Applause: Quick Center puts on controversial ‘Porgy and Bess’
“An’ nuttin’s plenty fo’ me / I got no car, got no mule, I got no misery / De folks wid plenty o’ plenty / Got a lock an dey door / ‘Fraid somebody’s a-goin’ to rob ‘em / While dey’s out a-makin’ more / What for?”
Bet you can’t read those lyrics without humming the tune that goes with them from “Porgy and Bess,” the American opera that has endured despite objections and charges of racism.
Does such ungrammatical patois mock characters as being unlettered, if not ignorant? Or is it an authentic, even affectionate, tribute to a language that derives from Gullah Creole and African-influenced dialect? Does the opera’s plot depict characters trying to make hardscrabble livings in Depression-era Charleston, or people in thrall to drugs, crime and poverty?
Further, are its main roles — crippled beggar Porgy, drug-addicted Bess, bullying Crown and cocaine-dealing Sportin’ Life — archetypes or stereotypes?
In the opinion of Westport’s Erik Novoa, 46, who has taught “Opera and Us” at Fairfield University’s Quick Center, where the opera will be shown Feb. 1 as part of the Met in HD series, a piece like “Porgy and Bess” needs to be examined through the prism of history.
“Porgy and Bess” opened at the Alvin Theater in New York in October 1935. The critical reception was mixed, audiences were puzzled and it closed after only 124 performances. Since, however, it has had successful revivals, including a well-documented State Department tour to Russia.
Indeed, the demand for tickets to the current Met production has been so strong that three performances were added — a rare event.
“Porgy and Bess” in HD is at the Quick Center, Fairfield University, 1073 North Benson Road, Fairfield, Feb. 1 at 1 and 6 p.m. Call 203-254-4010 or visit quickcenter.com.
With its brilliant George Gershwin score, the opera has long been considered the greatest, as well as the most familiar, American opera. But, from its beginning as Dubose Heyward’s novel, “Porgy” (made into a successful play by Heyward’s wife, Dorothy), it has not been without controversy. At the present time, with the rise in racism and hate crimes, can the country afford what Duke Ellington once labeled “lampblack negroism”?
Obviously, times have changed. In 1935 there was no Civil Rights Act. Moreover, lynchings continued until the late 1960s. Thus, social conditions reflect an evolving attitude towards the opera.
“When you dig deeper, past the surface layer, you have to find the message being conveyed,” said Novoa in an interview at the Westport Library. “We should address, not shy from, its problems, its issues, its significance.”
He echoes Yale student Katherine Hu, who, in a December New York Times article titled “Classical Opera Has a Racism Problem,” urged confrontation over concealment.
She wrote, “To survive, opera has to confront the depth of its racism and sexism point-blank.” Stereotypes should be made visible she said, citing attempts to sanitize works like “Turnadot” and “Madama Butterfly,” both of which contain problematic portraits of Asians. “We need to view the opera house,” Hu wrote, “as both a museum and a classroom, even if it involves discomfort.”
Bringing opera into the 21st-century emphatically does not mean banning problematical works altogether.
“Doing away with these works would destroy the art form,” protests Hu, “preventing us from reshaping otherwise beautiful compositions.”
Novoa agrees. With a bachelor’s degree in history of ideas from Brandeis University and a master’s in American studies from Fairfield University, Novoa filters his knowledge of opera and the arts through these other disciplines and his background.
“My father, Salvador Novoa, was a principal tenor with NYC Opera in the late ’60s through the very early ’80s,” he said. “My mother was a ballet dancer who met my father during a production of ‘Carmen,’ so I’m a product of an opera. My life kind of makes a full circle. I emulated my father, singing duets with him; and my mother when I became a professional dancer and a teacher of partner dancing in Connecticut.”
His opera classes, sponsored by the university’s Open Mind Institute, are part lecture, part discussion. “I take my students not only through the story, but some of the critical thinking involved with opera in general. What and how are we looking at? Is it just to listen to good music?”
Writes Hu, “Opera companies have a responsibility to present classics in a way that helps audiences understand how problematic histories continue to reverberate today.”
Take future Met in HD productions at the Quick Center, like Handel’s “Agrippina” and Donizetti’s “Maria Stuarda,” both of which examine power struggles led by women — surely a topic for current discussion. Or Puccini’s “Tosca,” which deals with sexual exploitation and the gap between art and politics.
How closely should a production hew to its original intent? Should “Porgy and Bess” be performed by whites, despite the authors’ stated requirements that only blacks should be cast?
In 2018, the Hungarian State Opera cast whites and set the work not in a South Carolina ghetto, but a European refuge camp. The Gershwin estate’s objections were labeled racist by Szilveszter Okovacs, the opera company’s general director.
As for either banning or updating (changing Ping, Pang and Pong in “Turandot” to Jim, Bob and Bill as a Canadian production did), would that solve the problem or, as Novoa said, “just put a mask on it?”
“Porgy and Bess” is an opera about black, Christian people by a white, Jewish composer, as opposed to, say, ragtime African-American composer Scott Joplin’s “Treemonisha.” The latter, rarely done, does not have the same imprimatur as the Gershwin piece.
“Black music has been appropriated. An American narrative has somehow put black culture in the hands of white authors and composers who claim title to it,” Novoa noted. ”And then we wonder why blacks are angry or resentful. These conversations need to be had.”
Some take a more sanguine view, as African-American actress Audra McDonald, who has played Bess on Broadway, said in a New York Times article.
“George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward were writing this piece from a place of love and from their understanding of African-American culture. But they were still outsiders in that culture, and therefore they can’t possibly have perfectly drawn fine lines for their characters, because it’s an outside culture, especially at a time when there was no race mixing to speak of.”
Still, “Porgy and Bess,” like all works of art, reflects who we were and are.
“Opera is a complete artistic vision, a social presentation of us, a story about us in some form,” Novoa said. “Art’s sole purpose is not to be a diversion. Audiences should be challenged, prompted to question. We can update our consciousness. Let’s address the problem, let’s talk about it. Let’s normalize challenging conversations. It’s how we build a better future for the next generation.”
Norwalk resident David Rosenberg’s column on the local theater scene appears monthly.