In about an hour's time last night I heard two different opinions about Porgy and Bess. In a pre-concert talk Mwalim [Morgan James] Peters discussed the history of Black experience as entertainment in America. He spoke of accomplishments with the strictures of stereotype. He emphasized that both DeBose Heyward's [a white man] novel, Porgy, and Gershwin's opera gave the public what they wanted and expected to read and see and hear about black people: they lived in a ghetto, Bess was a hooker, Porgy a crippled begger, there were gamblers, drug dealers, violence, murder, gospel, pathos and no happy ending. ["Black people weren't allowed to have happy love stories," he said. He gave a history of blacks as seen in American entertainment up to the Civil Rights era and noted that even then Leontyne Price had to audition for the Metropolitan Opera in Italy. He was not on a pulpit, he was just stating facts in a scholarly way.
When the concert/lecture began musician and scholar, Robert Wyatt, emphasized Gershwin's fascination with black music, jazz and gospel. He had met the original singers, Todd Duncan and Anne Brown. He said that Brown, the first black student at the Julliard School, was discouraged after her success in the opera by how little work she could get as a classically trained soprano. She married a Swede and lived in Europe the rest of her life. But Wyatt emphasized the success of the opera on Broadway -- though not as successful as many of Gershwin's typical Broadway musicals. He did spoke, a little gleefully, I thought, of the appeal to the audience of the drugs, violence, and picturesqueness of Catfish Row.
Though both Peters and Wyatt are musicians and academics they seem to have learned their history of American music in two different ways. In my lifetime, I see that, although inequality continues to exist and stereotypes die very slowly, great strides have been taken when an essentially white community performance space presents both views to their all white audience. There is a small black population on Cape Cod but none happened to be at this performance. People went home with both stories, well told by personable speakers, and they had an evening with generally fine music as well.
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