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“Porgy” and Race — continued

Conrad L. Osborne, whose incisive critical scalpel cuts through present-day distractions and obfuscations with magnificent precision, has written another must-read blog: The Racial Moment and Opera.”

He begins by revisiting the memorable Porgy Exchange” in this space – the PostClassical Ensemble zoom chat in which Conrad, George Shirley, and Kevin Deas opined that it makes artistic sense for gifted white baritones to undertake the demanding role of Porgy in Gershwin’s imperishable opera. 

In what follows, the addition of boldface is mine, not Conrad’s. He writes:

“Recently, as my regular readers know, I was enlisted in a Zoom chat on the subject of Porgy and Bess, having written at some length about its production at the Metropolitan last season. The chat was organized well before the upheavals related to the George Floyd murder and other police depredations, but took place just as they gathered steam. One of the topics on the agenda was the question of whether or not it is permissible for a white artist to assume the role of Porgy, and the example we used was that of Lawrence Tibbett, who was in fact the first singer to record the principal excerpts from the part, even as the original production (1935) was underway.Two distinguished African-American singers, Kevin Deas and George Shirley, were on our panel. They both stated that the wonderful music of Gershwin’s score is the property of every singer, of color or not. But that is different from actually undertaking the role in the theatre, and when I asked how they felt about that, they were in agreement that this, too, was allowable for a singer with the appropriate skills. That would, presumably, require the use of makeup.

“Near the end of our amiable discussion, a viewer protested that no white singer, not even Lawrence Tibbett, should be cast as Porgy. Her argument was that whereas white singers have the entire classical repertory at their disposal, and with a preferential advantage, black singers have only this one often-produced piece that accords them preference, and that preference should be reserved to them so long as this situation prevails. Kevin and George quickly agreed with her, and George spoke of his wish that there may soon be more operas of Porgy‘s staying power that show us the variety of black life. So a reversal of attitude had taken place, and this had happened because the viewer’s statement had switched the discussion’s premise from one of an openness based on considerations of unusual artistic quality to one of exclusivity based on considerations of social justice, of equality of opportunity. 

“It was this exchange, viewed against the unfolding events of the subsequent weeks, that was the proximate cause of this attempt to think through the tension between these premises and the implications of The Moment for the High Culture in general, and opera in particular. But the case of Porgy and Bess is not one from which we can easily generalize. It is unique, and Tibbett was unique—an extraordinary singing actor with a bent for assuming ethnic identities, including the African-American one. Unlike our viewer, I would pay premium-seat prices to see him do this role, and pass the line of protesters to do so. But though we have had several great white American baritones since his day, I can’t think of another one I would be eager to see and hear as Porgy, in preference to any of a number of African-American singers. It requires a rare talent to make the prospect palatable, and cultural norms have shifted since the 1930s in a way that makes it unlikely that even such a talent would find the space to develop along the necessary lines.” 

Conrad also writes:

“Great art is in itself a social good, for all, and in the arts that must be performed to take life, the greatest social good is achieved when the artwork is most allowed to be itself, to realize its own uniqueness with power and integrity.”

He ends:

“It is the interpreter’s ethical imperative to pursue the creator’s vision, to enable a given work to speak its own truth to us. The interpreter’s personal identity, beliefs and opinions, hopes for society, worries about how he or she will be perceived, idiosyncrasies of behavior, etc., must be submerged in the world of the work and the subjective experience of the character. That includes skin color and all other signifiers of ethnic identity. Just as authors and composers must be free to write about any world they can imagine, so must interpreters be allowed to play and sing any roles for which they are held to be more qualified than their competitors—provided they agree to the creators’terms and conditions. The Met and other opera companies should rescind their bans on cross-race makeup, and instead require it . . .” 

I will myself be undertaking an understanding the “racial moment” and the arts in a forthcoming piece on the arts and the pandemic for The American Scholar.


  1. “white singers have the entire classical repertory at their disposal,” and black singers don’t? Are there roles that black singers can’t sing on the operatic stage? I’m can only come up with Desdemona, for dramatic reasons, and I’m not sure black singers haven’t sung this role.

  2. Michael Bednarek says

    Grace Bumbry as Venus?

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