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Book Review

The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess

The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess by Noonan

Race, Culture, and America's Most Famous Opera

Ellen Noonan
The University of North Carolina Press. 2012.
439 pp. ISBN-10: 0807837164
ISBN-13: 978-00807837160
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Summary for the Busy Executive: A closely-argued cultural history.

In the Twenties, DuBose Heyward, a White Southern writer from Charleston, South Carolina, produced a successful novel, Porgy, a story about poor Blacks centered around a crippled beggar. George Gershwin, intrigued by the novel, wrote to Heyward about the possibility of turning it into an opera. A number of obstacles arose, including, a few years after publication, the Heywards' adaption of the novel into a very successful play, Porgy and Bess, mounted on Broadway by the prestigious Theatre Guild. At that point, Al Jolson, no less, wanted to buy the rights from the Heywards to make a musical out of the play. Heyward wrote to Gershwin to ask for advice. Gershwin told him to take the money, since anything Jolson was likely to star in wouldn't come anywhere close to interfering with Gershwin's plans and, in any case, the composer estimated that a clear spot in his schedule lay years away. Of course, in 1935, Gershwin finished the opera, which has since been revived many times, although not always in the state Gershwin left it. Jolson, thankfully, never made the musical.

At first and for a long time, according to Noonan's research, many considered the story of Porgy an authentic picture of a certain slice of Black life. However, almost all of these people have been White, with little knowledge of Blacks. Heyward essentially dealt with a rapidly disappearing group of rural people and treated them as representative. Noonan shows among other things that Blacks aren't a monolith. Stereotyping clung to the story from the beginning. Many poor Blacks even at the time of the story had begun to leave the South for the North, and of course even Charleston, South Carolina, had an educated Black middle class – both factors effecting profound cultural changes. On the other hand, why did so many think of Porgy as something true?

The son of an old Charleston family fallen on hard times, Heyward had worked both on the docks as a manager and in the Black community as an insurance agent. The surface details were far more accurate than Amos 'n' Andy or Birth of a Nation, for that matter. Furthermore, Heyward tried to portray individuals, without resorting to the tropes of minstrelsy. One can argue over how well he succeeded, because stereotypes still cling to the story in all its incarnations. Heyward may have "gotten" Black behavior interacting with Whites in the public places of Charleston, but he had no idea what went on within Black families or neighborhoods. Indeed, his segregationist views wouldn't have given him the opportunity to observe, assuming that he could have overcome class and educational differences as well. Heyward, in spite of himself, had a poetic imagination that overcame much of his consciously racist outlook. He wrote better than he thought. However, even sympathetic, liberal white artists in the Twenties tended to see Blacks as noble savages, close to a primitive state of nature. For example, Eugene O'Neill, a much better writer than Heyward, usually told the story of a "civilized" Black reverting to savagery, as in The Emperor Jones and the lesser-known All God's Chillun. Heyward, as Noonan points out, was a segregationist: for him, Blacks needed the benevolent, civilizing hand of Whites to improve their eternally subservient lot. He pined for the Lost South, or at least for post-Reconstruction. His Blacks are essentially plantation hands who've found work and a kind of stability in Charleston and yet retain "family feeling" toward their former masters – the pernicious "slavery benefitted slaves; the masters knew best" which continues to return periodically. Those of his characters who try to better their lot or to migrate out of South Carolina come to bad ends. In the opera, of course, Sportin' Life represents the corruption of the Northern cities and carries Bess off with him to a prostitute's life. Jake the fisherman goes off in his boat despite an approaching hurricane so that he can get enough money to give his child "a college education." Porgy's "I Got Plenty o' Nothin'" serves as a good-natured rebuke to such an attitude.

Of course, serious Black writers of the time – for example, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Wallace Thurman, or Zora Neale Hurston – would not have approached the story in this way, if they took it up at all. Almost every one of them came from the Black middle class, W.E.B. Dubois's "talented tenth." They too had barriers to their understanding to surmount, and some of them did.

To tell the truth, however, nearly everyone in the Thirties, of whatever ethnicity, believed in racial characteristics. Gershwin wanted to do an opera on Negro life because he thought Blacks expressed themselves "naturally" in song. The Black press was obsessed with race "authenticity," seen even today in appeals to measures of "blackness." This came out particularly in writing about Gershwin's music. Porgy and Bess, they contended, was not Black music. I'd agree, to the same extent that Aida isn't Egyptian music or Norma the music of Celtic druids. But this is obvious. Gershwin's music is a very personal mix of Modernism and Broadway songwriting. The question becomes its worth as music – not some a priori criterion about what Gershwin should have written, but an analysis of what he actually wrote. Also, the opera differs from both the novel and the play. Much of the libretto consists of wonderful lyric poetry, and not just in the Broadway-type tunes. Furthermore, Gershwin's magnificent music raises everybody, just as Bizet's Carmen transforms cigarette-factory women and their soldier boyfriends to myth. Someone in the Black press referred to Gershwin's "lampblack Negroisms," but compare his work to Jolson's "mammy" songs or even to Marc Connelly's sympathetic Green Pastures and Gershwin's own Blue Monday. The relative lack of condescension is significant.

Noonan reports that the Civil Rights struggle of the Forties through the Sixties changed the lens through which people viewed the opera. The anger, never absent from discussion, of the Civil Rights community over the portrayal of gambling, drinking, drug-taking, street-fighting, "happy-go-lucky," superstitious inhabitants of Catfish Row (as well as the two murders), came to the fore. This reinforced the image of a group that either could neither be trusted to manage its own affairs nor merited treatment White society gave itself. Aside from the racist slurs peppering the libretto – which cast members refused to say – performers and productions made efforts to clean up grammar, to tone down the broad dialect of the original libretto. Those who had seen and liked the original production seemed disappointed to see the grit swept up. Oscar Levant complained that the stevedores, domestics, street-peddlers, and fishermen sounded like Harvard grads. Defenders of the opera argued for the universality of the characters, rather than, as before, for their authenticity. Furthermore, productions changed the opera itself by truncating, eliminating entire arias and their contexts, and turning the opera into a Broadway show. The historic Columbia recording of 1951 restored many of passages deleted. Otto Preminger's 1959 movie used not only a truncated score, but André Previn's arrangements of Gershwin's music. The arrangements were brilliant and perhaps Previn's best movie work, but not Gershwin.

Meanwhile, something interesting was happening within the Black musical community. Gershwin had placed a ban on using White performers in the Black roles (so no blackface). Porgy and Bess provided classically-trained Black singers employment and opportunities for a successful career. Leontyne Price, for example, first came to wide notice after performing in a tour of the work. More African-American women than men have cracked the resistant classical-music market, particularly opera, but that's another story. Every serious Black singer I've known personally has done at least one turn in a production of Porgy and Bess, and several performers have actually thought the opera non-demeaning and even worth doing. Furthermore, various jazz artists – Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Miles Davis, the Modern Jazz Quartet, John Coltrane, and Oscar Peterson among them – offered their own takes on the music, in many cases producing classic albums. Black performers – those who had been critical, since many Blacks loved Porgy and Bess from the beginning – were reconciling with the opera. They no longer felt they had to face the choice of paycheck or self-respect.

Most observers feel the real change in perceptions of Gershwin's score came with the 1976 staging and subsequent recording from the Houston Grand Opera, the first production that one could reasonably call "complete." For one thing, writers began to regard the work as an opera – just like Cavalleria Rusticana or Madama Butterfly – rather than a realistic social tract – that is, as verismo rather than the literal truth. Furthermore, Blacks themselves have begun to direct the opera, with very interesting results. Do paternalistic attitudes still hover over the work? Yes, but they have been reduced. I recommend even going back to the novel, Porgy, for some of the harsher details. In the opera, the old man Peter, questioned by a brutal White detective, breaks down too quickly simply because the cop has spoken harshly, and comes across as another skittish Black. In the novel, the detective holds a loaded gun to Peter's head to get the admission. The one scene I would like to see absolutely gone is the Lawyer Frazier episode. It lies uncomfortably close to minstrelsy, and the music, among the weakest in the score, doesn't rescue it.

Noonan fearlessly walks a mine field in order to detail this history. I certainly may have wished that history otherwise, but I can't deny it. She sprinkles her discussion of attitudes toward the opera with illuminating "interludes" on the actual conditions lived by African Americans during major periods of the civil-rights struggles in Charleston, South Carolina, their relations with the White power structure, and the efforts of the White leaders of the city to co-opt the story to the ends of "exotic" tourism. I happen to regard Porgy and Bess as one of the finest Modern operas (let alone American operas), so plenty of times I gnashed my molars at the criticisms against it. However, I found some light at the end. At long last, Gershwin's score is treated as an opera, full of big emotions, from the noble to the base, about human archetypes, rather than as authentic images of a specific milieu.

Copyright © 2013 by Steve Schwartz.