Blackness in Opera: Porgy and Bess

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The most famous African-American themed opera started out as a novel by DuBose Heyward. Composer George Gershwin read Porgy and contacted the author asking if he’d like to collaborate on what Gershwin referred to as a “folk opera.” That was in 1926. Nine years later, Porgy and Bess had its premiere in Boston at the Colonial Theatre. George Gershwin wrote the music, Heyward supplied the libretto and Heyward and Ira Gershwin wrote the lyrics. The original version of Porgy and Bess was 4 hours long. Cuts were made before it hit Broadway later that year. After a touring production ran its course, Porgy returned to Broadway in 1942 and ran for nine months.

Although Gershwin referred to it as an opera, Porgy and Bess was still considered by many to be a glorified musical. It wasn’t performed by an American opera company until 1976 by the Houston Grand Opera. It didn’t make it to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera until 1985 (Meanwhile it had already graced La Scala’s stage in Milan in 1955).

The story takes place in Catfish Row, a black tenement on the waterfront in Charleston, South Carolina. The depiction of black life in Catfish Row is unflinchingly grim. So much so that many took offense to the work. They said the opera showed African-Americans as stereotypes. Many productions of Porgy were begun but left unproduced because the casts were offended by the characters portrayals. Others, however, realized what Gershwin had given them – a monumental opus for black artists to perform (Ira Gershwin stipulated that all American productions of the work be performed by African-Americans).

Learn more about this opera and hear from some of the artists who performed it by listening to African American Voices.

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