A Story of Porgy and Bess and how it all Began... Narrated and Written just for you!
Just a word or two about a history of American opera prior 1935, the premiere of Porgy and Bess...
Believe or not, there are close to two thousand American operas written to date. The very first one "Leonora" by William Henry Fry premiered in Philadelphia, 1845, and in New York, 1854, with quite a success! But — it is forgotten, just like the big majority of all American operas.
Here are some interesting points from the history:
Scott Joplin wrote one of the very first American opera and a very first one with a theme of black America :"The Guest of Honor", 1903. Today a lost work, the opera describes the true story of Booker T. Washington, the most influential African-American of his era, accepting an invitation by President Teddy Roosevelt to dine with him in the White House. An event celebrated by many and bid as scandalous by others. What a daring opus by Joplin!!
And some wonder— is it “that” Scott Joplin? Yes! We associate Joplin with ragtime, that he perfected and popularized, but his ambitions were much broader: His beautiful mom Florence, an excellent banjo player (!), instilled in him that it is education and widening one's scopes that will make you feel free, no matter of circumstances. Joplin conveys this motto also in his second opera, "Treemonisha", 1911, that is the oldest American opera to be still in the repertoire (even though rarely produced). The opera explores a culture of Black Americans: Threemonisha is the name of the main character, a young black woman educated by white people, who now lives in a black community of cotton pickers; she is first ostracized, as she is “different”, but then becomes a chosen leader of the community. The opera was lost after Joplin's early death in 1917, but found and wonderfully produced and re-introduced to America in mid 70's in Atlanta Opera, Houston Opera, and on Broadway.
Another milestone of American opera comes with the arrival of Giulio Gatti-Casazza. He was an Italian opera manager hired by Metropolitan Opera that he presided over from 1908-1935. He came directly from La Scala and was a fascinating character. Under his directorship the Met entered an era of tremendous innovations and a parade of unique talents: "Gatti", as he was called, brought with him to the Met Arturo Toscanini as a principal conductor who made Metropolitan Opera respected opera house of utmost quality; the singers in the Met were likes of Emma Destinová (a Czech!), Enrico Caruso, Lily Pond, Feodor Chailapin, and others. Gatti also insisted on "Americana" being presented in the Met and — he produced fourteen (!!) American operas between 1910 and 1935. Just for a comparison: between 1937-1991 nine American operas were produced in Met, average one in six years, between 1991 and now there were fourteen American operas produced.
But back to “Gatti” and his effort — to attract audiences to the unknown new American work, most of the American operas were one act and shown in one evening with other famous ones. Most are forgotten... but let us mention one as it is the third opera in history with an African-American theme since Joplin’s operas. The story was based on a successful play by Eugene O'neill Emperor Jones and the opera was written by Louis Grunberg, (a Russian born, American composer), premiered in Met in 1933. It was suggested that Paul Robeson sings the lead. But Met decided to go regrettably with "blackface" instead, and lost an opportunity — it took another twenty years for.a black
singer to sing at Met, and that was Marion Anderson in 1955.
Here is a reason why George Gershwin turned down an offer to produce Porgy and Bess in Met as his condition was that his opera must always be sung (and it is written in his estate till today) by black singers. Met could not meet such a request in 1935. But frankly, Gershwin also felt that Broadway attracts much more diverse audience and it serves better his purpose of “Negro Folk Opera” as he insisted on Porgy and Bess to be called.
And here is the last milestone to mention: Virgil Thomas (1896-1989), a white successful American composer, produced an opera (set in 1600’s in Spain) with libreto by Gertruda Stein, Four Saints in Three Acts. It premiered in Hartford, and then on Broadway, 1934. It was the very first opera cast with black singers and dancers and brought quite an attention at the premiere, but it is not in standard repertoire.
When Porgy and Bess premiered on October 10, 1935 it became (especially after the insightful re-staging of the opera by Jack o'Brian in Houston Opera in 1970's), the very first American opera in standard repertoire till today. The opera follows a daily life of a black community in Charleston and features their music that became a symbol of American culture. It shares several superb unforgottable tunes deeply rooted in American heritage. Unlike Scott Joplin who writes about his race, Porgy and Bess, a "Negro Folk Opera", is written by three white guys, Du Bois Hayward, George & Ira Gershwin. And that raised over the years many questions, praises and contraversies.
But this is what I think: the value of this beloved opera and its unforgettable tunes lies just in that paradox of white people offering story of black people: It stands as a beautiful homage to the beauty, uniqueness and intrinsic value of music that came with slaves from West Africa to America and gave roots to rich astonishing American music we love, admire and enjoy so much.
Thank you for your interest, I appreciate my readers very much! I hope you will enjoy my narration below and especially the samples from the opera!
Summertime: Kathleen Battle
My Man is Gone: Trevor Nunn, 1983 production,Cynthia Clarey
Bess, you are my Woman/Production of Trevor Nunn/ W. White and C.Haymon
I got Plenty of Nutting/Prouction of trevor Nunn/W. White
Jasha Heifetz, Summertime, arranged for violin and piano by J.Heifetz