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Eric Owens and Angel Blue in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera (
Eric Owens and Angel Blue in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera (photo: Ken Howard)
Article Published: 04 Apr 2020

The Porgy Puzzle

Porgy and Bess is by any estimation the most enduring of American operas. Its wonderful tunes make it a Great American Songbook in itself. Eighty-five years after its premiere, it is still mounted all over the world, and wherever it is staged, it is a guaranteed box-office bonanza. This season alone, it is on the roster at The Atlanta Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and a new production at the Met was such a smash hit that the company added three extra performances to the run.

Still, Porgy has more than its share of troubling aspects. To some, its depiction of African American life, rooted in another era, traffics in demeaning stereotypes. Its authors, George and Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward, were all white: a circumstance that inevitably invokes charges of cultural appropriation. The opera has over the years provided employment and visibility to many singers of color; in fact, the Gershwin estate mandates the casting of African Americans in its solo roles and chorus. But some singers see it as a trap that can lead to typecasting.

We asked a group of singers, a director and some interested observers to share their views of Porgy and Bess and the conundrums it raises. Here is what they had to say.

Carolyn Sebron  

Sebron played the mezzo-soprano roles Amneris, Eboli, Carmen and Dalila at theaters like Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro Real Madrid and Arena di Verona. She appeared in several Porgy productions, both as a chorister and in the role of Serena.

For people of my generation, and probably earlier, there was always a hesitancy about doing Porgy and Bess: You didn’t want to get boxed in just singing Porgy. That doesn’t seem to be as true today. The current cast at the Met has wonderful, beautiful talent, and it’s my hope that they will be used in other productions, as well. If Porgy and Bess is part of the repertoire and not the only repertoire, it’s not a problem. There are some singers who are comfortable doing Porgy tours, and they make a living — hey, more power to them!

But the opera is the only thing that represents African American culture in the mainstream repertoire. Where is the next great opera to replace it? I would like to see a really nice love story or comedy. Someone should get the rights to Simple by Langston Hughes. He really captured the rhythms and language of the Harlem Renaissance.

Nkeiru Okoye

Okoye is the composer of Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed that Line to Freedom, among other theatrical works. Her operatic projects have received three grants from OPERA America’s Opera Grants for Female Composers program.

Porgy and Bess was written at a time when making fun of black people was everyday entertainment. It grows out of the minstrel show, which started by making fun of the people in chains. You didn’t have radio or television, so what do you do? Well, you dress up your slaves in ridiculous costumes and show in a play how silly they are.

Porgy is fun. You have all that great singing. We did it in my high school, and I have fond memories of it. I use it as a model of setting English text. But is it a barrier to producing works by African Americans? Absolutely.

Jorell Williams

Williams has taken many baritone roles in standard and contemporary repertoire, and has sung Jake in Porgy at Syracuse Opera and the Budapesti Nyári Fesztivál.

There was this curse that if you did Porgy and Bess, you would get stuck in it. Ultimately, a curse is a curse if you believe in it. If I sing Jake in Porgy, I let management know that I would also like to be cast as Mercutio or Papageno. I’m interested in a diverse career. I am hired for new works because word gets around that I learn music quickly, not because I’ve done Porgy. This season’s Met cast sings bel canto repertoire. They bring their 24 Italian Songs and Arias to those dressing rooms and sing that before they go onstage.

This opera has provided an opportunity for all-black casts to be presented on the grandest stages of the world. And the music is sublime. And it has showcased some of the greatest performers of color. I have no problem whatsoever with that!

Carmen Balthrop

 A soprano who had a full career in the standard repertoire, Balthrop played the title role in the 1976 Houston Grand Opera stage premiere of Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha, a production that later moved to Broadway. She played Bess in several different productions.

If you were good in a role in Porgy and Bess, word spread. And other offers came in. I have fond, fond memories of my time with Bess. Gershwin’s music is so beautiful, catchy and stunningly popular. I did a seven-month tour of it with Houston Grand Opera, and then a production in Baltimore — and then I gave Bess a lovely funeral.

Karen Slack

A lirico-spinto soprano who mostly sings Verdi and Puccini, Slack has played Serena in Porgy at Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera, Washington National Opera and this season at the Met.

I’ve been singing professionally for almost 20 years, and I didn’t even think about my color until I started singing Serena, and got offers for more of the same. Before that, I always felt judged for my talent –– my gift. My voice and artistry didn’t change, except to get better, but people have this thing about putting us in boxes. Forums on diversity and inclusion aren’t really reaching the people who need them.

Porgy is an incredible piece; it sells out; the audiences are happy. But it leaves the artist with a bittersweet feeling. I try to do two Serenas a year, with good companies, and to choose strategically. And after the opening, I try to have the conversation “What else is there?”

Keryl McCord

 McCord is president and CEO of Equity Quotient, a national consulting firm that offers guidance to arts organizations on combatting racism.

Porgy and Bess was created by white people, for white people. It shows a black community, but at no time in its history has this iconic piece been embraced and enjoyed by a large black audience. It was clear from the beginning that it wasn’t for us. Black people were writing operas at that time, with characters and stories that don’t look like what we see in Porgy and Bess. Why were those other pieces never picked up? Because their stories were not something that white people are interested in. Yet Porgy keeps coming back, over and over again, because it speaks to white people in ways that works by black people do not.

My reaction is not about the artistic quality of the work. I absolutely love the music; Gershwin is one of my favorite composers. The problem is the images that it promotes. You’ve got this crippled black man, a beggar, who falls in love with a drug-addicted whore. I know there are plenty of communities where you can find crippled white men and drug-addicted white women. Why didn’t they write about that?

When I went to the Opera Conference in 2017, I met Kamala Sankaram, a young Indian-American composer. Instead of pouring money into Porgy and Bess, companies should invest in the works of composers of color like her. That’s how opera becomes relevant; that’s how you bring it into the 21st century.

Francesca Zambello

Zambello’s production of Porgy and Bess has been seen in numerous opera houses since its 2005 premiere at Washington National Opera, including this this season at The Atlanta Opera and in a revival at Washington National Opera.

Porgy and Bess is the greatest American opera. The story is painful, but I think there’s an amazing optimism in it. It is not just a story about black Americans. The emotions in the piece are universal. It’s about community, and what happens in a tight-knit community when things go astray. I think the piece is so popular right now because we are searching for community in this country. Look at the elders like Mariah and Serena. These are positive characters: powerful women who teach the others. But you can’t make the bad side go away. Sportin’ Life is a dealer and a pimp. Well, that’s the reality of the world.

The piece is ultimately about love, and how love drives people. Porgy is a character who represents hope against all odds. When he sings the final number “Oh Lord, I’m on my way,” what’s beautiful and powerful for me is that community. It may be impossible for him to find Bess, but they gather around him and launch him on his quest in a way that only a community can do.

Gershwin’s insistence that Porgy productions must use African American casts has been crucial to the work’s success, and it has launched many careers. It has also hurt some artists who have been pigeonholed into doing just this one opera. That is why, whenever I’ve hired anyone to be in it, I have tried to make sure to hire them for more conventional operatic repertory, as well.

Harolyn Blackwell

 Soprano Harolyn Blackwell sang roles like Lucia di Lammermoor, Gilda in Rigoletto and Marie in La fille du régiment with the world’s leading opera companies. She was Clara in the epochal 1986 Glyndebourne production of Porgy and Bess

I told my agent I didn’t want to be stuck in Sussex all summer singing “Summertime,” but he said, “You signed this contract. It’s going to be with Simon Rattle and Trevor Nunn. I think you have to do it.” I did it, and it was an amazing production, but I knew I’d never do another full production. Houston wanted me for Clara, and I said, “But what else are they going to give me? I sing Mozart!”

I had a discussion with a colleague who felt that the presentation of the black community was dated. But I think the community there is the same one you’ll see in Harlem or Saint Louis. You’ll always have a Porgy and Bess and a Sportin’ Life and a Maria who’ll say “Get off of this block! Stop what you’re doing!” Some aspects of this show are universal.

Anthony McGlaun

Tenor Anthony McGlaun has sung roles in numerous Porgy and Bess stagings, this season taking part in the chorus of the Met’s production

Porgy and Bess is one of the most authentically written pieces of its time. Gershwin went down to Charleston; he lived with the people there and heard their music. Look at the prayer scene: He had to go to a bunch of black churches to be able to write that. It just so happened that he was a Jew.

I’ve done Porgy over and over again. It’s a story that you love to tell, that you love bringing out the nuances of. It’s a love story, a story about family, about community, about resilience. When Jake tells Clara that he has to work hard and make money so their child can go to college, it shows how important education is in black lives. When Porgy sings “I’m on my way,” we don’t know if he’s going to make it, but we know he’s resolved to do it. That’s how black people are. We’ve fought battles for home ownership, for voting. All the facts may be against us, but we’ll be fine.

Celeste Headlee

Headlee is now a journalist and radio personality, but she started her professional life as a soprano, and she sang in the chorus of Michigan Opera Theatre’s 1998 Porgy. She is the granddaughter of composer William Grant Still.

Porgy and Bess raises complicated issues for every African American singer. The artistic level of the piece is very high. It’s musically gorgeous: rich and lush. It’s incredibly successful at evoking a time and place. But say what you will, Gershwin was appropriating music that didn’t belong to him. The people who were writing authentically didn’t have access to publishing and performances. This is in fact part of my family history, since Gershwin stole “I Got Rhythm” from a riff by my grandfather, William Grant Still.

I wouldn’t see anything wrong with Porgy if it were one of a number of portrayals in opera of African American life. Then it wouldn’t stand out. But it presents a very poor, disadvantaged community, which makes it seem to the opera-going public that this is what African American life is all about. We represent 14 percent of the population; if 14 percent of what people saw on opera stages was by African American composers, then Porgy would not be a problem. But usually the only time you get to hear classical music by African American composers is during Black History Month. Which seems to give everybody a free pass the rest of the time not to play those pieces. And sometimes during that month they program Porgy and Bess! I mean, are you kidding me?

I’m sure singers might be willing to boycott the piece. But the field is so un-diverse that if they don’t sing Porgy and Bess, they don’t work.

Jasmine Muhammad

Soprano Jasmine Muhammad was a member of the chorus that the Met hired especially for its Porgy production. She was set to appear in the Met/Lincoln Center Theater world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon and Lynn Nottage’s Intimate Apparel this spring.

Throughout the course of my training, I was discouraged from singing in Porgy. There was a stigma around the idea: If they see it on your resume, they’ll assume you’re just a Porgy singer. But doing it at the Met meant I could work and live at home in the city, which is a big bonus. I realized many of my friends would be in it. If I didn’t do it, the FOMO would be intense. So when the chance came, I thought “Great, I’ll have this experience.”

Once we began rehearsals, I knew I’d made the right decision. The Met is a building with a lot of mystery attached to it, and I never guessed that my first time there would be so joyfully relaxed. We understood we were at the Met, but we were having a lot of fun.

I’m still in the middle of the road about the piece itself. It’s beautiful music, which is why it’s so popular. It was the occasion for bringing a large number of people of color to the Met. But the representation that the audience is getting of African Americans in not very becoming. Porgy is not the only story that can be told about us. We’re desperate for newer work, for more stories.