ERIC, ANGEL, and GEORGE
On Porgy and Bess
Opera is, above all, a collaborative project.
From the stage and lighting, with its builders, technicians and crew, the costumes put together with care by the wardrobe department, the dancers, the orchestra, and the chorus with their musical staff and librarians, not to mention the material support for all this from the administrative staff; it’s a big undertaking. No wonder it is often called “Grand.”
Even the works themselves are touched by many hands before they go into production. A man named Dubose Hayward pens a story, which plays a significant role in the Harlem Renaissance, giving his work the name of its principal character, Porgy – incidentally the name of a common, unremarkable fish. Heyward’s wife, Dorothy, turns it into a play, which then gets put on Broadway to great success by Rouben Mamoulian, who also added important touches. George Gershwin, already enchanted by the book, works together with the Heywards, his brother Ira and Mamoulian to turn the play into an opera , but with a small change to the title: Porgy and Bess.
Given all that background, several books could be written about the whole history, but from my point of view, there are moments of discovery in rehearsals and performance that don’t always get much notice. They contribute immeasurably to the work’s overall genius.
Gershwin’s music seduces entirely. This has allowed the melodies and harmonies to float above the fray: the earthbound, necessary discussions about race relations, their presentations in our shared culture, and historical perspectives in the story of America. Thus the tunes are familiar even to those who have never heard, seen, or know the plot of the opera. It also means that great care must be taken by the singers to be both faithful to the composer, which is the tradition in opera, and to bring their own personal take, as one does in jazz and popular music styles. In other words, you may love the way that Nina Simone or Ella Fitzgerald sings a particular tune, but in the end you have to sing Gershwin’s opera as he musically fashioned the story.
Luckily, George Gershwin understood how to write music that does indeed leave room for the individual to bring their own musical personality. We were particularly lucky in this production to have the definitive score for the first time, edited by Wayne Shirley as part of the complete Gershwin Edition. The 600 plus pages of the full score have all the details needed to make informed musical choices about every aspect of the opera.
Angel Blue and Eric Owens, both experienced in the roles of Bess and Porgy, bring a curiosity, flexibility, and deep insight into everything they do. This allows them to create believable characters who sing. The complexity of being human and interacting with others comes across is all its wonderful indecision. To refine, hone and perfect musical phrases with both of them is a dream come true for a conductor.
Watching James Robinson build a dramatic context for the music during rehearsals was inspiring. A “number” like “Bess, you is my woman now” is less a set duet than a musical exploration of two people who have never known love before. Porgy has only experienced pity, and in Bess’ life, love was always transactional. The set-up starts earlier where Bess has come within an inch of returning to Happy Dust (in Jim Robinson’s production, literally!). Just in the nick of time, Porgy chases off Sportin’ Life, leaving Bess guilty and ashamed . We can feel the tension between the two as Porgy admonishes Bess to go to the picnic, which he is unable to attend because of his infirmity. She blurts out, almost angrily “If you ain’t goin’, I ain’t goin’!” Gershwin starts the music for this scene in an almost fragile way with Porgy’s gentleness unlike anything Bess has ever known before. Porgy’s music gains energy and eloquence as he expresses his love. In return, Bess begins to believe in the possibility of being loved just for who she is, regardless of her past. When they sing together at the end we know that they are in a very different relationship than they were at the beginning of the duet. And George did all of that through the music. Angel and Eric show us real people.
One of my favorite scenes, which parallels the one just described, shows how the two principals are still building a trust in each other’s love. Bess, awakening from her fever, speaks with Porgy about what happened with Crown on Kittiwah Island. Gershwin rarely repeats a word in a recitative and so when he does, Jim and I were always trying to give a reason why. Bess sings “I’m lonesome here all by myself. It’s hot in there. Let me sit here with you in the cool.” Eric’s delivery when he says “Oh Bess, Bess” is as rich in meaning as an entire novel. Both Porgy and Bess default to their previous experiences of relationships. Bess is afraid of being sent away or possibly receiving a beating. The longing, sadness, and hurt that Eric puts into Porgy’s line “You ain’t got nothin’ to be afraid of. I ain’t tryin’ to keep no woman what don’t want to stay. If you wants to go with Crown, that’s for you to say” causes Angel’s Bess to find a response all the more believable for its honest confusion.
The swirling structure of the story is reflected in our rotating set, mirroring the way scenes from Part One return in Part Two. Gershwin builds this musical arch in ways that are sometimes obvious, but more often subtle. Musical forms associated with opera are indeed present, but the fluid nature of his larger proportions allows him to create searing dramatic moments which place the opera high in the pantheon, far above the notion of “just a collection of great tunes.” Of course, as one of the most covered songs in history, everyone knows “Summertime.” However in the opera it has one reprise during the crap game, when poor Clara is still trying to get the baby to sleep, followed by another version in the storm scene when Clara is trying to calm herself as much as her baby. The masterstroke to me, is its final appearance in the moment just before the Porgy kills Crown. We realize, when Bess sings it to Clara’s motherless child, that it is the only lullaby Bess ever heard Clara sing. Its words and melodic beauty ring with a terrible, heart-breaking irony.
In the end, George lets us know through his music that he loves all his characters in the opera, whether or not they have a positive effect on the community of Catfish Row. The essential story that he tells is about renewal through love. As Eric Owens points out, Gershwin first introduces Porgy as a Bass-Baritone. It is the interaction with Bess that gradually takes his voice higher, literally lifting him up over the course of the opera into the tessitura of a High Baritone.
I suggested to Eric that the line “Bring my cart!” is a singular pivot point in the opera. It crystallizes the moment where after a lifetime of hearing “You can’t do this,” Porgy understands what Bess’ love has done for him. He has understood the importance of that “and Bess” in the title. The ending of the opera is hard to stage. When Jim Robinson explained that it shouldn’t be like a “happy ending,” we found the proper tone in the chorus by referencing the words that Heyward uses to describe the community during the storm; he says that by singing the “souls sat wrapped in an invulnerable garment.” In this sense, although the entire group at the end feels that Porgy’s journey to find Bess is a fool’s errand, they all wrap him in song. And what a song it is. It reminds us how love can inspire you to do anything, that even a Tin Pan Alley tune-smith can write a Grand Opera to be put on at the Met.
New York City, February 15, 2020
David Robertson conducted James Robinson’s new production of Porgy and Bess at The Metropolitan Opera, starring Eric Owens and Angel Blue, which had its premiere on September 23, 2019