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Porgy and Bess at the Met

The pinnacle of American classical music and the nation’s most venerable opera company have long needed each other

By Joseph Horowitz | October 9, 2019
Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in the Gershwins'
Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in the Gershwins' "Porgy and Bess." (Paola Kudacki/Met Opera)

That the Metropolitan Opera has opened its season with a fresh production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is cause for celebration.

The Met came late to black America when in 1955 it engaged Marian Anderson to sing Verdi—she was already 57 years old. It came late to Porgy when in 1985 it mounted an earlier production—half a century after the opera’s premiere. More than its predecessor, the Met’s vigorous new staging (directed by James Robertson, with Eric Owens as Porgy, Angel Blue as Bess, and David Robertson conducting) manages to vindicate a controversial cultural landmark and seal its stature as the highest creative achievement in American classical music. New York’s new Porgy is also cause for reflection and self-scrutiny. It must mean something that the most widely known American opera is a white composer’s version of black American life. It has no finished form. Its reputation remains unsettled. It feeds on the fraught racial sensitivities of the current moment.

When Porgy and Bess was introduced in 1935, a prevalent response was: “What is it?” A second production, in 1941, reconceived the opera as musical theater with dialogue. It subsequently became best known for such classic songs as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” In the 1950s, the NAACP urged black artists to stay away from it. In the 1970s, it was successfully revived using the original score—every abridgement once inflicted on it was jettisoned. More recently, a boldly revisionist version, with Audra McDonald as Bess, aspired to add “dignity” to the main characters. At every stage in this saga, the accompanying discourse has been charged and ill-informed.

Gershwin’s opera is set “in the recent past” in a black Charleston, South Carolina, tenement: Catfish Row. Porgy is a crippled beggar. He and Bess fall in love. When Bess is seduced by Crown, Porgy kills him. When she is seduced by Sporting Life and his “happy dust,” she deserts Porgy for New York.

Several years ago, I found myself addressing a graduate seminar on 20th-century opera. I asked the students what Porgy and Bess was about. A black student volunteered: “It’s about black Americans.” Wrong, I said. Several months ago, when the Met’s new production (shared with the English National Opera and the Dutch National Opera) was given in London, a prominent local critic called it a “period piece.” Wrong again, I say.

If you’re looking for a compelling, pertinent period piece about black Americans, read DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novella Porgy. It records a genteel white Southerner’s fascinated admiration for an exotic black subculture: the Carolina Gullahs. It is part cultural anthropology, part Romanticized mythology. Gershwin read it and resolved to make an opera out of it. But many things changed in the process. The novella ends with Porgy sinking into obscurity, devastated that Bess has abandoned him. In the opera, the abandoned Porgy picks himself up and ignites a communal song of redemption: “O Lawd, I’m on my way, I’m on my way to a heav’nly land.” Gershwin’s prepossessing Porgy is fundamentally different from Heyward’s numb Porgy. He is the moral compass of the community. And his story becomes the tale of a cripple made whole.

It bears stressing that the opera’s ending, and its re-envisioned Porgy, do not originate with Gershwin or his librettist brother, Ira. Nor does either originate with Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, who co-wrote the script for the play Porgy. Rather, Porgy and his fate were reinvented by an Armenian immigrant: Rouben Mamoulian, who directed both the play in 1927 and the opera eight years later.

And so Gershwin’s opera has two endings—Heyward’s, then Mamoulian’s. First Porgy sings his great lament, “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” After that comes his irresistible song of rebirth, “O Lawd, I’m on My Way.” Staging this double ending—encapsulating the sorrow-and-redemption duality of plantation song—is a formidable challenge.


Why did Gershwin choose to compose an opera about black Americans to be sung by black Americans? A primary reason was purely musical: he was galvanized by African-American music and its theatrical potential. And, as Richard Crawford stresses in his new Gershwin biography, Summertime, Gershwin was no stranger to black America. He gravitated to such dynamic African-American musicians as Will Vodery, Eubie Blake, Luckey Roberts, and James P. Johnson. On Folly Island, near Charleston, he shouted with the Gullahs in church. But if his intimacy with black culture was knowing, the alacrity with which Gershwin tackled a black opera was naïve. He was—as such Gershwin intimates as Oscar Levant more or less testified—a man whose buoyant self-confidence and self-reliance rendered him blithely indifferent to the possibility of giving offense. Like so many aspects of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin’s naiveté may be read as a mirror of the American experience.

A chronic complaint about Porgy and Bess is that Porgy the cripple, Bess the drug addict, and Sporting Life the hustler are “stereotypes.” In fact, Porgy bears a striking resemblance to Mark Twain’s Jim in Huckleberry Finn. Jim, too, is drawn admiringly, even heroically: like Porgy, he becomes a moral compass. But his simplicities of speech and thought can be discomfiting, not least for African Americans. At the same time, both these characters may be read as archetypes transcending race. When he picks himself up at the end of the opera, Porgy demands, “Bring my goat!” He intends to drive his goat-cart to New York. Stephen Sondheim has called this “one of the most moving moments in musical theater history.” Porgy’s personal trajectory—Mamoulian’s inspiration (and it is Mamoulian who wrote the words “Bring my goat!”)—includes winning a woman for the first time, then ridding the community of evil by singlehandedly killing Crown. This core aspect of Porgy and Bess is indifferent to race. Its nearest operatic equivalent is Wagner’s Parsifal, which tracks the experiential growth of a callow youth who ultimately redeems himself and everyone else.

There is a further complication. Nowadays, Porgy and Bess is no longer staged with a goat. So rather than Porgy ambulating in a goat-cart, we typically encounter him on crutches. But it violates Mamoulian’s ending to have Porgy exclaim “Bring my crutch!” The whole point is his glorious newfound independence.

However this ending is handled, it is metaphoric: Porgy will not drive a goat-cart to Manhattan. Mamoulian hated verisimilitude. His hyper-detailed Porgy and Bess was full of calculated artifice, including sculpted groupings of Catfish Row fishermen and their wives. His template, absorbed via the Russian experimental theater he studied in revolutionary Moscow, was the miracle play. He was a man who had never encountered a black face before winding up in Rochester, New York, in 1923 at the age of 25. Though he bonded with the cast of the original Porgy and Bess, though he submitted to a tour of Harlem, Mamoulian did not imagine himself directing an opera about black Americans. His focus was apotheosis.

And Gershwin? In 1935, it was Mamoulian who substantially trimmed Porgy and Bess for Broadway—and one of the numbers he abridged was “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?” Doubtless this was partly in consideration of Todd Duncan, who was singing Porgy six times a week. But it also notably weighted the double ending in favor of ending number two—Mamoulian’s ending. What Gershwin privately made of Mamoulian’s trims remains a mystery—he died only two years later, before he could bequeath a “final” score for his too-long opera. And so we are left with two endings to weigh and interpret.


A superb exhibit in the Metropolitan Opera House’s Founders Hall unflinchingly assays the company’s relationship (and non-relationship) with black artists beginning in 1897—when, amazingly enough, William Randolph Hearst booked the Opera House for a fundraiser featuring the black vaudeville stars Bert Williams and George Walker alongside excerpts from Aida and Rigoletto. The exhibit’s choice of documents and photographs, the succinct commentary, seem to me exceptionally informative and well-considered. But I must quibble with a detail: is it really true that the first reviews of Porgy and Bess prominently complained about racial “stereotypes”?

Writing my 2013 book “On My Way”: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and “Porgy and Bess,” I scoured the Mamoulian archives at the Library of Congress and discovered a smoking gun—a revised script of the play Porgy with crucial changes in Mamoulian’s hand not to be found in any printed edition. Mamoulian’s reimagining of Porgy, and of the story’s end, both clarify and complicate Gershwin’s ensuing opera. I also undertook a reception history of both play and opera. The first African-American reviews of Porgy and Bess were mainly positive and appreciative. The most publicized response came from Duke Ellington, who was interviewed by Edward Morrow in New Theatre. Morrow’s own debunking of “Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms” was widely attributed to Ellington, who subsequently disassociated himself from the article—but not without adding that Gershwin’s music, though “grand,” was “not distinctly or definitely Negroid.” The fullest African-American response was that of Hall Johnson, himself a composer-arranger of high consequence. He attended four performances before reporting “that I do like it and that it is a good show.” He cited “instances where Mr. Gershwin’s music has missed a Negro feeling” and others that “succeeded in catching a real racial strain.”

The strongest African-American affirmation of Porgy and Bess came from the members of the cast, who revered both the work and its composer. J. Rosamond Johnson, who played Lawyer Frazier, called Gershwin “the Abraham Lincoln of Negro music.” Like Hall Johnson (no relation), he was himself a notable composer (he wrote “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the “Negro national anthem,” in tandem with his brother James Weldon Johnson). Far more than the 1935 opera, it was Otto Preminger’s lamentable 1959 film version of Porgy and Bess that coincided with revulsion and disapproval among African Americans. The times had changed—and so, thanks to Preminger and his tone-deaf producer Samuel Goldwyn—did Porgy and Bess. No fair impression of either character could be inferred from the unformed filmed performances of Sidney Poitier or Dorothy Dandridge. Sammy Davis Jr., turned Sporting Life into a stereotypical villain. (John W. Bubbles, who created the role in 1935, insisted that Sporting Life be “charming”—otherwise his seduction of Bess lacks credibility. You can see Bubbles’s memorably charming 1960s rendition of “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving” on YouTube.) Both the NAACP and the Council for the Improvement of Negro Theatre Arts had urged black performers to boycott the Preminger film. The notion that Gershwin’s opera bristled with negative stereotypes was now widely shared. An article in Ebony magazine, “Why Negroes Don’t Like Porgy and Bess,” reported, “We do not want to see six-foot Sidney Poitier on his knees crying for a slit-skirted wench who did him wrong. We do not want the wench to be a beautiful Dorothy Dandridge who sniffs ‘happy dust’ and drinks liquor from a bottle at the rim of an alley crap game.”

Probably the most cited (and most subtle) critique was that of James Baldwin in a 1959 essay in Commentary. Baldwin liked both the novella and the opera. “DuBose Heyward loved the people he was writing about,” Baldwin opined. And Porgy and Bess—“until Mr. Preminger got his hands on it”—was “an extraordinarily vivid, good-natured, and sometimes moving show.” Baldwin’s complaint about the characters (shared by Lorraine Hansberry) was that they embody “a white man’s vision of Negro life,” that they “veer off into the melodramatic and the exotic,” that—a form of envy more germane to Heyward’s psyche than to Gershwin’s—they seem to speak “of a better life—better in the sense of being more honest, more open, and more free: in a word more sexual.” That is why “Americans are so proud of the opera—it assuages their guilt about Negroes and attacks none of their fantasies.”

A bizarre corrective was attempted in 2012 by the American Repertoire Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts—the production that became a hot ticket on Broadway with Audra McDonald as Bess. Diane Paulus, who directed, Suzan-Lori Parks, who adapted the book, and Diedre Murray, who adapted the score, dedicated their efforts to fixing ostensible stereotypes. There were new speeches, new harmonies, new accompaniments, even virtually new numbers—in sum, a creative act of breathtaking effrontery. Porgy emerged wiser, more sophisticated, more specific. “When Gawd make cripple, He mean him to be lonely,” sings Gershwin’s archetypal Porgy. “He got to trabble dat lonesome road.” Paulus’s diminished Porgy sang, “When God made me, He made me to be lonely … I got to travel that lonesome road.” Gershwin’s Porgy agrees to pay Lawyer Frazier for a bogus marriage document. Paulus’s Porgy is whimsically, knowingly complicit in this charade. Ultimately, he is too sensible—too civilized—to plausibly attempt limping a thousand miles to New York. The result is an impotent makeshift finale.

I cannot imagine anyone new to Porgy and Bess denigrating Eric Owens’s Porgy as a “stereotype.” Without recourse to new words or new notes, he sustains dignity. He projects the humanity and wisdom of the character as Mamoulian and Gershwin conceived it. Responding to Frazier’s machinations, his Porgy pursues a simple impulse—to certify his love. He feeds upon the spirituals that anchor Gershwin’s style and subject matter; his is a personal story amplified by communal rites, by a universal saga of suffering and redemption. To all this I add a caveat: Owens’s characterization lacks trajectory. It starts too strong.

If the American Repertoire Theater proved that dignifying Porgy can be too much of a good thing, so too does Preminger’s film. Sidney Poitier is inanely miscast (he reluctantly accepted this assignment in exchange for landing The Defiant Ones): too suave, too self-controlled, too handsome. Owens’s Porgy is none of those things. But for Porgy’s odyssey to register completely, we must initially experience him as suppressed and unfulfilled. Not only has he never had a woman, he believes that deprivation is his fate. At the same time, his debility sensitizes him. When the linchpin of the drama arrives—“Bring my goat!”—it must not seem preordained that he can pick himself back up. It is a moment of crisis and surprise.

At the Met, the absence of a goat triggers a familiar set of problems. At least Porgy does not demand a crutch. Instead, he orders, “Bring my cart!” The cart in this production, however,  seems an afterthought. Not only is it only twice deployed, but at the very end Porgy disdains its use. Though Owens’s initial interior declamation “I’m on my way” is memorably affecting, though he clinches the mounting fervor of this terrific final number, the show ultimately lacks a sufficient arc. It is through growing self-knowledge that Porgy earns the note of high elation with which the opera closes. Otherwise this singular redemptive ending—a rare phenomenon in the international operatic canon to which Porgy and Bess unquestionably belongs—is compromised.

 

Eric Owens and Angel Blue sing Porgy and Bess’s Act I duet in the final dress rehearsal. (From the Metropolitan Opera’s 2019 production of Porgy and Bess, produced by James Robinson and conducted by David Robertson)


James Baldwin’s take on Bess, in his 1959 essay, says it all. He likens her to Billie Holiday: “She would have made a splendid, if somewhat overwhelming Bess and, indeed, I should imagine that she was much closer to the original, whoever she was, of this portrait than anyone who has ever played or sung it.” Baldwin does not mention Holiday’s harrowing rendition of “I Loves You, Porgy” (a self-lacerating song also unforgettably sung by Nina Simone). Bess is an addict, helplessly submissive to Crown and “happy dust.” She fights her weakness strenuously, poignantly, but to no avail. Her instability is a keynote.

Audra McDonald’s misconceived Bess was robust; her capitulation to Sporting Life became a non sequitur. At the Met, James Robinson has the soprano Angel Blue graphically enact Bess’s ultimate debilitation. Vocally and dramatically, Blue is a strong presence. Different sides to Bess are enacted. And her Bess will assuredly grow; it is an impressive work in progress. Still, there was only one Billie Holiday.

I have yet to encounter a Porgy and Bess that retains Mamoulian’s acute handling of “There’s a Boat that’s Leaving Soon for New York”—the Sporting Life number that finally impels Bess’s defection. Heyward’s original libretto instructs Bess to accept the proffered cocaine just before Sporting Life croons his snake-in-the-grass song. But Mamoulian has Bess reject the powder. Sporting Life then leaves it on a step to Porgy’s room. Bess runs into the room and slams the door. Sporting Life exits. Heyward keeps the stage empty while the orchestra grandly reprises Sporting Life’s song (maestoso, fortissimo). But Mamoulian has Bess return: “[She] comes out, looks around, and hesitates; suddenly, she grabs powder and goes in house slamming door.” The resulting counterpoint of music and gesture—the grandiose peroration juxtaposed with Bess’s self-defeat—creates a savage ironic flourish. The orchestra’s wicked laughter unexpectedly produces one of the opera’s saddest moments. Robinson here has Bess limp offstage in thrall to her new master. It is more pathetic than sad.

If the strongest Porgy and Bess episode at the Met is Robbins’s funeral, it is mainly  because it happens to be the opera’s strongest episode, a sequence of choral and solo numbers to set beside Verdi and Wagner. Its ceremony of lament, its keening widow’s song limn—a rarity in American music, because the American experience is so much shorter and more ostensibly sanguine than centuries of European vicissitude—a tragedy at once human and epic. The cumulative crescendo mapped by Gershwin, its pounding hieratic splendor, attain an elemental grandeur. (In Mamoulian’s 1935 production, the gigantic shadows cast by the gesticulating mourners were likened to voodoo and Gauguin.) The soprano Latonia Moore’s rendition of Serena’s “My Man’s Gone Now” is so honestly felt, so expertly supported by directorial detail, that it deservedly produces the biggest ovation on the night.

Just how powerful can this moment be? On September 8, 1937, the Hollywood Bowl hosted a Gershwin Memorial concert that has been preserved on CD. Ruby Elzy, the original Serena, sang “My Man’s Gone Now” for the departed composer: the single most memorable Porgy and Bess performance I know. Here was a 29-year-old singer on the cusp of a notable career—notable, that is, as a black soprano singing for black opera companies. She was about to undertake Aida a few years later when she died after a botched brain operation in a Detroit hospital. Deploying the aching vocal and verbal inflections of a great blues artist, attacking her searing top notes just below the pitch, Elzy sings Serena “black.” She also moves her song forward or holds it back at will. The final cadence—“since my man isssssssssssssssss … DEAD!” features a cadential retard so extreme we feel she cannot bear the awesome weight of the tragedy she discloses. This is a performance (alas) unlike any we would hear today.

Which brings me to the topic of David Robertson’s conducting at the Met. Assuredly, there is no one Gershwin style. Robertson’s Gershwin style is lithe, streamlined, sensible. To my ears, the strutting syncopations of “What you want with Bess?” (an adversarial duet for Bess and Crown as magnificently crucial, in its way, as “Bess you is my woman now”) are smoothed by Robertson’s baton.

And what about the score’s final, pulverizing musical elongation, which Gershwin marks grandioso? The Met’s lobby exhibit discloses that during Schuyler Chapin’s brief tenure as general manager in the 1970s, he was plotting a Porgy and Bess led by Leonard Bernstein. That would have been something to hear. Edward Johnson, who managed the Met during the ’30s, spuriously rejected Porgy and Bess as too “intimate” for the Met stage. Gershwin himself called it a “folk opera.” But it is also a go-for-broke grand opera—the real thing.

The cavils and disappointments I have here catalogued are a product of high expectations.  I hasten to add that the whole of Porgy and Bess at the Met transcends the sum of its parts. A gifted and engaged cast, working with a sympathetic director, achieves a rare unanimity of purpose. As it must in any Porgy of consequence, the entire company exudes camaraderie. The opera tells.


A scene from the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess (Ken Howard/Met Opera)


Because Gershwin died before he could give Porgy and Bess final form, the score he left is overlong and overpacked. It lacks focus and shape, and so have many stagings—including the Met’s first try in 1985. This protean sui generis creation, which straddles Broadway and jazz, Carmen and Die Meistersinger, which even feasts on Alban Berg’s Wozzeck as a salient influence, can seem an unwieldy collection of great tunes and auspicious dramatic opportunities.

The new Porgy is judiciously trimmed to achieve concision and flow. It is also repackaged in two huge acts with a single intermission so that a 7:30 show can end by 11.  Gershwin’s nine scenes in three acts, however shortened, need more room to breathe. And there is one omission I regret. With the composer’s consent, Mamoulian replaced Gershwin’s music for the beginning of the final scene with a “Symphony of Noises,” or “Occupational Humoresque,” of his own devising. Comprising snores, broom strokes, washboards, saws, and knife sharpeners, it choreographed Catfish Row waking up. Its crescendo of sound and stage activity led directly to Mingo running to the gate and exclaiming, “It’s Porgy coming home!” Mamoulian had created similar daybreak sequences for Porgy the play and for his divinely subversive 1932 musical film Love Me Tonight. But after the last touring performances of Mamoulian’s Porgy, in 1938, the parts for the Symphony of Noises were lost. Decades later, they were discovered by the music historian Wayne Shirley. The conductor John Mauceri revived the noise symphony for his 2006 Porgy and Bess recording with the Nashville Symphony. The Met could have staged this unique inspiration for the first time in 81 years. The Gershwin measures it replaces are, as Shirley himself has said, “not top-drawer Gershwin.”

A senior scholar of near-legendary status, Shirley knows more about Porgy and Bess than any other living human being. It is he who created the new critical edition that the new Met production is the first to employ. It’s a pity he was not invited to New York for a public forum. In fact, an ambitious conversation exploring Porgy and Bess yesterday, today, and tomorrow, joining scholars and performers, could have seized an invaluable opportunity. It is the sort of thing museums do—because museums have historians on staff, produce distinguished publications, and house considerable bookstores. Our institutions of classical music do not and never have. And you will not find any books about Gershwin or Porgy at the Met Shop. That said, the “Black Voices at the Met” exhibit, and a companion CD documenting 30 years of African-American artists at the Met, signify an important company initiative. It situates the Met within a wide world of American culture and experience. It challenges barriers of color and class that long circumscribed what the Met was and could be. Founded in 1883 by New York families denied boxes at the Academy of Music, the Metropolitan Opera has often occupied an island of wealth and privilege—and never more so than during the Edward Johnson regime (1935–50) that spurned Marian Anderson and Porgy.

As for Porgy and Bess, both it and its composer, however popular, were long orphaned from the citadels of American culture and learning. The day after Gershwin’s passing, Olin Downes wrote in The New York Times: “In some respects, and partly by virtue of the immense amount of publicity he received, his value may have been exaggerated. … He never passed a certain point as a ‘serious’ composer. … Gershwin had too limited technic for that. … The first act of ‘Of Thee I Sing,’ and passages from his best light operas will rank much higher than any part of his attempted ‘folk opera’ ‘Porgy.’”

After that, Edward Johnson found Porgy and Bess too black. James Baldwin considered it too white. Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, even Leonard Bernstein patronized Gershwin as something less than a “real composer.” Today that tide has turned. The modernist view of Gershwin the gifted dilettante is no longer heard. Concomitantly, American music historians, for whom Gershwin once barely existed, have flocked to Porgy and Rhapsody in Blue. A burgeoning interest in the interwar fate of black classical music will surely promote new understandings of Gershwin as a necessary interloper between “classical” and “popular” genres severed by 20th-century aesthetic currents. If a whiff of opprobrium remains—if Porgy and Bess is resisted for “stereotypes” that do and do not inhabit Catfish Row—Gershwin’s opera will ever remain an inexhaustible American topic.

In retrospect, Porgy and Bess and the Metropolitan Opera have long needed one another. In 1935, Gershwin spurned Otto Kahn’s invitation to stage Porgy at the Met. In 1938 Johnson declared the Met uninterested in George Gershwin. In the ’70s, Schuyler Chapin envisioned a Porgy and Bess conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In 1985, James Levine finally brought Porgy into the big house, but the production floundered. This time the marriage seems real.


Listen to Billie Holiday sing “I Loves You Porgy”:

And listen to Nina Simone sing the same song:

Finally, listen to John W. Bubbles discuss and sing “There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York”:

The author’s article “New World Prophecy,” about the black vernacular and American classical music, appeared in the Autumn issue of the SCHOLAR. You can also hear him audition his favorite Gershwin recordings (including Ruby Elzy singing “My man’s gone now”) on a WWFM “PostClassical” podcast.

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