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Porgy Takes a Knee — “Porgy and Bess” and the American Experience of Race

“It’s interesting that Gershwin chose as his protagonist a person who’s on his knees. ‘Taking a knee’ has never been more relevant.”

That’s Kevin Deas, a distinguished exponent of Gershwin’s Porgy, talking a few days ago on PostClassical Ensemble’s “Porgy and Bess Roundtable” zoomchat alongside another eminent African-American singer: George Shirley.

“I’ve been thinking about it the last couple of days,” Deas continued. “There is an automatic sense of empathy with someone who is on their knees. It’s the difference between walking up to Bess with a cane [or a crutch, as in the current Met production], and actually viewing the world from below. I’ve done concert versions of Porgy and Bess with the New York Philharmonic, with all the major orchestras in this country. But it wasn’t until I got on my knees [acting the full role abroad] that I understood Porgy.”

In the same two-hour chat, Angel Gil-Ordóñez and I were joined by Conrad L. Osborne, a supreme authority on opera in performance, and Mark Clague, who heads the Gershwin Initiative at the University of Michigan. Bill McGlaughlin, who hosts our PCE webcasts, presided.

We auditioned an unforgettable 1935 performance of “Oh Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess” by Lawrence Tibbett – whom Conrad plausibly called the greatest of all American singing actors. Moreover, Tibbett was a singer with extensive experience performing popular songs (including spirituals) in dialect. (On another occasion, Osborne observed that Tibbett’s Porgy sounds “blacker” than that of Todd Duncan, who created the role.) You can hear that great Porgy performance, and the response it engendered, on the video clip at the top of this blog.

“How do you feel about a white baritone singing Porgy?” Bill asked.

George Shirley – the first African-American tenor to be assigned leading roles at the Met – responded:

“If you can sing it, if you can make it believable with your voice with honesty, as I believe Tibbett does, then sure. I believe music belongs to everybody. And that if I’m going to sing the Duke in Rigoletto I’ve got to sing it with respect for the style, the music, the history. And if someone can sing Porgy who’s not black and approach it with respect, then of course he can sing it.”

Kevin Deas: “Yes, music doesn’t belong to any one group. I’ve been fortunate that most of the music I do comes from the European tradition. So I’d hate to think that my color would disqualify my from that repertoire.”

Conrad asked: What about make-up?

George Shirley: “Theater is theater. When you go to the theater, you know you’re not in Paris. It’s called the suspension of disbelief. That’s what the costume person is about, the wig mistress, the make-up. You use it. Opera is first of all about the voice: to make you believe through the singing. If the singer can do that, and move you, that voice has a right to move you on stage.”

Kevin Deas: “I feel a lot is being lost in the modern operatic world because the priority is looks. Think of all the amazing sounds that would have been lost if you had to look pretty.”

George Shirley: “I would rather sing La traviata with Montserrat Caballe [as he did] than with someone who looks like they’re dying of tuberculosis, and sounds like it. I sang a lot of Salomes with Birgit Nilsson. She didn’t look like Salome, but she could sure make it sound like Salome. Let me share with you an incident  . . . “

If you’d like to know about the incident in question, involving a prominent New York music critic who objected that George Shirley didn’t “look the part of a French nobleman” in Massenet’s Manon, click on the video at 16:12.

About an hour into our chat, the singer/teacher Susan Gregory commented: “I loved hearing Tibbett sing Porgy. But I would not buy a ticket to see him on the stage — because of the times we live in. My fellow artists, who are black, barely can find work.”

George Shirley: “When asked in the past how do I feel about Porgy and Bess being reserved for blacks, I’ve said: fine – as long as black artists are [equally] considered for roles that are normally considered ‘white.’ Until that happens, I would say that restriction should stay in place.” 

Kevin Deas: “I agree with George, absolutely. It provides income for a lot of my colleagues. We just have to change the industry. If anything comes out of the George Floyd tragedy, I hope that all of culture, including those people in charge of presenting opera, will take a broader, more inclusive look at African-Americans being part of it. I never thought that I was any less qualified to sing a Mozart role than a blond kid from Iowa. But when you walk on stage, the first thing that identifies you, sadly, is: ‘There’s a black singer.’ And you can’t get around it. I never thought that would be something that would be of any concern for me. But I know that’s the initial reaction: ‘Oh, he’s singing in German.’ It’s like: Why are you here?” 

The Gershwin Estate has long insisted that, in honoring the wishes of the composer, only African-American singers should be cast in Porgy and Bess. Recently, the ban was controversially violated by the Hungarian State Opera. There have been other productions in Eastern Europe with white singers. So far as I am aware, the first Russian performance of Porgy and Bess (Russians having long pursued a love affair with Gershwin) took place in 1945 – with Russian singers.

It bears mentioning that a crucial trajectory in the opera – that of a cripple made whole – transcends race. That this redemption parable (which invites comparison with Wagner’s Parsifal) is rarely clinched in present-day performances is a problem I have persistently belabored – as in my American Scholar review of the Met Porgy and Bess last season. 

To see Lawrence Tibbett sing (and act) “De Glory Road” (one of his signature numbers), click here.

To watch PostClassical Ensemble’s More than Music film “The Russian Gershwin” (with a one-of-a-kind “Rhapsody in Blue” plus historic recordings), produced by Behrouz Jamali, click here.

To see Kevin Deas sing the spirituals of Harry Burleigh in PCE’s More than Music film “Deep River: The Art of the Spiritual,” click here. 

PostClassical Ensemble’s next More than Music film, to be released July 5, will be “FDR’s New Deal and the Arts: ‘The Plow that Broke the Plains’ and ‘The River’–What can they teach us today?”

The follow-up Trans-Atlantic zoom chat, on July 9, will address government arts funding during the pandemic in the US and abroad.

For more information on “More than Music,” including zoom chat registration, click here.

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