THE PORGY PROBLEM
By the Editor
What Porgy problem? English National Opera’s first ever production of Porgy and Bess certainly raised plenty of issues about Gershwin’s opera (see our review on pp. 1553-5). Not about the production itself, which was tamely traditional, pleased most audiences and happily delivered the best Coliseum box-office takings in some time. Yet some fretted about colonial condescension in the piece and the spectre of old stereotypes, and there were also some snooty suggestions that there are far too many hit tunes for the work actually to hold together. Is it, therefore, a problem work?
Well, Porgy may have certain problematic aspects, but it is also a wonderful piece, and it works as an opera not least because the society it portrays is a microcosm for the whole human condition—in much the same way as one of Gershwin’s acknowledged models, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, does too. As for those wellmeaning commentators concerned that it reinforces certain stereotypes, well, it doesn’t, any more than HMS Pinafore confirms the English as a bunch of infantile imbeciles.
The business about Porgy and Bess being a career route (or not) for black singers is more complex. When Glyndebourne mounted it so wonderfully first in 1986, many in that cast somewhat ambivalently dubbed it ‘Pork ’n’ Beans’ in recognition of the work’s history as a source of steady employment. More recently, some have felt that being too closely associated with Porgy can hold back singers from other roles, that Catfish Row is an operatic ghetto from which it is difficult to escape. But Porgy has also helped significantly in keeping a company such as Cape Town Opera afloat financially. The consensus now seems to be that—at least in well-managed careers, which allow singers to choose where and when they sing these roles—talent is not getting trapped here. Even if some singers were indeed cast at ENO more for their skin colour than for their Fach, most scored such a success that they are surely due for reinvitations to the Coliseum.
The original hope of the Gershwin brothers George and Ira, composer and librettist, that Porgy would help promote black talent was certainly fulfilled. After all, it was Bess that got Leontyne Price to Europe. But is the present black-only stipulation of the estate—which, given that Ira died as recently as 1983, will remain in force for years to come—helpful today? (Remember how Hungarian State Opera recently got into a tangle with the Gershwin estate over its attempt to perform Porgy with a white cast?) With colour-conscious casting now on everyone’s mind it has to be admitted that Porgy is one of those exceptional works that demand their own set of rules, and that—at least in countries where black casts are available—it would be considered offensive for white artists to perform the libretto’s phonetic rendering of the Gullah dialect.
And yet … Great art is best made by artists free of constraint, which is where the strict copyright controls exerted over Porgy and Bess seem to be holding back the work from reinvention and reinterpretation, things we take for granted in most of the repertoire. Is Porgy destined to remain preserved in Charleston aspic? The small print on the cover of ENO’s programme—‘GERSHWIN is a registered trademark of Gershwin Enterprises. Porgy and Bess is a registered trademark of Porgy and Bess Enterprises.’—is a reminder of the unwelcome power of composers’ estates, which, backed up by antiquated US laws, seldom seem to be acting in the best interests of the composers themselves. (See also Bernstein and Weill, indeed probably anyone with Broadway pulling-power.) So how do you solve a problem—all right, let’s admit there is one—like Porgy?
Opera, December 2018