In chapter six of his book George Gershwin, Larry Starr discusses the innumerable components of the 1935 opera Porgy and Bess that make it such a bold, brilliant, and provocative work. Chief among these components is that the opera calls for an all-black cast of characters — an unprecedented phenomenon. In the year of Porgy and Bess‘s premiere, the Metropolitan Opera still had twenty years to go until the first African American performer would grace its stage. Starr emphasizes that for its time, such an opera faced daunting odds of success (particularly since the story was already initially a novel and then a play), and yet, it was praised by audiences and reviewers alike. Starr claims that “[audiences’] previous familiarity [with the story of Porgy and Bess] could have rendered [the opera] old news for Broadway denizens” (120), but I would be interested to learn Botstein’s thoughts on the potential appeal of an opera whose plot was sourced from a modern (at the time), well-known play.
Of all of Starr’s claims, the most inspiring is his (quite well-argued) contention that Gershwin wanted to portray the people of Catfish Row differently from the opera’s source material – that is, he wanted to eliminate aspects of the cast that had previously “othered” them, and highlight in the plot the very human experiences that Americans of all ethnic backgrounds go through. More simply, Gershwin put the human experiences of realistic, unfiltered, humanized African American characters at the forefront of his work so that non-black audiences would be forced to finally empathize and relate to black Americans as their fellow citizens.
Starr’s musings about Gershwin’s choices in composition and stage direction are undeniably fascinating, and it is both necessary and interesting to argue for what Gershwin’s intentions were when he decided to compose for a story that places African Americans front and center – but I could not ignore the inevitable questions that come after such musings are put forth. Starr makes incredibly generous but cogent claims about Gershwin’s intentions, but are they accurate? What were the real-world social effects of such a groundbreaking work? What are the alternate evaluations of Porgy and Bess? And for the love of all things claiming to be socially progressive, has anyone actually asked black Americans what they think? These questions have been answered by scholars, but do not seem to be part of mainstream dialogue about the work.
Ray Allen and George P. Cunningham’s article entitled “Cultural Uplift and Double-Consciousness: African American Responses to the 1935 Opera Porgy and Bess” recounts various criticisms of the opera by prominent African American artists and journalists, during the months surrounding its premiere. Among the prominent figures critical of the opera were Duke Ellington, Ralph J. Matthews (critic who wrote for Baltimore’s Afro-American), and Hall Johnson (playwright and choral director). Although the overarching opinion of African Americans who had seen the show was that it “represented a significant advance in the presence of black artists and culture on the American stage” (351), it is important to not just acknowledge, but also explore, the full range of African American thought concerning Porgy and Bess.
One music historian in particular, Richard Crawford, has considered the “serious concerns of black critics…but few musicologists have followed [his] lead, and the field has remained relatively silent on African American reactions to Porgy and Bess” (Allen and Cunningham, 344). Crawford addresses one particular aspect of the opera that drew criticism from a few prominent black critics – an aspect that Starr argues was a choice that demonstrated sensitivity towards African Americans: despite calling his own work a “folk opera,” Gershwin did not include much music, if any, that is explicitly suggestive of African American folk music or spirituals. Starr argues that Gershwin knew that doing so could be perceived as him thinking himself qualified “to ‘speak for’ African Americans” (131). Conversely, Crawford claims this lack of clear reference to African American folk music leaves Gershwin vulnerable to criticism that he did not care about “authenticity,” and that rather than a conscious choice to avoid “speaking for” a marginalized group, it could be viewed as perpetuating the notion that African American folk music is not as valid as a European musical tradition like opera. Starr does, however, recognize that “such charges would be more convincing had Gershwin actually used preexisting folk songs and spirituals in Porgy and Bess” (131).
Allen and Cunningham also mention Matthews’s criticism of the character of Bess. For Matthews, Bess only served to reinforce the stereotype of African American women as a promiscuous and uncivilized, and that white producers were orchestrating “a definite vicious Nordic plot to keep the world from knowing that a colored woman ever rises above the primitive” (356). In case one would doubt his logic, Matthews does later clarify that he of course does not seriously believe that lack of adequate representation of African American is an active conspiracy, but rather, neglect and a lack of caring on the part of white men in charge. While I appreciate a man addressing gender-specific racial stereotypes, I contend that it is important to acknowledge that very few of Matthews’s contemporaries were African American women, and the existing body of African American perspectives on Porgy and Bess seems to be male-dominated. I contend that the perspectives of women of color should be the next research subject for any scholar who wishes to take discussions of race in Porgy and Bess in an original and productive direction. Without African American women weighing in on any gender-specific racial stereotypes in Porgy and Bess, we are missing a substantial and critical part of the conversation. It is also important to note that Matthews, despite his criticisms, still regarded the work as one that did elevate African Americans’ status on the whole, but insisted that we not overlook its problematic aspects.
In sum, I believe that Starr, Crawford, Allen, and Cunningham all make well-argued points deserving of equal consideration in mainstream discussion of African American representation in Porgy and Bess. Ultimately, it seems that the opera is viewed by an individual as either more or less elevating to African Americans depending on what that individual perceives to be liberating. I contend that unless we can determine a causal link between a work of art and real-world sociological effects on an oppressed demographic, certain claims about its impact are purely speculative.
— SUSAN SMITH
Allen, Ray, and George P. Cunningham. “Cultural Uplift and Double-Consciousness: African American Responses to the 1935 Opera “Porgy and Bess”.” The Musical Quarterly 88, no. 3 (2005): 342-69. http://0-www.jstor.org.lib.utep.edu/stable/4123229.
Botstein, Leon. “Music of a Century: Museum Culture and the Politics of Subsidy” in The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century Music ed. Nicholas Cook and Anthony Pople. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Crawford, Richard. “Porgy and Bess.” Grove Music Online. 24 Jan. 2018. http://0-www.oxfordmusiconline.com.lib.utep.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-5000004106.
Starr, Larry. George Gershwin. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011.