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Bess, You Is Your Own Woman Now
We explore the splendor of Porgy and Bess, as well as depictions of race and gender in the long-beloved opera
In February 2018, Ann Arbor – home of ProQuest’s headquarters – was treated to a historic, concert-style performance of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Historic because this was the first time since 1935 that the opera was offered in its entirety, as George Gershwin composed it.
Even before its debut, cuts were made to the “sprawling piece,” according to The Chicago Tribune,1 and “after opening night – September 30, 1935 – the show’s producers ‘still felt the three-hour running time was excessive.’”
But an enthusiastic full-house turned out to see this recent, uncut version of Porgy and Bess hosted by the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan. The show went on for nearly four hours, and “held too many high points to detail,” The Tribune said, adding “there was no question that listeners were in the hands of performers who understood the folkloric syntax of this music.”
Porgy and Bess, critic Howard Reich continued, “is so much more than a series of exquisitely crafted melodies: It’s a multidimensional work in which the instruments comment upon – and interact with – arias and choral passages.”
For at least one of us that night, it was an exhilarating introduction to what many consider the first great American opera, which also includes some troubling depictions of race and gender.
A little background on Porgy and Bess
A search for Porgy and Bess on the OML linked to a full-text synopsis from Opera News2 on ProQuest Central. Here, the story of “Gershwin’s legendary but problematic ‘folk opera’” is bluntly summarized as: “The title’s disabled man and drug-addicted woman fall in love. He kills her abusive boyfriend, and while he’s briefly in police custody, she goes to New York with her dealer.”
But there’s a lot more to it than that. Porgy and Bess defies many traditional expectations about opera. It’s set in an impoverished fictional town on the coast of South Carolina (Catfish Row) and the characters, nearly all of them African American, sing in a language that is meant to reflect the regional dialect. In addition, the music is infused with “African American musical idioms,” including elements of jazz and blues, which is part of what makes the music so enduringly popular.
Inspiration for the story came from a novel and a play called Porgy by DuBose Heyward, who also penned the libretto for the opera. The Opera News offered insight about the writer’s intentions in creating the character – and why they are problematic – with a quote from a 1954 biography by Frank Durham:
To [Heyward] and the reader, this Negro is a human being…worthy of serious consideration. But the Negro to Heyward is still an exotic, a picturesque representative of an alien culture, interesting for his humanity, yes, but distinctive mainly as suburb material for art.
As the Opera News asked, in the words of critic Foster Hirsh, “Did a quartet of white artists…create a true work about black characters? Or…a pageant of demeaning stereotypes?”
Historic reception of the opera
Curious about what members of the Black community thought about Porgy and Bess when it debuted, I narrowed my search on ProQuest Central to Black Historical Newspapers in the mid-1930s and discovered opinions varied on the opera.
In November 1935, The Baltimore Afro-American3 seemed to take a neutral stance with an article taken from The New York Times where George Gershwin explained why he called this work a “folk opera.”
The composer, rather than using traditional music from the region where the story is set, wrote his own “folksongs and spirituals” in an opera form.
However, because ‘Porgy and Bess’ deals with Negro life in America it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in opera and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dance and the irrepressible high spirits of the race.
In doing so, Gershwin “hoped to have developed something in American music that would appeal to the many rather than to the cultured few.”
But for a critic from The New York Amsterdam News4 writing about a performance in January 1936, it called to mind “minstrel days.” “I was torn between the spell-binding artistry and the ability of Negroes to survive the stereotypes,” he wrote, continuing: “This traditional stereotype of what the Negro is like has dogged him into the theatre, and the theatre has had a profound effect in perpetuating this stereotype.”
The review expressed concern that “the masses” who attended Porgy and Bess would come away with such thoughts as “’Negros are so quaint!’” or “’Negros are so superstitious!’” and argued “[p]roductions like ‘Porgy and Bess,’ therefore, do harm to the advance of Negroes. He continues to be shackled by what the whites think Negros are like.”
Porgy and Bess in the 21st century
Over the decades, people who love the music and artistry of Porgy and Bess continued to grapple with such criticism. Then, in 2010, artistic director of American Repertory Theater, Diane Paulus announced a partnership with Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks to update sections of the libretto to bring more depth to the story’s characters.
According to Hilton Als in The New Yorker,5 Paulus explained in a program note:
While the original opera triumphs on many levels, I feel the writing sometimes suffers from what I call “a shortcoming of understanding”...In DuBose and [his wife] Dorothy Heyward and the Gershwins’ original, there’s a lot of love and a lot of effort made to understand the people of Catfish Row. In turn, I’ve got a lot of love and respect for their work, but in some ways I feel it falls short in the creation of fully realized characters. Now, one (missing word?) could see their depiction of African-American culture as racist, or one could see it as I see it: as problem of dramaturgy.
Paulus and Parks were granted permission from the Gershwin and Heyward estates to modernize the script, paying special attention to the part of Bess, who struck singer-actress Audra McDonald as particularly two-dimensional when the role was first offered to her. And, Als notes, “The song, ‘I Loves You, Porgy,” even when delivered by such masters as Billie Holiday and Nina Simone, feels more like a passive acceptance of degradation than a confession of love.”
Of course, the new script stirred up controversy in the theater world. Composer Stephen Sondheim, for one, did not approve. But Als points out “Paulus and Parks’ approach has much less to with the self-serving manipulation of a classic than it does with humanizing the depiction of race on stage.”
“Diane Paulus’s great achievement,” he continues:
Is to cut through Heyward’s muddy folklore and to present us with something more profound. Her Porgy and Bess are not archetypal “black lovers:” they are a man and woman, human beings who are not defined by their race. It was their humanity – their desire to be seen and their fear of being stripped bare by another – that left me breathless when [Norm] Lewis and McDonald sang the duet, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” while trembling and glancing sideways at each other. By ridding the script of its sociological and anthropological strain, Paulus allows us to see the people, and perforce, to hear the music.
You can also use Open Music Library to hear the music
Subscribers to Music and Dance Online have full access to all content on the OML, where several full-length recordings of Porgy and Bess are available for streaming, including the original 1935 score. These recordings are supplemented with videos, music scores, journal articles, reviews, biographies and more – much of it available in full text.
In addition, searching “Porgy and Bess” on the Music and Dance Online database turns up more than 300 audio results, 271 text results and 11 video results, providing researchers with abundant opportunities to explore how production and interpretation of songs from this opera have varied between artists and evolved over the decades.
- Reich, H. (2018, Feb 21). Finally, the Uncut 'Porgy and Bess'. Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Gershwin, G. (2016, 01). Operapedia: Porgy and Bess. Opera News, 80, 12-13. Retrieved from ProQuest One Academic.
- Gershwin Explains Why His "Porgy and Bess" is Called "Folk Opera". (1935, Nov 02). Afro-American (1893-1988) Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Stereotype in 'Porgy and Bess'. (1936, Jan 11). The New York Amsterdam News (1922-1938) Retrieved from ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
- Als, Hilton. "A Man and a Woman: "Porgy and Bess" Reimagined." The New Yorker, vol. 87, no. 29, Sep 26, 2011, pp. 110-114. Retrieved from ProQuest One Academic.