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.
Although he concentrated on smaller pieces for piano, Scott Joplin wrote an opera. Joplin wrote Treemonisha in 1910 and had a vocal/piano score published the following year at his own expense. Joplin presented parts of the work to a Harlem audience, but it was met with little enthusiasm. Treemonisha wasn’t fully performed until 1975 by Houston Grand Opera with orchestration by Gunther Schuller. It received a “historically informed” arrangement in 2003 by Rick Benjamin to better reflect the instrumental forces at Joplin’s disposal.
It’s difficult to describe Treemonisha in a few words. It’s not grand opera. But it’s not completely a Ragtime opera either. There are stand-out songs in the work, including Aunt Dinah has blowed the horn and A real slow drag. The opera takes place on a former slave plantation near Texarkana in 1884. Treemonisha is a young educated former slave who rallies her community to throw away the shackles of ignorance and superstition. She is kidnapped and almost murdered, but is saved. The people choose her as their leader as they reject mysticism and realise the value of education.
Treemonisha has received recent performances in the Schuller arrangement. Rick Benjamin presents selections of his arrangement occasionally and released a recording of the full score in 2011.
Opera’s are rarely brief, but it’s often worth the wait for those moving arias or duets. Thankfully, Phillipe Quint and Lily Maisky capture some operatic gems on their new album Opera Breve, our Featured Album this week. Tune if for highlights from Porgy and Bess, Hansel and Gretel, Eugen Onegin and much more.