Brandon Gaorian/Henry Allison
Music History After 1914, 10am section
Porgy Through the Ages
George Gershwin’s operatic masterpiece Porgy and Bess proudly stands as the first widely regarded piece of truly “American” opera. Its lyrical melodies and catchy tunes have endured the test of time. Songs taken from the opera remain today a quintessential part of American musical culture, such as the first act’s “Summertime”, which has been recorded or sampled thousands of times by artists of all genres and eras, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and ska-punk band Sublime. However, though venerated the piece may be, it carries a substantial history of controversy and baggage, stemming from the depiction of African-Americans and the libretto’s racial slurs. The roots of the Gershwin’s operatic debut extend back to 1925 with the release of DuBose Heyward’s novel, Porgy. The author worked very closely with George Gershwin and brother Ira Gershwin, in writing the lyrics and libretto for the piece. The initial reception of the piece was very positive, as it merited 124 performances on Broadway (1). At first, the African-American community regarded the opera as a highly sympathetic work, even though racial slurs littered the libretto as if it were nothing. Joe Nocera writes of the slurs, “None of the opera’s early critics seemed to notice; whether black reviewer or white, they primarily critiqued “Porgy and Bess” as a theatrical experience, focusing in particular on the highly original way Gershwin fused blues tonalities, spirituals and other elements of African-American music into a full-length opera” (1). The positive reception of the folk opera shows how deeply Americans had embedded these racial slurs into their culture at the time, and how even African-Americans praised the piece for its immersion into the negro culture of that time. Then in the early 1940’s, a Porgy and Bess Broadway revival prompted a revision of the original text. Ira Gershwin, brother to composer George, replaced the racist words with more acceptable substitutes, such as “tin horns, dummy, low-life, suckers, buzzard, and baby” (1). Though producer at the time Goddard Lieberson said, “Sometimes, happily, times change, and with the times, ethical values. It seemed proper to eliminate certain words in the lyrics which, in racial terms, had proven offensive” (1), the derogatory and injurious nature of the replacement words shows the true nature of the original language in the first edition of the work. Even though the story depicts what DuBose perceived as a sympathetic recognition of conditions for African Americans, it still treats the culture with a tinge of misplaced exoticism, and places the black characters socially and morally beneath the white characters. Porgy is a beggar and a dependant handicap, Bess is a helpless prostitute and a drug addict, and Crown is a dangerous murderer. None of these roles show the African-American culture as a strong proud one, but rather as an inferior one in need of sophistication or implied correction. These unintentionally controversial representations became the subject of many a discussion in the next few years. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the civil rights movement brought about the beginning of some much needed changes for the equalization of rights for people of all races and cultures. Along with the fight for equality of African American culture, activists sought to erase or alter depictions of the black American as a lesser citizen. For Porgy and Bess it meant an intense scrutinization of the plot, setting, language, character depiction, and underlying meanings. Joe Nocera writes, “The first stirrings of what would become the civil rights movement caused African-Americans to begin to look askance at the characters, to see them as white-inspired stereotypes, and to see the story itself — with its violence, drug use and subservience to white authority — as degrading. “It is a vehicle of shame, sorrow and...
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