Though many regard “Porgy and Bess” as the great American opera, there’s an ongoing chorus of naysayers who claim it ain’t necessarily so.
For starters, there’s the debate about whether the 1935 opus, a blend of European arias and African American sounds and rhythms, fits the definition of opera. And, as Wednesday night’s PBS special “Porgy and Bess: An American Voice” so pointedly demonstrates, some view the piece--a tale of a poor, crippled beggar and a loose-living woman--as a bastion of negative stereotypes in which blacks are presented as dependent, oversexed, drug-addicted and violent.
The controversy is fueled by the all-white heritage of the work. Based on a 1925 novel and subsequent play by white Southerner DuBose Heyward, who also wrote the libretto, “Porgy and Bess” boasts music by George Gershwin and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Heyward. Maya Angelou, who played the character Ruby in a 1954 production, maintains “ ‘Porgy and Bess’ is a truth, a human truth.” Not everyone agrees.
“Harry Belafonte turned down the chance to star in the 1959 movie, saying he’d come too far to be sitting on his knees in a goat cart staring up at white folks,” recalls James Standifer, a University of Michigan professor of music who spent 12 years bringing the $1.6-million documentary to the screen. “Grace Bumbry and Diahann Carroll took on roles in the interest of professional exposure but had major reservations, as well. Still, ‘Porgy and Bess’ shouldn’t be relegated to a museum. The music inspired jazz artists from Ella Fitzgerald to Miles Davis--and the story helps us see how far we’ve come.”
National Book Award winner Gloria Naylor (“The Women of Brewster Place”) was brought aboard to write the show, along with veteran documentary writer Ed Apfel (the Emmy-winning “Edward R. Murrow: This Reporter”). Though the story line of the opera is outdated, they agreed, the music, most definitely, is not. “The music has withstood the test of time and is part of Americana,” Naylor says. “The evolution of the opera moreover reflects how America has moved.”
Standifer, too, sees “Porgy and Bess” as an odyssey of American race relations. In 1936, Washington’s National Theater was desegregated for the first time for performances of the opera, he says. Six years later, the word “nigger” was removed from the text. A larger-than-life Porgy threw away his crutches, walking on his own at the end of Trevor Nunn’s 1986 production. And, reflecting changing notions of what constitutes “beauty,” the dark-hued Bumbry was cast in the lead in 1985 following decades of lighter-skinned Besses.
"[Director] Otto Preminger told Dorothy Dandridge to sing with a ‘smaller’ mouth,” Standifer observes. “Now actresses use collagen to make their mouths bigger.”
Narrated by Ruby Dee, the documentary features interviews with academicians and artists including Carroll (Clara in the film), Nunn, Angelou and the leads in a 1952 touring production: Leontyne Price and William Warfield. The original Porgy and Bess--Anne Brown, 86, and Todd Duncan, 94, who starred in the premiere at Boston’s Colonial Theater in the fall of 1935--also took part. The only major holdout, according to Sandifer, was Sidney Poitier, who had such a distasteful experience playing Porgy on screen that he was reluctant to dredge it up, a colleague said.
Some of the show’s more memorable footage is culled from the civil rights era when the U.S. State Department milked the propaganda value of “Porgy and Bess” by sending the opera abroad. In the 1950s, it was performed in Moscow, Paris and at Italy’s La Scala opera house, having played earlier in such cities as New York, Chicago and Pittsburgh. Because of deep-seated segregation practices, however, it wasn’t until 1970 that the piece was presented in Charleston, S.C.--where native son Heyward set his work.
America has an inferiority complex when it comes to its own product, Standifer maintains. “ ‘Porgy and Bess’ was accepted in major opera houses all over the world before it came to the Met in 1985--which is like yesterday,” he says.
Standifer, 62, first saw “Porgy and Bess” in a segregated Houston theater in 1952, in defiance of his mother’s wishes. In retrospect, it was “a high,” he notes. “I looked as much at the audience as at the stage. For a kid who’d picked cotton, watching white people in their furs applauding and standing for blacks was a pretty incongruous sight.”
In many ways, he says, the documentary project chose him. Attending Nashville’s Fisk University in 1954, he encountered Harlem Renaissance writers who had critiqued the opera. At the suggestion of pianist Eubie Blake, he began creating a videotaped oral history with African American musicians in 1967--some of whom, like Cab Calloway, had appeared in “Porgy and Bess.” The following year, Standifer started a “Porgy and Bess” archive, material from which was used in the show. Heading for the University of Michigan in 1971, he ran into Eva Jessye, the granddaughter of escaped slaves who had served as choral director of the Gershwin opera through 15 years of productions and tours.
At first, Standifer planned to write a biography of Jessye, incorporating her experience on “Porgy and Bess.” Given the richness of his videotape collection, however, he ultimately broadened his sights. Shortly before she died in 1992, Jessye helped him make contact with the DuBose Heyward Philanthropic Trust and the Gershwin family. The National Endowment for the Humanities came up with a $906,000 grant and the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Black Programming Consortium kicked in some money as well.
“I wanted a program in which blacks speak for themselves--[unlike] the original opera, created by two northern Jews and a white Southerner who, despite his admiration for black people, was a product of his time,” says Standifer. “Naylor, an African American with roots in South Carolina, fit the bill perfectly. Apfel--white and Jewish--provided wisdom and insight. In the end, it was a multicultural mix.”
“Porgy and Bess” never had a black director until Hope Clarke staged the 1995 Houston Grand Opera production, which, partially revised by another African American, Tazewell Thompson, later came to L.A. That’s why Standifer felt impelled to give an African American the reins of his documentary. The first choice, however, didn’t work out. Nor did the second, also black. Ironically, he says, they went with the third: Nigel Nobel, who is white.
“I’d been living with this project so many years that I needed more input than the average producer,” the professor admits. “Nigel was willing to listen to me--and I’m sure I was a handful.”
Nobel did a “magnificent” job, Standifer says. But a lack of familiarity with African American culture tripped him up at times: “One of the interviewees spoke about Mr. Charlie and--unaware that the phrase refers to any white person--Nigel asked for Mr. Charlie’s address. The guy being interviewed later said to me: ‘Maybe I should have said The Man.’ ”
* “Porgy and Bess: An American Voice” airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on KCET Channel 28.