Porgy and Bess takes centre stage at Edinburgh International Festival
Opéra de Lyon's production of Gershwins' crossover classic
This article is from 2010.
As a new production of Porgy and Bess swings into the festival, Neil Cooper explores the history of an iconic work that has been mired in accusations of racism and suspicions of arson while delivering some timeless songs
As operas go, it’s fair to say that Porgy and Bess blew in like a hurricane. When George and Ira Gershwin’s self-styled ‘American folk opera’ featuring a libretto by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward appeared on the New York stage in 1935, its cast of classically trained African-American performers appeared to have broken the mould of so-called high art just as much as the show’s jazz and blues inspired songbook. But this tale about a crippled beggar living in the slums of South Carolina who rescues a woman from the clutches of her violent husband and a drug dealer, was only truly accepted as a legitimate opera when Houston Grand Opera staged a production in 1976. It was another nine years before it graced New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
As Opéra de Lyon’s Edinburgh International Festival production will no doubt testify to, Porgy and Bess is now regarded as a modern crossover classic. Yet for every wine-bar rendition of ‘Summertime’ and ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ – songs made famous by star turns ranging from Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald to Miles Davis and Gil Evans – Porgy and Bess is mired in a controversial history involving accusations of a racist portrayal of the Catfish Row community it depicted. That these accusations came from the likes of Duke Ellington and Harry Belafonte, with the latter declining to play the male lead in Otto Preminger’s 1959 film version, gave credence to claims later aired by original cast members.
Such reservations fuelled similar views during the Civil Rights years of the 1960s and the 1970s Black Power movement. By this time, black popular song had moved out of the ghetto and into the charts via Motown and Sly and the Family Stone. While political dissent remained hip via The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, on the big screen the counter-culture was given a cache of cool via the Blaxploitation movies, later fetishised by video-shop brat Quentin Tarantino in a way some might argue wasn’t that far removed from how Gershwin – a Jewish European immigrant – treated Porgy.
By 1984, a column by acid queen Julie Burchill in style bible The Face noted how ‘The Rage is Beige’. Burchill pointed to Prince as an icon of pop whose sound was neither black nor white, rather a hi-tech, commercially savvy hybrid of jazz, blues, soul funk, disco and both versions of R’n’B. Michael Jackson, then riding high on the back of his Thriller album, was strangely spared Burchill’s wrath. Six years earlier Jackson had appeared alongside Diana Ross in The Wiz, Sidney Lumet’s all-black film version of The Wizard of Oz. Lumet was the son-in-law of actress and singer Lena Horne, who appeared in The Wiz as Glinda, The Good Witch. In 1943 Horne had starred in Stormy Weather, a ground-breaking film for black American actors, alongside Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong. At one point Horne, who died in May, was the highest-paid black actress in Hollywood.
A close friend of singer Paul Robeson, who was pursued by the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s, Horne’s association left her unable to work in films for seven years. It was during this period that Horne sang female lead on an album version of Porgy and Bess released the same year as Preminger’s film. Oddly, given his stance, Belafonte sang Porgy on the album while a young Sidney Poitier took the lead role in the film, later revealing that he only accepted the part because he feared a refusal might jeopardise his appearance in Stanley Kramer’s film, The Defiant Ones. By that time, the genesis of Porgy and Bess as a movie had already become the stuff of soap opera.
A slew of producers had attempted to develop the show for the big screen, with Harry Cohn even suggesting that Fred Astaire, Al Jolson and Rita Hayworth black up for it. By the time Poitier finally accepted producer Samuel Goldwyn’s offer, baseball player Jackie Robinson, boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and singer Clyde McPhatter had all turned it down. On the eve of rehearsals, the entire film set perished in a blaze said to be a deliberate protest.
Original director Rouben Mamoulian, who’d worked on Porgy and Bess in both theatrical and operatic form, was fired and Preminger drafted in. When the film finally appeared, runs were limited or else cancelled after angering black audiences, losses were never recouped, and Porgy and Bess the movie disappeared from view.
Interestingly, two of the dancers in Preminger’s film were writer Maya Angelou and Nichelle Nichols, who, as Lieutenant Uhura in Star Trek, shared television’s first ever inter-racial kiss with William Shatner’s Captain Kirk. Angelou had played a small part in the 1952 revival which also featured Cab Calloway. Despite all this disharmony, Porgy and Bess’ two best known songs have become standards. Based on a Ukrainian lullaby, ‘Summertime’ has been covered by jazzers including Art Blakey, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock and George Benson. Both Nina Simone and Cleo Laine have tackled it, as have The Doors, The Zombies and Charlotte Church.
Beyond Aretha Franklin and Bobby Darin’s versions, ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ was reinvented for the alternative cabaret age by early 1980s synth-pop trio Bronski Beat, fronted by Jimmy Somerville. His demeanour as a gay white Glaswegian singing the song falsetto at the height of Thatcherism gave things a whole new political dimension. More recent versions by Jamie Cullum and Sting weren’t quite cut from the same oppositionist cloth.
Yet how does this all square with the Gershwins insisting that Porgy and Bess only ever be produced with a black cast, or their loathing of Preminger’s film, which was effectively withdrawn from view by the Gershwin and Heyward estates in the 1970s, only being screened in full as recently as 2007? More pertinently, perhaps, how does the show’s ambiguous history relate to the production by Cape Town Opera which toured to Edinburgh Festival Theatre during autumn 2009? By relocating the action to the black townships of apartheid-era South Africa, rather than being accused of Uncle Tom-ing things, Cape Town Opera put a culture’s institutionalised racism at the forefront of the play.
It’s doubtful any of this will mean much to Opéra de Lyon’s Porgy and Bess, described in the EIF programme as, ‘A life-enhancing, high-octane production … total entertainment … ’ Yet there is one act on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe who straddles all the worlds mentioned. Clarke Peters, best known as Lester Freamon in The Wire, is currently reviving his Broadway hit, Five Guys Named Moe. In 2006 Peters played Porgy in a concert version of Porgy and Bess directed by Trevor Nunn in homage to his own Glyndebourne production. Despite the show’s commercial glitz, it sank. That’s showbiz, but, like Porgy and Bess, it’s so much more stormy weather besides.
The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, Festival Theatre, Nicolson Street, 0131 473 2000, 14, 16, 17 Aug, 7.15pm, £14–£64.