South Africans perform opera Porgy and Bess

This music video is called Gershwin – Porgy and Bess: Summertime. From the movie “Rhapsody in Blue” (1945).

By Verena Nees:

Opera for everyone

Porgy and Bess in Berlin

29 July 2008

Porgy and Bess, by George Gershwin, Deutsche Oper, Berlin, July 4 to August 1, 2008; conducted by Willie Waters; directed by Angelo Gobbato; the opera will also be performed at Den Norske Opera, Oslo, August 9 to August 29

Berlin has rarely experienced such a phenomenon: at the beginning of the summer break, when the city’s opera houses traditionally close for several weeks, the Cape Town Opera is performing George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess at the Deutsche Oper—and receiving rapturous applause.

Is it because Gershwin’s popular opera has not been performed for such a long time in Berlin? Or because the South African ensemble act and sing so convincingly?

Certainly, both factors play a role. At the same time, there can be no doubt that the material at the heart of Porgy and Bess has struck a profound chord: in the midst of poverty, exploitation and iniquity, the search for a little happiness. Porgy and Bess is indeed an opera for everyone, as director Angelo Gobbato maintains.

The director has transposed the opera from South Carolina during the Great Depression to the South African townships of the 1970s, where most of the singers and actors were born. The company members do not come from among the more privileged children whose musical talents were encouraged from an early age. The Cape Town cast have had their own experiences with the sort of miserable living conditions they present on stage. They are hoping that their tour to Berlin and then on to Oslo will bring in the necessary money for further productions for the ensemble.

The libretto for Gershwin’s opera was adapted from the 1924 best-seller, Porgy, by DuBose Heyward (1885-1940), a story based on a real figure—a crippled beggar—who lived on the streets of Charleston. Porgy, forced by his crippled legs to use a board with wheels to move around, falls in love with the attractive, but drug-addicted Bess, who is kept by Crown, a thug, pimp and alcoholic.

When Crown kills a man in an argument over a gambling stake and has to flee, Porgy takes up the abandoned Bess. For a while, the two experience a harmonious relationship, but then Bess falls prey to Crown when the latter returns. Porgy strangles Crown when he comes to fetch Bess and is sent to prison. Bess once again becomes addicted to the drug “happy dust,” given to her by the dealer and rake Sportin’ Life, with whom she goes to New York. The story ends with Porgy’s return from jail and his decision to seek out Bess. His motivation is so intense that in a powerful final scene he struggles to his legs and begins to walk again.

Gershwin had long contemplated the idea of composing a grand opera, and was fascinated by the material. He was finally able to win over Heyward to write an opera treatment. The composer, who came from a Russian-Jewish family, was mainly known for his symphonic work Rhapsody in Blue and the musical An American in Paris. But he was also familiar with classical music, and in addition to his more well-known pieces, created symphonies and piano works taking up elements of his contemporaries such as Shostakovich, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Ravel and Berg.

During the lengthy process of working on the opera, in which George’s brother Ira and the novelist Heyward and his wife were also involved, Gershwin travelled to Charleston several times to become familiar with the atmosphere of this city. He also spent some time on Folly Island and James Island, where he studied and participated in the life, music and rhythms of the black population.

Since the opera was intended to be performed by a black ensemble, he offered his work not to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but to the smaller Theatre Guild. Gershwin later explained his decision. “The reason why I had not offered this work to the usual promoters of opera in America was the hope that I had created something in American music that would please a wider public rather than a few cultivated palates.”

The work, which premiered in 1935 in New York, was only performed 128 times, a relatively short run for Broadway. The public was enthusiastic, unlike some of the critics, who attacked the “popular” character of the opera, regarding it as an inadmissible mixture of so-called serious music and popular music, a presentation of songs instead of properly composed arias, etc. George Gershwin was forced to defend his opera; pointing out that “many of the most successful operas of the past…included songs. Nearly all Verdi’s operas contain what we would call a ‘hit song.’ Carmen consists almost entirely of a collection of hit songs.”

Gershwin was right: Verdi’s operas were so popular and revolutionary that many of its arias are still sung today by ordinary people on the streets and in cafés. The same applies to Bizet’s Carmen. Just as revolutionary for the America of his day was the performance of a popular opera with black singers and with principal figures drawn from the oppressed black population. At this time, opera was still the preserve of a white audience and an opera about life in a black slum was considered scandalous by many.

Gershwin, who died at 38, only two years after the premiere, did not live long enough to experience the triumph of his opera, which enjoyed a second run of performances starting in 1942 in New York and from 1943 in Europe. In Copenhagen, 22 sold-out performances took place under massive police guard during the Nazi occupation. When the Nazis threatened to blow up the opera house, the work was withdrawn from the programme. After this, the opera become a symbol for the Danish resistance. Every time the radio broadcast Nazi propaganda, the anti-fascists used a jamming transmitter that began its programme with the song “It ain’t necessarily so.”

The musical West Side Story: here.

Anti apartheid action in South Africa, 1968: here.

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3 thoughts on “South Africans perform opera Porgy and Bess

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