up being celebrated as the greatest performance of all time, with touring companies heading out to every corner of the United States, and the opera houses of Europe rushing to put on their own productions, with a frisson of avant-garde adventure. So he stipulated a black cast. He does seem to have been serious about it, too, given that, by making his insistence, he greatly limited the possibilities for future productions. The current production at the Met is only the second time that Porgy and Bess has ever been presented there. How many productions might there have been, if only he had allowed the opera company to use white singers, maybe not in the starring roles, but, at least, in the chorus? And why not the starring roles, too?

Gershwin made his stipulation in 1935, though. Mightn’t it be that, in more recent times, American sophistication on certain matters has grown, and the strict stipulation has begun to seem a little anachronistic, and ought to be loosened up? That does seem plausible. And yet, I find that, on this question, I come down on both sides. I concede the noblest and most modern of intentions to the Metropolitan Opera. But I can see why Gershwin’s ghost, if it were called in to make a judgment, might hesitate at the prospect of leaving it to Peter Gelb to distinguish between white singers who can rise to the challenge of a black musical idiom, and white singers who think they can, but cannot. I stand with the ghost and its stipulation, then, on artistic grounds. And yet, it makes me nervous to say these things out loud. My worry is that someone will come along and, with Gershwin’s stipulation in mind, decide to establish a universal code of ethnic authenticity in the arts, which will turn out to be lamentable on every count.

It is worth recalling that, historically speaking, the first victims of the demand for ethnic authenticity in the arts have always been, of course, the blacks (notably, at the Met itself, with substantial progress made only in recent decades)—and, of course, the Jews, in times gone by. It was Wagner’s idea that Jews could not even hear German music correctly, let alone create or perform it. Today we are beset with the left-wing version of those same ideas, which rests on the belief that art is sociology, and the purpose of art is social uplift. The left-wing version has lately turned into a fad. And the fad has turned into one more justification for indulging in the prestige emotion of our era, which is resentment, in one politically defined version or another—such that poor old Gershwin, who is resented by some people for discriminating against white singers, is resented by other people for “appropriating” black music.

Gershwin himself, it must be said, was a reliable judge of racial or ethnic matters only in regard to music. But opera is more than music. He drew the book of his opera on a novel by the South Carolina white writer DuBose Heyward, who, with his wife, Dorothy Heyward, worked up an adaptation for a play, and then, with Gershwin’s brother, Ira Gershwin, the lyricist, a further adaptation for opera. The intention was to explore the “lower depths”; to be relentlessly honest; to capture an African American dialect; to capture something of South Carolina’s Gullah culture; to be sympathetic; to disdain the racist police. And the results reflect, at one moment or another, that same odd and recurring delusion on the part of white artists about their ability to master a black idiom.

The book of Porgy and Bess is not much of a success in other respects, either. There is no forward motion in the story, and no dramatic depth to the characters, except in a small degree with Bess, who, at least, is torn between her personal weaknesses and her flickering love for Porgy. Nor did Gershwin, in his score, provide a forward motion of his own. The opera begins, after a brief, high-energy overture, with one of the mothers of Catfish Row–Golda Schultz at the Met—singing “Summertime” with crystalline purity to the infant in her arms, which means that emotion is already at a peak. It is unusual to hear “Summertime” as an opera-house aria. We are used to hearing it in (as the Playbill tells us) 25,000 other versions. It is one hell of an aria. But there is nowhere to go from a peak emotion.

The music develops mostly in the form of duet elaborations, with each new aria reprised with obbligato variations of one sort or another, now with another singer, now with the chorus, now with the orchestra. “Bess, You Is My Woman” is the grandest example of all, which, in its complexity, proclaims love and (because the male and female vocal lines wander off, each in its own direction, and intertwine, and wander off again) enacts love at the same time. The Met’s Porgy, who was Eric Owens in the performance I saw, brings a stately pathos to the role, which is matched and complemented and doubled by the sensuous ardor of Angel Blue, as Bess. I wish the two of them had responded to the applause by performing the whole thing three more times. But you cannot say, at the end of the opera, that you feel anything more powerfully or deeply than you did at the beginning or in the middle—which is perfectly all right, given how you feel with “Summertime,” at the beginning.

The chorus is 60 people, which makes for a crowded scene, sometimes with a bit of lithe dancing, and allows for marvelous swells of volume and intensity. But here is the oddity of the Met production. The conductor is David Robertson, who was precise and disciplined in leading John Adams’ ill-begotten Death of Klinghoffer at the Met a few years ago. Adams’ score has an affectless and unflappable quality, something introverted, except in a few passages, as if burbling in a trance. But Gershwin’s Porgy is a voluptuous opera, and this is not for David Robertson, or so it seems to me. He pushes relentlessly forward. The result is a warm lyricism in the chorus and soloists, and a cool precision in the pit—which leads me to wonder what Porgy would be like with the same radiant energy in both places, and a spirit hinting of spontaneity, and a swaggering personality in the pit, equal to the singing on the stage.

At the Met, I always try to sit in the balcony boxes on the sides, where you can see only part of the set. But I do not think the loss is great. In the boxes, you can gaze down at the orchestra in its pit, and you can run your eyes from the violinists to the singers on stage and back again. And the more you see, the better you hear. Eyes are ears. Here is Latonia Moore (a sultry Aida, a few years ago at the Met) singing “My Man’s Gone Now.” The surgings of her voice ripple against the wails and surgings of the chorus up above and the stirrings of the orchestra down below, and you swallow this with eyes and ears, until, after a while, you feel the swellings and surges of your own breathing and heartbeat, and the silent throbbings of nearly 4,000 people in the hall. It is a physical experience. Isn’t that what opera is about? When the immense darkened auditorium itself has at last begun to quake, or nearly so, who cares about the set, or the plot, or the damnable ideological disputes that go on, or America and its eternal issues?

Paul Berman is Tablet’s critic-at-large. He is the author of A Tale of Two Utopias, Terror and Liberalism, Power and the Idealists, and The Flight of the Intellectuals.