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05 December 2005

Porgy & Bess (1951)

By George Gershwin

Libretto: Du Bose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, based Heyward's novel and play Porgy, co- written with his wife, Dorothy Heyward

Performers: Lawrence Winters (Porgy), Camilla Williams (Bess), Avon Long (Sportin' Life), Inez Matthews (Serena); Lehman Engel, conductor; New York, 1951

Want to know the plot? Click here.

What a strange experience - an opera in English! Yet, it was still an opera. Whenever I heard Williams' portrayal of Bess, sing-songing the recitatives, I thought not of a black character but of a diva. This is opera, despite the racial controversy that has surrounded it ever since its first production. As such, characters are stereotypes, actions and emotions are condensed, and plots are sensational. While people living in the 1930s, at the time of its initial performances, might not have realized the distinction between realistic and stereotypical, the distinction is essential for today's audiences. In Porgy & Bess, African-Americans endure the same reduction to formula and hyperbole as Egyptians, Gypsies, Bohemians, and Masons suffered in the likes of Aida, Carmen, La Bohème, and The Magic Flute.

That said, I wished the performance had been more black. Give me Fantasia singing "Summertime" on American Idol. Give me Angela Bassett slinging attitude and righteous self-assurance against all comers. Give me Morgan Freeman's steely toughness or Yaphet Kotto's overwhelming presence. And Don Cheadle would play the heck out of Porgy! This performance, recorded in 1951, assembled a fantastic array of African-American singers who desperately yearned for acceptance within the operatic community. As a result, this Porgy & Bess is filled with performances that are both exceptional (in quality) and non-nondescript (many of the roles could have been performed by white singers and I would not have known the difference).

The libretto is solid, filled with well-rounded sub-plots and an array of memorable characters. The songs are so catchy that many people may be unaware that "Summertime" and "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," for example, are part of a larger, complete opera. That said, the actual music Gershwin wrote is not as striking or memorable overall, which, I think, has led to the popularization of particular tunes at the expense of less successful arrangements. Recitatives abound, leaving the music to take second-stage to the libretto and the forward thrust of the plot.

In the future, I hope to find a version of the recording that is more in keeping with today's talented, unashamed, unabashed African-American singers and actors, which would signal the revival and reclamation of one of the United States' most celebrated and controversial operatic works.

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