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Is Porgy a “Stereotype”? — Take Three

Kevin Deas

Kevin Deas, the exceptional bass-baritone who is the anonymous “Porgy” of my previous blog, has written to me at greater length about singing the part – and the importance of the view “from below.” He says:

“Being on my knees for my first staged Porgy was revelatory. Not only was it the first time that I’d sung the complete role, it was that perspective that was, in particular, very profound.

“I’d sung the concert version (comfortably erect) 10s of times. I didn’t fully appreciate the character. Now when I sing extended concert versions, I try to incorporate that perspective. I often ask to sing the duet sitting. Bess standing, passionate, baffled, next to the cripple (not someone merely indisposed). That positioning alone portends the unlikely success of this pairing. When she kneels towards the end (as in the production I was in) she acquiesces and inhabits his low-lying, sweaty (probably smelly) existence. It makes the desperate nature of their circumstance more sympathetic. 

“Being on his knees also makes Porgy’s plight that much more compelling for the audience. The interpretation necessarily becomes more nuanced.

“As the performance starts, the daunting prospect of being on one’s knees for nearly three hours puts one in a specific emotional space. Hearing the beauty of Gershwin’s musical adoration (as the orchestra plays the ‘Porgy motif’) as I enter on the cart gives me comfort.

“Before I discovered inline knee braces, with gel padding, I could peel a layer of skin off of my knees from the constant burn after an extended tour. The most difficult scene was kneeing my way across the stage to bring down Crown.”

Kevin – with whom I have been privileged to perform the spirituals of Harry Burleigh for a dozen years – is the most mellifluous Porgy I know. How I wish he had an opportunity to record it. You can see and hear him sing “I got plenty o’ nuttin’” and “Bess you is my woman” (with Angela Brown) in concert (in Moscow) here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GBRd_oHxFSc

It occurs to me to add that no opera of comparable stature (with the possible exception of Wagner’s Siegfried) has been so disserved in performance.

Last Spring, teaching a graduate seminar on music and race at SUNY Purchase, I spent a full month exploring Porgy and Bess with my students. Every one of them preferred DuBose Heyward’s novel to Gershwin’s opera. The reason is that they were new to the opera (except for some songs) – and there does not exist an adequate recording or film. We made do with Simon Rattle’s studio-bound Porgy and Bess and the disappointing San Francisco Opera DVD. There are recordings with various points of excellence, but none in which the casting, conducting, playing, and trims (this is an opera that must be abridged) add up.  I could not convey to my students a full, true impression.

PS — Another memorable email, from the prominent American historian Allen Guelzo, in response to my American Scholar review of Porgy at the Met: “In my mind, I step back and see Gershwin against what Thomson and Copland were writing then, and suddenly it comes to life, and makes them look like over-dressed primas.”

Comments

  1. I am a long time and avid opera lover. I saw the performance at the Metropolitan Opera October 10, and it was one of the most exciting productions I have witnessed–second only to Ms. Leontyne Price in Aida. I am 66 and grew up in the South. The depiction of Black life and dialect in the play is authentic. The performers, especially the leads, was nothing short of perfection. The set was amazing, the orchestra was at its best and the audience was totally engaged and enthralled to the point that there was not one empty seat in the house–even after the intermission–which is rare.
    Thank you Mr. Deas for your devotion to excellence.

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