~By Lynn Gray, Ph.D.~
The supremely American folk opera, Porgy and Bess, has been playing to packed houses at the Met for the past several months and finally comes to local movie theaters this Saturday. Since 1935 when it debuted in New York City, it has always been dogged by controversy and debate – and yet, it has always survived. It has been criticized as politically incorrect, a white men’s view of black life, pushing flat “stock” stereotypes, fake folklore, and lacking in cultural authenticity. At the same time, however, it has been praised for forcing theaters and their companies to integrate, helping singers of color to launch their careers, and pleasing audiences for generations.
In an essay he wrote for The New York Times in 1935, Gershwin noted that to keep the work musically unified, he had decided to write “my own spirituals and folk songs” rather than adapting the original folk music he learned while in the South doing research for the work. There can be no doubt that songs like “Summertime”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and “I Got Plenty o’Nuttin” have become a treasured component of the great American songbook and an important part of our collective musical heritage.
The opera – and its shortened “musical” and “movie” versions – has been performed by such great artists as Leontyn Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway, Maya Angelou, Audra McDonald, and Norm Lewis to name only a few. The Met’s cast is headed by the sympathetic duo of Eric Owens and Angel Blue in the title roles, and features an all-star operatic ensemble that includes Golda Schultz, Latonia Moore, Denyce Graves, Frederick Ballentine, and Alfred Walker. Interestingly, the Gershwins’ requirement to cast only black performers remains in effect even today for any dramatic performances of Porgy and Bess around the world – a significant challenge in places like Russia, China, Poland or Japan! It is an unusual stipulation in an age where casting is increasingly colorblind, but honoring this requirement, “Porgy” is the one and only opera in which the Met’s own chorus does not sing. The company hires and works with a chorus of all black singers for its productions.
For over 80 years, Porgy and Bess has been interpreted, reinterpreted, revised and reinvented by generation after generation of new artists — as Philip Kennicott commented in a recent article, “For as long as great minds find it rewarding to wrestle with the opera, it will hold the stage.” Come and see what this year’s Met has added to its long, controversial history.
Porgy and Bess will be screened Saturday at theaters throughout the greater Reno Area. Curtain time is 9:55 AM. Please check your local theater’s Website for more information and possible encore performances.