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PORGY AND BESS: Is this famed musical work a folk opera? A Broadway show? An opera? Is it an American cultural artifact? A controversial depiction of the African-American experience? An affirmative statement of human resilience?
A resounding yes to each of these.
The novel Porgy was published in 1925 by DuBose Heyward, a descendant of a South Carolina signer of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. In 1927, his wife Dorothy adapted the novel into Porgy, a Play in Four Acts.
Composer George Gershwin was attracted to the Heywards’ novel and stage presentation. In the summer of 1934, he visited them in their native Charleston, South Carolina, and work began on what he called a folk opera.
Said Gershwin in a November 2, 1935, article in The New York Times, “Porgy and Bess is a folk tale. Its people naturally would sing folk music… I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music—and therefore, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera.”
However, the work’s 1935 debut also had the trappings of full-blown opera: arias and ensembles a’plenty, sung recitatives rather than dialogue and, in its original version, a running time of four hours. Even with subsequent cuts and a tightening of dramatic action, it had at best modest success; what’s more, the production lost money.
A 1942 revival turned Porgy and Bess into a Broadway musical, with a smaller orchestra, half the cast and lots of spoken dialogue. This production ran for nine months and was far more successful financially than the original.
A decade later, a 1952 touring production revived much of its operatic legitimacy and established Porgy and Bess as an American cultural artifact, albeit in countries other than its own. A well-received tour to Vienna, Berlin and London was financed by the U.S. State Department.
In 1954 – 1955, the tour went to Latin America, the Middle East and back to Europe. In February 1955, Porgy and Bess was performed at Milan’s La Scala, the first American opera to appear at this prestigious house.
In December 1955, Porgy and Bess got caught up in international intrigue of government-funded tours. It played in Russia—but without support of the U.S. State Department, because of fears that its tale of tenement-dwelling blacks would be exploited by the Soviets.
In fact, Leningrad performances and later stagings in Moscow were prefaced by announcements placing the opera in a historical perspective akin to Russian classics of tsarist times. Wrote the Soviet press, “Our American guests have shown that original art is understandable for people of all countries.”
Yet, as a tale of tenement-dwelling blacks concocted by three white guys, Porgy and Bess never has been free of controversy. Briefly, it’s about Porgy, a crippled beggar, in love with Bess, a woman of questionable virtue, who’s dominated by Crown buying her cheap booze and Happy Dust, the latter sold by local drug peddler Sportin’ Life. (Hardly the sweetness of Uncle Remus and Br’er Rabbit….)
The Gershwins preferred black performers, many of whom gained international fame through the opera. Porgy and Bess also had a share of segregated audiences, north and south, and even a reluctance of the Metropolitan Opera to stage a production (discussed since the 1930s, finally achieved on February 6, 1985).
Houston Grand Opera, with maestro John DeMain, restored Porgy and Bess to its original form in 1976 and helped establish the opera’s status today as a masterpiece. The Houston Grand Opera production won a Tony Award (the only opera ever to receive one), a Grammy and France’s Grand Prix du Disque.
A tale from World War II describes the opera’s affirmation of the human spirit. In 1943, Porgy and Bess had its first performance overseas, by the Danish Royal Opera in Copenhagen during Denmark’s Nazi occupation. Performed by an all-white cast in Danish, its opening was highly acclaimed to the point that Nazi officials demanded it be closed down immediately.
The Danes resisted; Porgy and Bess performances continued to sold-out houses protected by a cordon of Danish police. The Gestapo lost patience, threatened to blow up the theater, and Porgy and Bess closed after 22 performances.
It closed, but only in a sense. For the rest of the occupation, the Nazi’s nightly radio propaganda broadcasts were often interrupted by Danish Resistance renderings of the opera’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015