Angel Blue and Eric Owens in ‘Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.’
(Film still: Great Performances, PBS/YouTube)
One of the hottest tickets of New York City’s Metropolitan Opera most recent season was the stunning reimagining of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. The production, co-starring Eric Owns as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess, airs tonight on PBS at 9 p.m. ET.
Taking place in the tenement neighborhood of Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, director James Robinson interpreted the setting as a close-knit, aspirational working-class community in which everyone is doing his or her best to get by, instead of an abandoned slum.
“The inhabitants of Catfish Row are integral to everything that’s going on with every other character,” says Robinson. “You get to know how this community functions. It’s a very religious community—they’re bound by their faith. Every individual in that community of Catfish Row, every member of the chorus, has a story.”
Since its 1935 premiere, Gershwins’ work has garnered both praise and criticism. “Questions — about genre, about representation, about appropriation — have followed Porgy through more than eight decades of convoluted, sometimes troubling history, and remain salient,” wrote Michael Cooper for The New York Times before the Met’s opening.
The article also references Hall Johnson, a black composer and arranger of the time, who said the folk opera was “not a Negro opera by Gershwin, but Gershwin’s idea of what a Negro opera should be.”
The Undefeated’s Soraya McDonald suggests that “So much of the angst surrounding Porgy and Bess and its imperfect characters would dissipate if black opera singers were provided the release valve of variety. If black opera singers didn’t have to worry so much about being confined to Catfish Row for the rest of their careers, if the whole of the operatic canon was available to them in the way that the actor wishes the whole of Shakespeare were available to him, none of this would be quite so fraught.”
While viewers won’t be able to see the accompanying exhibition, “Black Voices at the Met,” which was on display during the production, an online guide does offer additional historical context.