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Classical 101

I Loves You, Porgy… and Bess

Performance of Porgy and Bess
Wikimedia Commons

  The only way I can do justice to Porgy and Bess is to let Leontyne Price introduce it herself.

The opera is not just gorgeous, lush, and quintessential to the American arts; it is a hotbed of debate and the catalyst for scores of adaptations, interpretations, and prolific works by both black and white artists. Plus, it’s on the docket this week for the Columbus Symphony Orchestra.

In 1925, the white, American author Edwin Dubose Hayward wrote his seminal novel, Porgy. His wife Dorothy adapted the book into a play which premiered on Broadway in 1927. In 1930, George Gershwin received a commission from the Metropolitan Opera to write a distinctly American work for the company, and by 1935 Gershwin had written music for the opera Porgy and Bess after researching the Gullah dialect and aspects of African American music in the South.

It was a groundbreaking operatic venture in which an all black cast sang serious roles. It was not well-received the first time around, but it gained popularity once the opera opened in Houston.

Popular or not, it was and is still heavily debated in terms of its authentic representation of African American culture and whether or not a white author and a white composer can articulate cultural perspectives outside their own. There is no consensus, and I doubt there ever will be. Even Duke Ellington flip-flopped on embracing the work.

Gershwin was certainly not the first, nor the last, to explore the jazz/Classical fusion dynamic; Darius Milhaud and Maurice Ravel both explored the rich sounds of blues and jazz in Harlem with Gershwin on two separate trips in 1923 and 1928.

“Because Porgy and Bess deals with Negro Life in America it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in the opera and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race. If doing this, I have created a new form, which combines opera with theater, this new form has come quite naturally out of the material.” -George Gershwin, quote from the New York Times in 1935

This weekend’s production will hopefully breed less critique and debate and more appreciation for both the work and the performing artists.

***I am certainly excited to listen to guest conductor John DeMain and Xiayin Wang who will be in the studio this Friday at 9am with Boyce Lancaster.***

For tickets and more information about the performance check out the Columbus Symphony Orchestra‘s page HERE.

The Program

  • ELLINGTON:  Les trios rois noirs (The Three Black Kings)
  • GERSHWIN:  Piano Concerto in F
  • GERSHWIN/BENNETT:  Porgy and Bess

The “Cast”

  • John DeMain, conductor
  • Xiayin Wang, piano
  • Jonita Lattimore, soprano
  • Kevin Deas, bass-baritone
  • Columbus Symphony Chorus