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Why “Porgy and Bess” Is More than a “Period Piece”

However popular it may be, Porgy and Bess remains an object of rampant controversy and confusion.

An odd item in the New York Times the other day reported that the white cast of the Hungarian State Opera’s Porgy and Bess (above) had been instructed to declare themselves “African-Americans.” “The singers were asked to sign a declaration stating that ‘African-American origins and spirit form an inseparable part’ of their identity.” Commenting on the Gershwin Estate’s insistence that Porgy and Bess be cast with black singers, Szilveszter Okovacs, the State Opera’s general director, said he was opposed to allowing “the presence of people in a production to be determined by skin color or ethnicity.”  

That seems like the makings of a reasonable or at least interesting sentiment — the Gershwin Estate’s restriction on casting is increasingly anachronistic. And yet the Budapest production itself, which situates Gershwin’s opera in a refugee camp, is probably nuts.

Meanwhile, a review in The Guardian of the new English National Opera Porgy and Bess – a traditional staging that opens the Met’s new season next September – opines that it’s a “period piece”: a snapshot of another time and place, stuck one hundred years in the past when race relations were vastly different than today.

Is the fundamental topic of Porgy and Bess a black Carolina subculture ca. 1920? If so, does that validate the Gershwin Estate’s insistence that only blacks sing it?

Having written a book about the genesis of Porgy and Bess, I would say: certainly not. The basis of Gershwin’s opera is a 1925 novella by a Southern regionalist: DuBose Heyward’s Porgy. That is a book about a black Carolina subculture – the Lowcountry Gullahs — ca. 1920. But if Porgy and Bess retains the story of Porgy, Gershwin’s Porgy is not Porgy’s Porgy (not even close) – and neither is his fate remotely that of Porgy in the novel.

Conrad L. Osborne, in his indispensable mega-book Opera as Opera, extrapolates a “meta-narrative” governing virtually all nineteenth century grand opera plots.  An outcast male protagonist falls obsessively in love with a forbidden woman who returns his love; the fated couple encounters inflamed opposition; it all ends badly for the lovers. And this, truly, is the story of Carmen, of La traviata, of Tristan, of you-name-it. Osborne cites only two post-Beethoven exceptions: the original version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, in which there is no love story, and Wagner’s Parsifal, in which Parsifal spurns Kundry’s advances and proceeds to redeem himself and everyone else.

Porgy and Bess, in Osborne’s account, hews to the basic nineteenth-century template: an outcast male, a forbidden woman, a doomed love relationship. But that’s at most one-half of what Porgy and Bess is about.  That Gershwin’s opera is in fact an exception to the ingenious Osborne taxonomy is a useful starting point in figuring out whether it’s a black “period piece” or not.

The essential observation here is that Porgy and Bess tells two overlapping stories. The first is doomed love, a la Carmen (which it resembles in all sorts of ways). The second is a saga of redemption, a la Parsifal. The first story comes from DuBose Heyward, who ends his novel with Porgy, by Bess abandoned, sinking into a fog of oblivion. The second story comes not from Heyward, not from George or Ira Gershwin, but from Rouben Mamoulian, who staged both the 1927 play Porgy and the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess. Mamoulian (drawing inspiration from Yevgeny Vakhtangov, with whom he studied in Moscow) had fixed ideas about stage dramas, including a basic story template: not doomed love, but the miracle play. He therefore changed Heyward’s ending to Porgy Redeemed. And in order to do that, he invented a different Porgy.

What Heyward made of all this may be gleaned from his advice to Gershwin when it came time to stage the opera: don’t hire Mamoulian. What Gershwin thought may be gleaned from his insistence that Mamoulian direct.

And so in the opera Porgy is not the sorry outcast Heyward had crafted. Rather, he is popular, respected, even esteemed. In scene one, he is greeted with an outburst of affection. A cripple, he has never had a woman. He then proceeds to fall in love and is loved in return. When his love is threatened by a source of evil, feared by all, he single-handedly murders Crown. At the opera’s close, he declares himself on his way “to a Heav’nly Lan’” – an ecstatic song (originating with Mamoulian in the 1927 play, with a tune different from Gershwin’s) in which everyone joins. As in Parsifal, this culminating tableau of redemption is both personal and communal. Porgy, moral compass of Catfish Row, is a cripple made whole.

Heyward’s ending to Porgy is intended to seem real. When the Theatre Guild advertised Porgy the play as an “authentic” representation of Gullah life, Mamoulian was apoplectic. He disavowed verisimilitude. His ending, including Porgy’s resolve to drive his goat-cart from South Carolina to Manhattan, is archetypal, metaphoric, symbolic – anything but a real-life event.

The two endings of Porgy and Bess arrive almost on top of one another. First we have Porgy discovering that Bess is gone. He sings a magnificent lament: “Oh Bess, oh where’s my Bess? Won’t somebody tell me where?” Then he picks himself up and sings an equally magnificent paean of self-actualization: “Oh Lawd, I’m on my way.” How did Mamoulian and Gershwin weight these two endings? Mamoulian trimmed “Oh Bess” by half – a courtesy to Todd Duncan, who had to sing Porgy six times a week, but also a signal that the more important finish was yet to come. Gershwin’s score features a pregnant E minor “Porgy” theme: the primal interval of a fifth girds a minor third (G natural) crippled by a mashed grace note. Only in the final measure of the opera – the culmination of “On my way” — does he raise the G natural of Porgy’s theme to G-sharp and secure an E major close. Porgy’s saga of doomed love is transcended by Porgy’s life-odyssey. Gershwin’s redoubles this message by having his orchestra, a la Wagner, recall key stages in Porgy’s story – “I got plenty o’ nuttin’,” “What you want with Bess?” “Bess you is my woman” — underneath the singing.  

There is a linchpin in this double ending. It is the opera’s most famous line, a line called by Stephen Sondheim “one of the most moving moments in musical theater history”: “Bring my goat!” Mamoulian directs that Porgy issue this command twice: first as a directive — “Mingo, Jim, bring my goat!” — and then ”commandingly”: “No! I’m going! Bring my goat!” He is initially disbelieved, but his exalted resolve to pick himself up proves irresistible. The goat is brought. The uplift begins.

The author of the words “Bring my goat!” was Rouben Mamoulian – in the working typescript for Porgy the play, you can see him delete Heyward’s “Porgy turns his goat and drives slowly with bowed head toward the gate” and hand-write something wholly different. In Porgy and Bess, Mamoulian’s 1927 rewrite of the story’s ending is retained almost verbatim.

And that is why staging Porgy and Bess without a goat-cart for Porgy – now common practice — becomes a problem. Doubtless there are multiple reasons to do without a goat onstage. And yet: the Porgy of Heyward, Mamoulian, and Gershwin cannot at all use his legs; he walks on his knees. If Porgy is merely a cripple on crutches, his infirmity is diminished, and so therefore is his victory. And what to do with “Bring my goat!”?

As it happens, I’m teaching a graduate seminar at SUNY Purchase this Spring with an inquisitive group of music students, and we’re studying Porgy and Bess. In class over the past several weeks, we’ve sampled two DVDs – a San Francisco Opera production, and the rather famous Trevor Nunn Glyndebourne production conducted by Simon Rattle. Neither uses a goat. In the San Francisco Porgy and Bess, Eric Owen (who will be the Met’s goat-less Porgy this Fall) exclaims “Bring my crutch!” But a crutch is the last thing Porgy would ask for in the throes of his redemptive ecstasy. And Owen’s anguished delivery is also wrong. The ending fails because it contradicts the sense of the opera’s words and music.

Nunn’s solution is better: Willard White exclaims: “I’ve got to go!” And Nunn understands redemption. His Porgy discards his crutches, and to the stupefaction of all proceeds to stagger on his own two feet into a glare of sunshine. That is not the ending to a period piece.

an ArtsJournal blog