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Rhiannon Giddens excels in problematic Gershwin masterpiece at Greensboro's Tanger Center / YES WEEKLY

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YES WEEKLY's Ian McDowell writes…..The Greensboro Opera production of Porgy and Bess that ended its brief run at the Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts on Sunday may seem an odd fit for Greensboro-born polymath Rhiannon Giddens. Not that Giddens doesn’t know opera. Before she became a Grammy and MacArthur-winning folk singer and multi-instrumentalist (not to mention writer, historian, and ethnomusicologist), she was a classically trained Oberlin grad, and she hosts the Met’s radio show and podcast Aria Code.

And George Gershwin’s score for Porgy and Bess is a masterpiece of 20th century American music, populist as well as highbrow. The songs Gershwin conceived as arias have become part of the informal canon known as the Great American Songbook. Giddens was the main attraction of the first opera to be performed at Tanger. But while a historic role for Black women, Bess is not necessarily a great one, and not just because she only gets one of the opera’s marquee arias, the final and briefest reprise of “Summertime,” after it’s been done twice by the character Clara (in this production, the Marian Anderson Award-winning soprano Indira Mahajan, who sings it very well indeed).

Called a “Folk Opera” on its 1935 premiere, Porgy and Bess was one of the first major productions in which all of the Black characters were played by Black performers, as George Gershwin and his librettist brother Ira contractually required it never be done in blackface. It was also the first in which the leads, chorus, and much of the supporting cast were filled by classically-trained Black singers.  

Subject to both acclaim and controversy in 1935 and its 1942 revival, its stateside reputation waned after World War 2. By the late 1950s, it was largely forgotten in America, and when performed, was often done in a musical theater or jazz rather than operatic manner.

But in 1977, it was revived by the Houston Grand Opera in a style that embraced the O-word, with “Folk” removed. For the first time, it was billed as “The Great American Opera,” a description regularly applied to it ever since.

Considered as either an opera or musical, its best aria/song is the magnificent “Summertime,” the rare moment in the show where Gershwin’s music is matched by words that Stephen Sondheim called “the best lyrics in musical theater.” They are also among the few in colloquial but standard English, rather than a white man’s idea of phonetic dialect.

That song, and all the music, is transcendent, but the narrative and other words reflect a vision of Black poverty reimagined by Depression-era rich white progressives. It’s a masterpiece, but a problematic one. While that criticism may seem “woke,” it’s been made by performers and critics for the better part of a century.

A week before the original run closed in 1936, Black composer Hall Johnson wrote that it was “not a Negro opera by Gershwin, but Gershwin’s idea of what a Negro opera should be.” A few years later a Federal Theater production was canceled when performers from the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle criticized the show as racist.

Harry Belafonte turned down the role of Porgy in Otto Preminger’s film version for being “racially demeaning.” Second choice Sidney Poitier said he found the role insulting but was coerced into it by producer Samuel Goldwyn. When the film was released in 1959, novelist James Baldwin called it “a white man’s vision of Negro life.”

But ultimately if paradoxically, it was Giddens’ show, whether despite or due to the handicaps of both the material and the way the orchestra was conducted. I hope the next time I see her in a musical or opera, she will have a better part. If the Gershwin estate allows it, perhaps a talented writer will rework this libretto the way that Tony Kushner did the script of Spielberg’s West Side Story, and bring out nuances either absent or only hinted at in the text. If that happens, Bess may become a great role as well as a historic one.