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Porgy and Bess — the opera

Muriel2017Many important issues were covered on Broadway in those 1930s musicals — issues which society would not have been comfortable confronting in other ways. Just as comedy was, and continues to be, used to help us deal with the unbearable, musicals often presented audiences with differing views than their own. Audiences were thus encouraged to look at and rethink their own attitudes.

 

 

‘Porgy and Bess’ the first and only opera created by the famous American Gershwin brothers, was written and first performed in 1935. Unfortunately, George died of a brain tumor in 1937, so no more operas followed. The magnificent songs alone make it worth seeing, however, this masterpiece is so much more than only beautiful music.

 

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Eric Owens is Porgy and Angel Blue performs Bess (The Gershwins would have been pleased by the casting)

 

 

GeorgeGershwin1898-1937

George Gershwin, 1898-1937

The Gershwin brothers, whose parents

IraGershwin1896-1983

Ira Gershwin, 1896-1983

immigrated to the U.S. from Russia, like my own — for good reason, well understood discrimination, prejudice, antisemitism — and racism. For this opera, they insisted that all performers appearing in black roles, be black. This at a time when opera singers in the U.S. were white only and using white performers in black face was common.

 

Marian Anderson1897-1993

Marian Anderson 1897-1993

 

 

Contralto Marian Anderson waited until 1955 to be able to perform in a Metropolitan Opera. Before that, she performed in concerts in Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

The libretto of Porgy and Bess, set in 1920‘s South Carolina, makes a powerful statement regarding the vulnerability of the black community’s attempts at survival. All this years before Dr. Martin Luther King came along. Shamefully, the struggle still continues today.

But, if all you want are songs, Porgy and Bess has glorious songs: ‘Summertime’. ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’, ‘I Got Plenty O’Nothin’, and then some. Definitely worth seeing! (I saw the Metropolitan’s Live Broadcast at a local theatre, and yes, all black roles were performed by black artists — as the Gershwins would have wanted..)

If you notice me singing, do join in…

mom-thinking-2I often walk to my favorite cafe in the morning. Since my right knee complains with every step, I sing as I walk. My brain isn’t capable of multi tasking, so trying to remember the words of old songs seems to lessen the pain. It works to some degree. When someone comes by, I lower my voice so I won’t be heard. Yet, what fun it would be if strangers joined me in song just like they did in the old musicals I so enjoyed when I was a kid. Ta-da….

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Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in Easter Parade

Even then I remember feeling a little silly as I watched some of those movies. The goings on onscreen could be unrealistic. For example, all the passersby knew the words of the songs and the dance steps and so were able to join Judy Garland and Fred Astaire in the ‘Easter Parade’ — dressed in their Easter best. Young as I was, I knew that didn’t really happen.

Yes, there were a few mindless plots weakly held together to

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Gene Kelly in Dancin’ in the Rain

showcase the talent of the stars in them, and Gene Kelly did dance in the rain on the sidewalks of New York in ‘Dancin’ in the Rain’, but you can’t deny he was entertaining.

Were musicals all silly, mindless fluff? I think not. Many important issues were covered in Broadway musicals — issues which society would not have been ready to confront in any other format at the time. Just as comedy was, and continues to be, used to help us deal with the serious and even unbearable, musicals often sugarcoated difficult themes. Without realizing it, audiences were encouraged to look at and hopefully rethink their ideas and attitudes.

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Thomas Carey and Carol Brice in Porgy & Bess, 1934

Gershwin and Heyward’s ‘Porgy & Bess’ is often regarded as the first great American opera. The music is brilliant but at the same time, the story makes a strong statement on the difficult position of blacks in America — as valid today as when it first came out in 1934, years before Martin Luther King came along.

Even earlier, in 1927, Kern and Hammerstein touched on black and

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The great Paul Robeson, Showboat, 1936

white issues in another timeless musical classic ‘Showboat’. (In my opinion those who protested against the show in Toronto some years ago, could not have seen it.)

Then, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘South Pacific’, which came out in 1949, tackled racial discrimination head-on. A real inter-racial love affair takes place on the stage/screen. It was a daring move which clearly defined the needless tragedy that results from racist thinking in Lieutenant

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Mary Martin & Ezio Pinza in South Pacific

Cable’s romance with a Polynesian girl, Liat. The American Nellie, portrayed so well by Mary Martin, is shocked when she discovers Emile, a Frenchman, has children who are half-Polynesian. In the end, Nellie chooses to deal with her own prejudices and marries the man she loves. (By the way, Mary Martin, who washed her hair in each performance, claimed all that hair-washing did no harm.)

‘Hair’ about the hippy movement, free love and the drug culture, raised many an eyebrow with its passive nudity in 1968. I remember being shocked myself when I first saw it. Those scenes seem mild to us today. Modern audiences probably don’t understand what the fuss was all about.

I’m reminded of these productions when I find myself singing some of the old show tunes while I walk in the morning. If you catch me at it, do join in.