Porgy and Bess, which made its New York debut in 1935, is known as the “first great American opera.” But Porgy and Bess has also long been called out for cultural appropriation and stereotyping. Now, as Playbill reports, the controversial show will be performed at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera for the first time in 30 years.
Tonight, Porgy and Bess will kick off the Met’s new season, with Eric Owens and Angel Blue starring in the titular roles. According to Michael Cooper of the New York Times, the Met is not shying away from the opera’s fraught history, hosting a number of talks—featuring conductor David Robertson and director James Robinson, among others—about the show. And in celebration of the return of Porgy and Bess to its stage stage, the Met is launching an exhibition that explores the impact of black performers on the company.
Porgy and Bess—set amid a fictional African-American tenement in Charleston, South Carolina, where love and friendship are tempered by addiction and violence—has long occupied a complex space on the American cultural landscape. The opera was created by the famed composer George Gershwin and the novelist DuBose Heyward, whose 1925 novel Porgy inspired the opera. Gershwin’s brother Ira and Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, also contributed to the work. All four members of the team were white.
In three acts, Porgy and Bess tells the doomed love story of beggar who is disabled and an unmarried mother who are plagued by Bess’ violent former boyfriend, Crown, and a cynical drug dealer named Sportin’ Life. Gershwin insisted that the opera be performed only by a black cast—rather than white actors in blackface—which initially made it difficult to find a home for Porgy and Bess on Broadway, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. Gershwin lost money on the production.
Reviews of the show were mixed; one critic derided it as a “crooked folklore and half-way opera.” But its songs—like “Summertime” and “I Loves You Porgy”—became iconic, performed by the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. According to the National Museum of African American History & Culture, the cast members would often protest at segregated venues, leading to “the integration of audiences in many theaters across the world.”
The show created rare opportunities for classically trained black performers—“There were so few places for black singers trained in European classics to work,” Maya Angelou, who was once featured in a touring production, told NPR in 2010—and represented black life in a serious theatrical piece. At the same time, the nature of that representation rankled many critics, who lambasted the show’s dialect, the stereotypical nature of the characters and the depiction of black culture as rife with gambling, addiction and violence.
“What we are to consider . . . is not a Negro opera by Gershwin,” the composer Hall Johnson wrote in 1936, “but Gershwin’s idea of what a Negro opera should be.”
Robinson, the director of the Met production, says that he always thought of the characters as enterprising, aspirational and altogether human while tackling this new iteration. “We have to treat these people with great dignity, and take them seriously,” he tells Cooper. “When they become caricatures, it just seems to ring false.”
But it’s hard to shake the opera’s problematic qualities, even for the performers who are embodying its characters. Owens, the bass-baritone who sings Porgy, has played the character before; Porgy and Bess, he tells Cooper, represents “one part of an African-American experience.” But Owens has also been careful to never make his debut at an opera house in that role. “It just put people on notice,” he explains, “that I’m an artist who does many things.”