If you read my final New York Times op-ed column on Tuesday, you know that it drives me batty that American’s greatest opera company won’t perform America’s greatest opera. It has been nearly a quarter of a century since the Metropolitan Opera last put on a production of Porgy and Bess. Am I the only one who finds this shameful?
Let’s talk first about the opera itself. It should hardly be necessary to make the case for one of the finest examples of American art to be produced in the last century. But let’s make it anyway. Its creation was a small miracle: three white men, George and Ira Gershwin, and DuBose Hayward—two of whom had never lived in the south—wrote an astonishingly empathetic portrayal of a poor black community in South Carolina—Catfish Row, they called it—in the decades before the dawn of the civil rights movement. Its songs—including “Summertime”, “It Ain’t Necessarily So”, and “I Got Plenty of Nothin’”—are some of Gershwin’s finest, and are central to our nation’s music.
It is also a fine piece of theater; no less an authority than Steve Blier once said that it “ranks with Puccini in terms of crafting great melodies and great theater.” If you saw the tepid Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess a few years back and think you saw the real thing, think again. Performed as the Gershwins and Hayward originally intended—as an opera—Porgy and Bess has a power that no musical theater bastardization (and there have been plenty of them) can match.
Now let’s talk about the Met. One hears constantly that opera—and the Met—need a more diverse and younger audience. The Met has also faced large financial deficits in recently years, which, says Alex Ross of The New Yorker, has caused Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, to “play it safe” this season instead of trying adventurous new operas or productions. It is true that Porgy and Bessrequires a large all-black chorus, which would be expensive. And it’s also true that the Gershwin estate can be difficult to deal with. But figuring out how to tackle both those challenges is Peter Gelb’s job. With its mostly black cast, its recognizable songs, and it thrilling theatricality, Porgy and Bess could well bring in that younger and more diverse audience. It might even make a buck or two.
For anyone in Chicago between now and December 20, , Porgy and Bess is being performed by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, with Eric Owens in the title role. For the rest of us, there is the 1976 Houston Grand Opera’s Porgy and Bess directly by Jack O’Brien, which ranks as perhaps the finest production ever. Here is Donnie Ray Albert and Clamma Dale from that producing singing my favorite song from the opera, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”
This post originally ran on November 5, 2015.