It ain’t necessarily so

How I had lived this long and not seen Porgy and Bess is beyond me. Summertime is one of my favourite songs but I had the Ella Fitzgerald/Louis Armstrong version in mind. As for It ain’t necessarily so, well, it ain’t, but then again, I had the Cab Calloway version in mind. In my head, Porgy and Bess wasn’t an opera… it was a jazz musical. And when I make up my mind about something… well…

In Szeged, a few miles from the Hungary/Serbia border, last weekend, I had my first taste of the annual open-air festival that the town is famous for. The key performance this year was supposed to be the Kung-Fu Legend dance show but, thankfully, they cancelled and New-York-based theatre company Living Arts Inc., brought the jazz opera Porgy and Bess to the Hungarian stage for the first time since 1991 instead.

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In 1926, George Gershwin read the novel Porgy penned by DuBose Heyward, a native of Charleston, South Carolina. But it wasn’t until 1934 that his plans to write a folk opera came to pass. And here the mind boggles: a Southern gent and a Jew collaborating on a folk opera set in black America. George was quite explicit in his instructions: all white characters (two, that I saw) in his opera had to be sung by white singers, and the black characters by black singers.  It was hard to count how many actors/singers were involved – somewhere between 25 and 30 at a guess with one more talented than the next. I couldn’t help but wonder when the town’s demographics had last been so upset. Mind you, this little stipulation of Gershwin’s was ignored when the opera was first performed in Hungary in 1970. It ran for over 100 nights, with the lead roles sung by Hungarians. The mind boggles, again.

William Warfield, who sang Porgy in the 1952 revival, said in a PBS interview that when they played Vienna, ‘only the principals were black. The chorus and the dancers were all made up to look black.’  Back when it opened first, in 1935, not even the Met in New York could ‘assemble an all-black cast’ so it opened on Broadway. The mind is still boggling.

The story itself is quite simple. Porgy is a crippled beggar who lives on Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. He sees this chap Crown kill a guy and flee the scene, leaving his gal Bess (a waterfront hooker) behind. Porgy takes her in and, true to form, they fall in love, and adopt the Summertime child when its parents die in a hurricane. But Crown doesn’t give up on Bess and comes back to fight for her. Porgy, despite his disability, is having none of it and Bess says she wants to stay, so Porgy kills  Crown and is arrested (what a man won’t do for the love of a good woman eh?) While Porgy’s overnighting with the cops, Bess’s resolve to go straight and do good by her new man falls apart when Sportin’ Life, the local drug dealer, gets her back on the happy dust and takes her to New York (silly woman). Poor old Porgy comes back, a free man, only to find that his missus has absconded to New York. The show closes with him setting out to find her. Now. That’s. What. I. Call. Love.

It’s a classic.  Transported as we were to the Charleston waterfront, the show had all the ingredients necessary to make the trip worthwhile: births, deaths, religion, sex, passion, superstition, love, hate, murder, strength, weakness, good, evil… everything imaginable. Staged in Dóm tér (Cathedral Square), in the shadows of Szeged University, a 4000-seat grandstand, complete with boxes, was full to capacity. Temperatures were in the high 30s and the fans were out in force, creating a breeze of their own. Those in the know brought their cushions. Those who didn’t will know to do so next time!

Played by the  Szeged Symphony Orchestra, and punctuated by the odd boy-racer on a motorbike, the music was jaw-droppingly powerful. Part of me wondered what it would have been like to be outside the crowd, in the street, just listening. Would it have been as effective?I think, yes. Yet while the score was amazing, I remain convinced that opera and the English language do not make good bedfellows. Large screens on either side of the stage translated the colloquialisms of the south into Hungarian, and those not fluent in English (even I had difficult hearing some of it, and we had great seats!) had to choose between watching the antics on stage, or understanding the lyrics.

But I’m used to that with opera. What I had a hard time with was marrying Ella and Cab with the operatics of Stephen Finch (he who used to come to the first season of the Gift of the Gab every month without fail and sit upstairs in the balcony at Spinoza) and Angela Owens. They were truly marvellous but the bit of me I left behind in South Carolina was screaming across the miles: this ain’t how it should be!

So you can imagine my surprise, when, back in the hotel (the show ran from 9pm till after midnight) I asked my smart phone to conjure up the original… and lo and behold… it was an opera. Well, ya learn something new every day! But then I got to diggin’ and apparently America at large had a similar problem. Gershwin’s P&B wasn’t generally accepted in the USA as a ‘real’ opera until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera’s production of the complete score put it on the map (Texas and opera? Mind: stop boggling!) Up till then, it was a musical. Feeling somewhat vindicated, I began to wonder if, perhaps, I’d seen it after all, back in the 1930s, in a previous life….

7 Responses

  1. I read ‘Porgy’ many years ago, but have never seen the musical or the opera. I never thought I would want to either. I remember as a little girl, walking into the room while my parents were watching it (or a commercial for a production?) and thinking ‘Yuck!’ I might give it another chance if it comes around. Thanks for the review.

  2. Thanks for the review. I bypassed in NYC in favor of ‘Nice Work’ – primarily w/ concern of the recitatives… as a child I probably came close to wearing out my folks old 78rpm albums of Porgy & Bess (stored in one my boxes) – ‘Summertime’ ranks right up there w/ Rhapsody & American in Paris…. such exposure when young is a ‘Grateful’ of mine. So happy that you got to see the full production & told me about it…..(I’ll see if tour comes nearby) mucho hugz to you Mary!

  3. Mary, I love that you traveled to Szeged to see our production, and I agree with you regarding the conflicting tells of genres within this masterpiece. Gershwin deftly wove numerous musical styles to create Porgy and Bess – jazz, gospel, ragtime, Negro work songs, as well as standard operatic vocal and orchestral writing. It is truly a folk opera, although Fantasia’s rendition of “Summertime” and Norma Winstone’s “I Loves You Porgy” have helped me realize that this musical work does indeed transcend the boundaries of definition. This piece means different things to different performers: dancers, instrumentalists, spoken word artists and vocalists all seem to find their own special thread in the fabric – which makes for amazing theater. Great blog, by the way…

    Angela L. Owens

    1. Thanks for taking the time to stop by, Angela. Hope you got to see some of Szeged while you were there. What a great night’s entertainment … thank you. Shame you couldn’t have played Budapest as well… it would have been a sell out.

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