The Preeminence of Porgy and Bess: Should This Be a Problem?
Updated: Mar 25, 2020
Should an opera composed by a White American be the quintessential Black American opera?
I was reading this article recently and I begin to think…
Why is Porgy and Bess the preeminent Black American Opera?
Porgy and Bess was composed by George Gershwin in 1935 with a libretto by his brother Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward.
When referring to black opera, many Americans immediately think of Porgy and Bess, and if asked, “What is the definitive opera of the African American experience?”, people vaguely familiar with the topic are likely to think of Porgy and Bess even if they don’t outright say it.
But here's where you run into a problem. "The preeminent black American opera" was composed by a white man.
We know that racism dominated the popular music culture that would eventually be known as “Rock and Roll”.
This type of scenario isn’t an isolated event in music history. We know that racism dominated the popular music culture that would eventually be known as “Rock and Roll”.
Has this also happened in the world of opera?
We also know that there are plenty of operas composed by African Americans that have very few performances when compared to Porgy and Bess, and which only aficionados can claim familiarity.
Just to name a few contemporary ones...
X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X composed by Anthony Davis.
The Central Park Five also composed by Davis. Both operas provide rich insights into the African American experience.
Harriet Tubman: When I Crossed That Line to Freedom is an opera in two acts by Nkeiru Okoye. While the subject matter of Okoye’s opera dates back to the era of American slavery, the story, most assuredly resonates with audiences today.
Obviously, there are many more that could be mentioned and I wish I had the space to do so. They deserve to be acknowledged.
There Has Been Progress... right??
Sure, but is it enough?
Works such as Lucien-Léon Guillaume Lambert’s opera La Flamenca recently received a rare performance in New Orleans.
Both Davis and Okoye’s operas are getting much deserved performances and recognition. Works such as Lucien-Léon Guillaume Lambert’s opera La Flamenca recently received a rare performance in New Orleans.
Not bad, but in the overall scheme... small potatoes, right?
What's the solution?
It’s foolish to think that only one reason exists for any given problem. Whether Porgy and Bess is an opera at all is another question that could be asked, and is yet another reason this issue is so relevant.
Therefore, could a reasonable person conclude that some form of bias, bigotry, or even racism is the predominant reason why Porgy and Bess is considered by many to be the great black American opera?
Maybe, or maybe not. Either way, what can we do about it? I'll suggest this for starters:
If you are a fan of opera, you can support Black operas that already exist.
If you are a Black composer, you can compose an opera, particularly one that depicts the African American experience.
If you are disturbed by this issue in any way, you can help bring awareness by word of mouth and through social media.
Are there other solutions to this problem? What can we as a community do to resolve this issue?
Let me know in the comments section below….