The Seattle Opera is currently staging George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, and the Seattle Times recently ran an interesting piece by Misha Berson about the history and critical controversies surrounding this musical landmark and the book on which it is based. (Even the question of whether Gershwin’s work is an opera or musical has been vigorously debated.)

The larger social controversies come out of the fact that the book was written by a white man, DuBose Heyward, about an impoverished black community complete with gambling, prostitutes, drug dealers and violence. Here’s Berson on the inspiration for the 1925 novel:

South Carolina writer Dubose Heyward’s tale was inspired by a newspaper item about Sammy Smalls, a black, disabled beggar the author (who was white) had observed in Charleston. It was reported that Smalls, who got around via a goat cart, had been arrested for attempting to shoot a woman named Maggie Barnes.

Heyward’s imagination was also stirred by a rough black enclave near his home, a courtyard surrounded by dilapidated apartments known as Cabbage Row.

In Heyward’s 1925 novel “Porgy,” Sammy became Porgy; Cabbage Row became the dockside Catfish Row; and Maggie turned into Bess, who tries to go straight but is dogged by her brutal lover, Crown, and a seductive drug pusher, Sportin’ Life.

The book was a popular success and quickly got Gershwin’s attention.  Heyward collaborated with Gershwin and his brother Ira, also white, in the writing of the opera, first performed on Broadway (in an abbreviated version) in 1935. After leaving Broadway, a number of attempts to stage it elsewhere were canceled (including one in Seattle) because performers balked at what they saw as racial stereotyping and concern that it was detrimental to black interests. Along with musicians and performers, academics and black authors have also complained over the years that the content is negatively stereotypical and that the score is inauthentic to black music. According to The Grove Book of Operas, “not until 1976, when the first production of Gershwin’s complete score, given by the Houston Grand Opera, was hailed an artistic triumph, did the crtitical tide begin to turn.” Porgy and Bess is now considered Gershwin’s magnum opus, and many of the pieces, such as “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” have become jazz and blues standards.

Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis has recorded a number of these songs, and the library has a disc of Nina Simone covering “I Loves You, Porgy.” “Summertime” has been performed by musicians of all types, including Janis Joplin, Sam Cooke, and classical violinist Anne Sophie Mutter. For more of the songs in their operatic arrangements, check out the highlights from the Houston Grand Opera’s 1976 performance. And as was mentioned at the start of this post, you can get the full, live experience in Seattle up through Aug 20th.

But if you’re curious to see what much of the controversy has been about, you might want to read Porgy, the little-read novel that began it all. Berson goes on to say that it is “an empathetic story brimming with passion, melodrama, spiritualism and picturesque atmosphere.”

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