Variations on an Explosive Theme

Variations on an Explosive Theme

“Porgy and Bess”: Excerpts from the New York City Opera’s version of “Porgy and Bess,” produced by Sherwin M. Goldman. Includes “Summertime,” “Bess, You Is My Woman,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and others.

By JOE NOCERA
Published: January 21, 2012

WHEN George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” — arguably the most important piece of American music written in the 20th century — first opened on Broadway in 1935, the opera’s libretto was littered with a word now shunned as an antiblack slur. The African-American residents of Catfish Row, the only slightly imaginary block in Charleston, S.C., where the opera is set, used it liberally, and so of course did the white characters during their occasional menacing visits.

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Ray Albert (as Porgy) and Wilhelmenia Fernandez (as Bess) during a 1978 Houston Opera production at the Palais des Congrès de la Porte Maillot in Paris.

None of the opera’s early critics seemed to notice; whether black reviewer or white, they primarily critiqued “Porgy and Bess” as a theatrical experience, focusing in particular on the highly original way Gershwin fused blues tonalities, spirituals and other elements of African-American music into a full-length opera. It had never been done before. Some would say it’s never been done since.

In the early 1940s, however, during a “Porgy and Bess” revival — which turned the opera into a more commercially viable musical, not unlike the current Broadway revival starring Audra McDonald — a singer named Etta Moten, hired to play Bess, refused to utter the word. Ira Gershwin, George’s brother, who co-wrote the lyrics with DuBose Heyward, revised the line. By 1951, according to Howard Pollack, the author of “George Gershwin: His Life and Work,” Ira Gershwin had “totally eliminated the word from the text, replacing it with such terms as tin horns, dummy, low-life, suckers, buzzard, andbaby.” That year, the producer Goddard Lieberson, who had just recorded “Porgy and Bess” for Columbia Records, said, “Sometimes, happily, times change, and with the times, ethical values. It seemed proper to eliminate certain words in the lyrics which, in racial terms, had proven offensive.”

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