Saturday 25 August 2018

Popular tunes, segregation & pioneers: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the 1935 pre-Broadway tryout
Gershwin's Porgy and Bess at the 1935 pre-Broadway tryout
George Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935 at the Alvin Theatre, New York, and from the start it was somewhat controversial. Based on the play by DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy (and Dorothy & DuBose Heyward's play based on  the novel) with a libretto by Ira Gerswhin and Heyward, it dealt the life of black people in the poor area of Charlston, but the work's creators were all white. Yet in 1930s segregated America the choice of an all black cast was controversial, in fact, the first cast would all break segregtion barriers. And even today, when the work is performed by opera companies all over the world, it can highlight contemporary problems of racial inequality.

The opera itself has had problems with the racial aspects of the plot from the very outset, with a white composer and librettists writing about a black people. Shortly after the premiere Virgil Thomson said "Folklore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935", and members of the original cast worried that the opera played to stereotypes, equating black with poverty, violence, pimps and drugs.

In fact, Gershwin's idea seems to have been that writing for conventional classically-trained white opera singers at the Metropolitan Opera would not work as they would not be able tosing his melodies with the right style. His idea was to have the piece performed by classically trained black singers, and having it sung by black cast has been obligatory since then (the work is under copyright and this is a stipulation). Though there have been notable exceptions such as concert performances using a white chorus, all white performances (with blacked-up singers) in Nazi occupied Denmark in 1943 (the work's European premiere) and the recent Hungarian State Opera production which re-set the work in the context of the Syrian migrant crisis).

Todd Duncan and Anne Brown as Porgy and Bess
Todd Duncan and Anne Brown as Porgy and Bess
Following the work's premiere in 1935 it was not taken up with the alacrity which you might have expected, given the popularity and ubiquity of the some of the opera's best known numbers. This seems to have been because of the way black theatre companies often viewed the piece as racist.

A musical theatre version, substantially shorter and with recitative replaced by dialogue, was created in the 1940s and gained some currency but it was not until the Houston Grand Opera production of Porgy and Bess in 1976 tha the work started to take off (a process which was continued with the Metropolitan Opera production in 1985 and the Glyndebourne Opera production in 1986).  The Houston production was the first time that an American opera company had tackled the work. (The Met had in fact toyed with the idea of giving it in the 1930s, but Gershwin refused a lucrative offer from them because it would have involved using white singers with black-up faces). Houston Grand Opera used Gershwin's full score with none of the musical theatre cuts. Even then,  the company had casting trouble as black singers saw the work as racist.

Yet it is an indication of the problems in segregated America that the initial cast for the opera were all pioneers. Todd Duncan (1903-1998), the first Porgy, was a classically trained singer who in 1945 would become the first African-American to sing with a major American opera company, and the first black person to sing with an otherwise all-white cast. when he sang Tonio in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci with New York City Opera. (The first black singer to perform at the Met would be Marian Anderson in 1955). Anne Brown (1912-2009) who sang Bess was admitted to the Juilliard School when she was just 16 and was the first African-American vocalist to attend there, and Ruby Elzy (1908-1943) who sang Serena also attended the Juilliard. John W Bubbles (1902-1986), the vaudeville artist who played Sportin' Life, was a major tap innovator and taught tap to Fred Astaire. I should also mention another real ground breaker, not in the Porgy and Bess cast, Camilla Williams who sang the title role in Puccini's Madama Butterfly with New York City Opera in 1946.

Nowadays, Gershwin's opera is more common with opera companies and is one of the few works about the lives of black people to reach the mainstream operatic stage. But performances still raise problems. The need to field an all black cast often highlights the paucity of black faces in an opera company's regular casting. A glance at the cast for English National Opera's performances of Porgy and Bess at the London Coliseum (opening 11 October 2018) reveals a number of names which, you feel, ought to be featuring more regularly in other seasons. And for the famous Glyndebourne Opera production (directed by Trevor Nunn in 1986 with Willard White and Cynthia Haymon in the title roles), a number of members of the chorus for Porgy and Bess did sing in the chorus for the opera operas in the same season, but this only served to highlight the overall whiteness of the chorus in other seasons.

In 1990, the director Piero Faggioni caused controversy by insisting that black singers in the Metropolitan Opera's chorus  should white-up for a production of Verdi's Un ballo in maschera in the name of realism. In 1999, in an article in The Guardian ('A white out at the opera') highlighted the problem particularly for UK opera companies and the soprano Alison Buchanan talks about being given a list of roles deemed unsuitable for a black soprano, notably Richard Strauss roles. You wonder how much the problem has improved.

In doing my research for this article, I wondered who was the first black singer at Covent Garden and I am grateful to one of my colleagues for informing me that this was Leonora Lafayette (1926-1975) who sang the title role in Verdi's Aida at Covent Garden in 1953, conducted by John Barbirolli. You can read more about her at Africlassical blog, and here she is on YouTube singing Aida in German.

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