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Is It Opera? Is It Musical? It's Theatre

June 15, 2009

The Gershwins' folk opera Porgy and Bess has a long and contentious history in the US. Originally produced on Broadway in 1935 with a cast of classically-trained African-American performers, the work remained untouched by an American opera company until 1976, when the Houston Opera staged Gershwin's full score. The company chose not to include the cuts the composer had made prior to the Broadway opening, thus allowing audiences to experience the opera as Gershwin originally intended it to be heard.

The idea of a non-Black composer creating an artwork about a black community was unpalatable to many Americans throughout the middle of the 20th century. Commentators such as Duke Ellington found the Gershwins' portrayal of black life degrading: "The times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms," Ellington is quoted as saying in Rodney Greenberg's book George Gershwin. Even today, many more people are familiar with musical versions of the work, which are considerably shorter and omit many of the original's recitatives. Since the 1935 production, Porgy and Bess has been revived on Broadway six times, most recently in 1983.

Francesca Zambello's 2007 operatic production of Porgy and Bess, which just opened in San Francisco with Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell in the title roles, reminds audiences that the work indeed engages as an opera. The spiraling, blue and jazz-inflected arias, the characters' powerful emotions, the classic love triangle story line and the intricate orchestrations have the same devastating-elevating effect on the operagoer as the most dramatic efforts of Puccini and Verdi.

I experienced so many highs and lows in the space of three hours at the War Memorial Opera House over the weekend that I was emotionally and physically exhausted by the end of the performance.

The commitment of the ensemble (what a great piece in which to be a chorus member -- there's so much to do!) and lead artists to the material together with the artistry of the work's original creators prove once and for all that arguments about whether Porgy and Bess is really an opera or a musical are a waste of time. As I watched Owens' bearish yet vulnerable Porgy delicately cradle Mitchell's feisty, fiery-tressed Bess in his arms, all I could think of was one thing: Porgy and Bess is pure theatre.


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