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Porgy and the White Police

Lawrence Tibbett sings Porgy (1935)

Though a prominent British reviewer of what became the hit Met production of Porgy and Bess called Gershwin’s landmark 1935 opera “a period piece,” it loudly resounds today. Consider the first act confrontation between a white detective and a black community. 

“Race is critical to Gershwin’s conception,” observes the Gershwin scholar Mark Clague in the most recent “PostClassical” webcast, pursuing a Gershwin thread originating with our film “The Russian Gershwin.” Porgy, Clague continues, “is an activist work about race.” In act one, the vibrancy of Catfish Row is silenced by the entrance of a white policeman who speaks rather than sings. The caustic demeanor of this character provokes discomfort – both for black victims of the law onstage, and for present-day audiences. But the invariable practice of exaggerating the Detective’s racism backfires in performance – he would be more unsettling if for once he was not rendered as a cartoon.

To hear what Clague is talking about, go to 36:46 of our webcast and sample Trevor Nunn’s famous Glyndebourne production.

Conrad L. Osborne, whose indispensable Porgy blog I proceeded to quote on the air, comments:

“In Porgy, the character who can most reliably be counted on to come across as a stereotype is the Detective. . . . It’s not that The Detective will ever exactly win our sympathies. . . . But consider his job. Two murders are committed on Catfish Row. He does need witnesses, and while the community is willing to ‘fess up about the fugitive Crown, it closes ranks around Porgy. The Detective’s suspicions about who saw what are entirely justified. When he accuses first Serena, then Porgy, of lying, he’s right, and he’s seen all this before. The man given this assignment is not going to be Mr. Sensitivity, but if played by an actor of weight who’s taking his job and the circumstances seriously, his scenes can have a lifelike texture. His work would then have to be countered with much more grown-up acting than I’ve ever seen done by his fellow thespians in these sequences, with their musical-comedy innocence-feigning shtick. That is stereotyping, and embarrassing, not as much for people of color as for professional singing actors.”

A flood of careless commentary has deplored “stereotypes” in Porgy and Bess. Osborne writes:

“There is no way . . . that one can take in the words, music, and dramatic functions of any of the more prominent characters [of Porgy and Bess] and label them stereotypes. They’re fleshed-out, living people. Nonetheless, they have been vulnerable to attack from the not-good-for-African-Americans p.o.v., which from its more extreme angles objects to the very presence of unpleasant or even morally conflicted characters. It’s tantamount to saying you can’t represent black people, disadvantaged people, poor people, unless it’s to ennoble them, as in a patriotic pageant or on a valorizing mural. That’s not a valid artistic principle.”

Certainly performers are partly to blame here. John W. Bubbles, the original Sporting Life, insisted that this demonic character be – as with any competent Mephisto — “charming.” Otherwise, Bess is greatly diminished when she succumbs to him. Today, Sporting Life’s malignancy is incautiously savored. Can he instead charm? Here is Bubbles.

But the chief obstacle to a truthful rendering of Porgy and Bess is the present-day compulsion to make Porgy more “dignified.” It’s the same careless impulse that would make the Detective more evil. Once Porgy stands erect, on crutches, he can no longer undertake the opera’s great trajectory of a cripple made whole. 

If you’re interested in a memorably dignified Porgy, try Lawrence Tibbett, who was the first person to record Porgy’s songs in the studio (under Gershwin’s supervision), in 1935. As Osborne eloquently observes (6:27 of our webcast), Tibbett was the supreme American operatic singing actor. He also happened to be white. On our webcast, Kevin Deas and George Shirley share impressions of Tibbett’s Porgy – and also reflect on the status of African-American opera singers today.

We are still taking the measure of Porgy and Bess -– and the same (alas) goes for Gershwin generally. In his lifetime, he was dismissed by American-born classical musicians (but not those born abroad) as a gifted dilettante. I call this “the Gershwin threat.” It is over now — I call that “the Gershwin moment.” It’s ongoing.

In our webcast, Mark Clague has something new to say about An American in Paris -– by citing details in the original, unabridged version of this fabulous score, he explores the sophistication of Gershwin’s manipulation of musical structure and texture. After that, Angel Gil-Ordóñez takes a fresh look at Gershwin’s irresistible Cuban Overture, and discovers compositional subtleties arising from the composer’s investigation of both Caribbean and Andalusion strains. 

Gil-Ordóñez’s own performance of the Cuban Overture (at 21:56 of part two of our webcast) is nothing short of revelatory. 

We still await a comparable performance of Porgy and Bess.

A LISTENER’S GUIDE TO THE WEBCAST:

PART ONE:

1:22 – Lawrence Tibbett sings “I got plenty o’ nuttin’” (1935)

4:52 – Gershwin and race: “The Abraham Lincoln of Negro music” (J. Rosamond Johnson)

6:27 – Conrad L. Osborne on Tibbett (“The foremost singing actor America has produced”)

10:17 – Tibbett sings “Oh Bess, oh where’s my Bess?” (1935)

13:43 – George Shirley and Kevin Deas on white baritones singing Porgy (“music belongs to everybody”)

21: 00 – The critic Irving Kolodin opines that George Shirley “doesn’t look the part of a French nobleman”

29:02 – Tibbett sings “De Glory Road” (1935)

34:12 – Mark Clague on white policemen in Porgy and Bess

44:40 — George Shirley sings Mozart: “Un aura amorosa”

48:23 – Kevin Deas sings Bach: “Ich habe genug” with PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Angel Gil-Ordóñez (Igor Leschishin, oboe)

PART WO:

1:46 – Joseph Horowitz on “the Gershwin threat” and “the Gershwin moment”

3:11 – Mark Clague on the original version of An American in Paris

11:35 – Angel Gil-Ordóñez on Gershwin’s CubanOverture

21:56 – Gershwin: CubanOverture performed by PostClassical Ensemble conducted by Gil-Ordóñez

40:06: Finale of Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F performed by Vakhtang Kodanashvili with PCE conducted by Gil-Ordóñez

Comments

  1. Andrew S. Kohler says

    It is a period piece in that the drama unfolds the way it does because it is about a Black community in the Jim Crow South. But the political situation today, unfortunately, has not changed as much as we would like. And as Chaim Potok said when I heard him speak twenty years ago after a performance of Sholem Asch’s play God of Vengeance, it is often through the most particular stories that the universal shines through most strongly.

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  1. […] Though a prominent British reviewer of the current Met production of Porgy and Bess called Gershwin’s 1935 opera “a period piece,” it loudly resounds today. Consider the first act confrontation between a white detective and a black community. – Joseph Horowitz […]

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