When I mentioned to a friend that I was going to attend the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Porgy and Bess he seemed surprised.
“Opera?” he asked. “I thought that was a Broadway musical.”
Many people feel this way, in part because their experiences with Porgy and Bess have not come from hearing about the show as an opera, though they have long come to recognize much of the music. Is there a better-known tune than “Summertime”? And how many people who are familiar with it, from hearing it, from singing it, even from playing its melody in jazz bands, have any idea that “Summertime” comes from an opera?
So the music has been around, and we know it, but unless we attend a production at an opera house (the New York City Opera had a fine production a few years before the company shut down, and the Met produced the opera about thirty years ago in a well-received version), there wasn’t much opportunity to hear Porgy and Bess as an opera, the form in which it was first conceived.
As it turns out, however, Porgy and Bess was indeed first performed as a musical, opening in Boston in 1935 and then moving to the Alvin Theater in New York where it played for 124 performances. Yet from the beginning, George and Ira Gershwin thought of the work as a “folk opera.” George described it as such in a New York Times article in 1935, but even with a Broadway revival seven years later and a 1959 film with Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier, Porgy and Bess seemed to continue as a sort of “non-opera.” For example, major changes were made for the film, as arias became songs and recitatives became spoken dialogue, with the result that Porgy and Bess was not heard much over the years. Or when it was performed, a wide variety of versions was used, which probably had something to do with why the opera was not (overall) very successful.
All that changed with a production at the Houston Grand Opera in 1976, when the complete score was first restored. For the first time, according to some reports, an American opera company, not a Broadway production company, had tackled the opera. It came to New York, did well, and the opera was recorded. And as told by many historians who have looked at the opera (now known as The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess), the 1976 version had much to do with the more-frequent performances that followed the Houston Grand Opera’s success.
Having heard about the Met’s Porgy and Bess as a “coming event,” I was ready for it. And I was anticipating it with some excitement, since this new Porgy and Bess is a co-production of the Metropolitan Opera, the Dutch National Opera, and the English National Opera. It got to New York after well-received performances in Amsterdam and London, and this production of the beloved classic is a primary object lesson of the benefits of co-production in opera companies.
Thanks to the well-structured promotion management efforts at the Met (and what appears to have been a massive advertising campaign), stories and discussions could be picked up in a wide variety of media. Opera News itself, published by the The Metropolitan Opera Guild since 1936, devoted most of its September issue to the upcoming Porgy and Bess.
Other outlets were full of human-interest and PR stories, with one of the most interesting being a story headlined “Met’s Porgy and Bess will Feature All-Black Chorus.” As it turned out, there were sixty of these new choristers, all listed in the program for the performance, and all accomplishing the very highest levels of choral singing. This “special” chorus was simply magnificent and contributed greatly to the overall success of the performance.
And to give the Metropolitan Opera Association full credit, other promotional endeavors were undertaken, going beyond advertising and PR. One of these was an hour-long discussion offered as the first of the season’s “METtalks,” this one on September 10, just two weeks before the opening-night performance of Porgy and Bess. The Met’s General Manager Peter Gelb moderated a highly thoughtful and stimulating conversation among several members of the production’s creative team. About 500 people attended, and what an honor to be there!
In the discussion, we couldn’t help but learn more about the immense level of thought that went into putting this remarkable show together, which enhanced our appreciation. Speaking with Gelb were Conductor David Robertson, Production Designer James Robinson, Choreographer Camille Halls, Eric Owens (cast as Porgy) and Angel Blue (cast as Bess). Each of them gave intriguing details about how they approached this special revival of the opera, with all of us welcoming Porgy and Bess back to the Met after 30 years.
And when we discuss the show (I love it that opera people – so often thought of as perhaps a little stuffy or “snobbish” – refer to the product they have on stage as a “show”), it’s very natural to start with the performances and this Porgy and Bess is no exception. Not only are Eric Owens and Angel Blue exceptional, both as actors and as singers, of particular note was Golda Schultz, another sparkling soprano from South Africa (we’ve had quite a few truly talented South African singers come to us in the past few years). From Bloemfontein, Schultz made her debut two years ago as Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and this year she has two championship roles to sing. In Porgy and Bess, Schultz was Clara, giving us her very classical (and very beautiful) rendition of the above-mentioned “Summertime,” and in a couple of months, she takes on Sophie in another of my favorite programs, the Met’s outstanding production from two years ago of Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. I’m enjoying seeing her have such a fine run in our town.
How do I describe an event such as this new production of Porgy and Bess, and the impact such an event has on those of us who love the arts (especially the performing arts, and especially opera)? I thought about some words (quite a few, as a matter of fact), trying to come up with an apt descriptor for what we experienced, and I finally figured out that only “monumental” will do for this one. Why? Well, let’s play with the definitions. On this occasion, two ways of defining “monumental” seem to work for me, the first noting that “monumental” is used to describe something of “outstanding significance.” Certainly that definition works for me, to describe what we have been given in this production of Porgy and Bess. Then I came across another definition for “monumental,” and it seems to work even better, for from this source “monumental” can be used when what is being described is determined by the person describing it as “astounding.”
That’s it. I can’t do any better than that. The Met’s new Porgy and Bess is monumental. It is of outstanding significance in the opera history of this second decade of the 21st century, and it is astounding. I wonder if anyone else who loves opera as I do will ever experience anything else like this.
As an aside, our evening had begun with a sad announcement. As we arrived at our seats, our neighbor told us that she had just heard that Jessye Norman had died. And indeed, as the house lights dimmed, one of the company’s managers stepped in front of the curtain to tell us that the evening’s performance was being dedicated to Jessye Norman’s memory. It was one of those throat-stopping moments, and yet within no more than a beat or two, the entire audience applauded and cheered in her honor. I’ll offer my own tribute to her soon.