How Authentic Is ‘Porgy and Bess’?

Debate Over Gershwin's Work Continues With New Show

An Opera Changes for a New Century: The American Repertory Theater’s production in Boston. The show is now on Broadway.
michael j. Lutch
An Opera Changes for a New Century: The American Repertory Theater’s production in Boston. The show is now on Broadway.

By Stuart Isacoff

Published January 05, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
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George Gershwin was insecure. He never showed it at high-society parties, where he could always be found perched at the nearest piano like a king on his throne. (He played incessantly. Once, when Gershwin wondered aloud if his music would be performed in 100 years, his friend Oscar Levant quipped, “It will be if you’re still around.”) Nevertheless, an unending stream of critical onslaughts from the “serious” music camps left him drained of confidence.

The late eminent composer, conductor and musicologist Nicolas Slonimsky told me of a lunch date he had with Gershwin during which the songwriter grabbed a napkin and began writing music on it — just to prove that he knew standard notation! It was for this reason that America’s greatest musical talent asked for lessons from Maurice Ravel (“Why be a second-rate Ravel when you can be a first-rate Gershwin?” was the reply) and then decided to study with a dry musical academician named Joseph Schillinger. “The European boys have small ideas, but they sure know how to dress ’em up,” was the explanation Gershwin offered to Vernon Duke for these pursuits.

Meanwhile, the “European boys” began to dress up their own music with gestures stolen right out of the Gershwin playbook. But Schillinger’s lessons were helpful, particularly in honing the sophisticated compositional techniques Gershwin employed in his groundbreaking opera, “Porgy and Bess.”

There was little hope that the criticism would end with this masterpiece, though, particularly because the opera was based on the lives of African-American Gullah descendants living in South Carolina, and it employed a black cast (Al Jolson wanted to star, but Gershwin was adamant). Art music had grappled with the legitimacy of using folk elements for centuries, attracted to the “primitive” nature of folk art but scornful of the “low” artistic (and moral) values it represented. “Porgy” was stuck in that middle ground.

In addition, some critics complained of what they saw as racial stereotyping, characters too broadly drawn, acting within a failed theatrical framework that tried to combine satire and melodrama. Even Duke Ellington, in a rare example of what appears to be jealousy, put down the work. (A colleague of mine once cited the ungrammatical song title “Bess You Is My Woman Now” as an affront to blacks; I noted that the grammar of Ellington’s song, “It Don’t Mean a Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing,” remains unquestioned.)

The idea that “Porgy” is inauthentic and demeaning was fodder for the reformulations in the production now appearing on the New York stage, which claims to make the characters more real and more relevant relevant. Composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim famously defended the original in a letter to The New York Times. “These characters are as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater…. Porgy, Bess, Crown, Sportin’ Life and the rest are archetypes and intended to be larger than life,” he explained. “It makes you speculate about what would happen if [the director] ever got her hands on ‘Tosca’ and ‘Don Giovanni.’”

In a feeble defense of the changes, The New Yorker’s Hilton Als cited negative views of the work expressed by the late composer and critic Virgil Thomson, whom he described as a “Southern” composer. There are some serious problems with this. First, Thomson was from Kansas City, Mo., not exactly the Deep South. Further, he knew nothing of the culture on which the opera is based. And Thomson never cared for Gershwin’s music, complaining at one point about his “gefilte fish orchestrations” — whatever that means. Nor did he like the jazz that Gershwin so enthusiastically embraced.


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