It was one of those mythic New York nights: the Broadway premiere of the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess” in 1935.
The starry opening drew Hollywood royalty, including Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. After the ovations died down, the A-listers headed to a glamorous after-party, where George Gershwin played excerpts from his score on the piano.
By the next morning, though, the questions would begin. Those questions — about genre, about representation, about appropriation — have followed “Porgy” through more than eight decades of convoluted, sometimes troubling history, and remain salient as the Metropolitan Opera opens its season on Sept. 23 with a new production, its first performances of the work since 1990.
Is “Porgy,” which features some of the best-loved songs by one of America’s greatest songwriters (“Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Loves You, Porgy”), as well as mighty choruses and bold orchestrations, an opera or a musical? It returned to Broadway in 2012 in a stripped-down form. But since 1976, when Houston Grand Opera brought it back to the opera house, it has often been claimed — you can almost hear the capital letters — as the Great American Opera.
More urgently, is “Porgy” a sensitive portrayal of the lives and struggles of a segregated African-American community in Charleston, S. C.? (Maya Angelou, who as a young dancer performed in a touring production that brought it to the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1955, later praised it as “great art” and “a human truth.”)
Or does it perpetuate degrading stereotypes about black people, told in wince-inducing dialect? (Harry Belafonte turned down an offer to star in the film version because he found it “racially demeaning.”)
Is it a triumph of melting-pot American art, teaming up George and Ira Gershwin (the sons of Russian Jewish immigrants) with DuBose Heyward (the scion of a prominent white South Carolina family) and his Ohio-born wife, Dorothy, to tell a uniquely African-American story? Or is it cultural appropriation? The fact that the most-performed opera about the African-American experience is the work of an all-white team has not been lost on black composers who have struggled to get their music heard.
And has the Gershwins’ insistence that “Porgy” be performed only by black artists — originally aimed at keeping it from being done in blackface — helped generations of black singers by giving them the opportunity to perform on some of the world’s great stages? Or has it pigeonholed some of them, limiting the roles they are offered?
Or is the answer to all these questions yes?
The Met is engaging with the work’s complex history as it prepares to stage its new production, directed by James Robinson and conducted by David Robertson. It has assembled a strong cast, led by the bass-baritone Eric Owens and the soprano Angel Blue, and designed a staging that aims to rescue Catfish Row and its inhabitants from the realm of stereotype. It is holding talks around the city about the work and turning the lens on its own checkered racial past with an exhibition at the opera house.
George Gershwin called “Porgy and Bess” a “folk opera,” which placed him in a long line of composers who drew inspiration from folk themes, real or imagined. In an essay he wrote for The New York Times in 1935, he wrote that to keep the work musically unified, he had decided to write “my own spirituals and folk songs.”
And he discussed aspects critics later decried as stereotypes, writing that “because ‘Porgy and Bess’ deals with Negro life in America it brings to the operatic form elements that have never before appeared in opera and I have adapted my method to utilize the drama, the humor, the superstition, the religious fervor, the dancing and the irrepressible high spirits of the race.”
Hall Johnson, a black composer, arranger and choir director whose musical “Run, Little Chillun!” had been a success on Broadway in 1933, wrote that Gershwin was “as free to write about Negroes in his own way as any other composer to write about anything else” in a 1936 essay in Opportunity, a journal published by the Urban League.
But he added that the resulting work was “not a Negro opera by Gershwin, but Gershwin’s idea of what a Negro opera should be.” (Decades later, reviewing the film, James Baldwin echoed that critique, writing that while he liked “Porgy and Bess,” it remained “a white man’s vision of Negro life.”)
The Gershwins were determined to avoid performances of “Porgy” in blackface, an offensive relic of minstrelsy that was still common then onstage and onscreen. Al Jolson, who had worn blackface in 1927 in the breakthrough sound film “The Jazz Singer,” had also wanted to mount a musical based on the story and hoped to play Porgy.
“Porgy and Bess” provided work for generations of classically trained African-American singers at a time when discrimination barred them from the Met and other leading stages. When the work’s first tour reached the segregated National Theater in Washington, its African-American stars took a stand and threatened not to perform — forcing the theater to integrate, at least temporarily. “Porgy” helped many singers of color launch their careers, including Leontyne Price, who played Bess right out of Juilliard.
It became a symbol of American culture around the world. When the piece had its European premiere in Copenhagen during World War II, staging a work by a Jewish composer about black Americans was seen as an act of provocation aimed at the occupying Nazis. The inescapable contradictions of a Cold War-era tour of Leningrad and Moscow in the mid-1950s were chronicled wryly by Truman Capote.
But the controversies did not abate. When Otto Preminger’s film version was released in 1959, during the civil rights era, the playwright Lorraine Hansberry debated him on Chicago television, declaring that stereotypes “constitute bad art” and noting that African-Americans had suffered “great wounds from great intentions.” But the music of “Porgy and Bess” only grew in popularity, as generations of jazz pioneers, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis, put their own stamps on the songs.
The requirement to cast black performers remains in effect for dramatic performances of “Porgy and Bess” around the world, Sargent Aborn, the chief executive officer of Tams-Witmark, which licenses it, wrote in an email.
It is an unusual stipulation in an age where casting is increasingly colorblind. “Porgy” is the one opera the Met’s own chorus does not sing: The company hired a chorus of black singers for its new production. When the Hungarian State Opera staged “Porgy and Bess” with a white cast earlier this year, against the wishes of the Gershwin brothers’ estates, it asked its singers to sign declarations that African-American origins and spirit formed part of their identity, a Hungarian news site reported.
Some black singers are wary of “Porgy,” both out of discomfort with the piece and concerns that they could get typecast and kept from exploring other repertoire.
Davóne Tines, a bass-baritone who starred recently in “The Black Clown” — a new musical adaptation of Langston Hughes’s searching 1931 poem exploring race and representation — said in an interview that it made him uneasy that the only black opera in the canon, and still one of the main opportunities for many black singers, requires them to “don costumes of rags” and “embody flat stereotypes.”
“Just as we have moved from aggression to microaggression, from analog to digital, and from low-fidelity to high-definition,” he said in an interview, “so, too, must we move from broad brush strokes and put a finer point on the pen that delineates black experience.”
Some have tried to reinvent the piece. The first production that Golda Schultz, the South African soprano who will sing Clara at the Met, ever saw was a famous one by the Cape Town Opera that moved the setting to a South African township.
“Setting it up in a township, everyone understood this notion of a struggling community, a tight-knit community, because townships are like that,” Ms. Schultz said during a recent rehearsal break at the Met. “My dad grew up in a township and you knew your neighbors, you knew people’s business — because the walls on a shack are really thin, corrugated iron.”
The director Diane Paulus and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks made substantial changes for their 2012 Broadway production, cutting some of the dialect, rewriting scenes and trying to give more back story, and agency, to Bess. Some objected: The composer Stephen Sondheim cried foul about their plans, calling the work’s characters “as vivid as any ever created for the musical theater.”
The Met is asking audiences to take a new perspective even before they enter the opera house. The artist Kerry James Marshall, acclaimed for huge paintings that are fantasias of black life and history, has created an arresting “Porgy and Bess” banner that hangs outside.
It upends the traditional image of Porgy, a disabled beggar, and the woman he loves, Bess, who has suffered from abuse and addiction. Mr. Marshall’s Porgy — drawn in a muscular social realist, almost comic-book-superhero style — stands braced for action, wielding his crutch like a weapon and carrying Bess, on his shoulders.
“Most of the images you see of ‘Porgy and Bess,’ particularly the way Porgy is represented, he’s always on his knees, or down on the floor,” Mr. Marshall said in a telephone interview, adding that he had always been struck by the character’s strength in trying to protect Bess: “That’s where I started: I wanted to give Porgy at least one moment of heroic presence.”
The company is mounting an exhibition, “Black Voices at the Met,” that delves into its history with race both before and after 1955, the year contralto Marian Anderson became the first African-American artist to perform a principal role there. And it is releasing a new CD — “Black Voices Rise: African-American Artists at the Met, 1955-1985” — celebrating Ms. Anderson and some of the stars who followed in her footsteps, including Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Robert McFerrin and George Shirley.
Mr. Robinson, the director of the new production, said he envisioned its Catfish Row as a working-class community of entrepreneurial, aspirational people.
“We have to treat these people with great dignity, and take them seriously,” he said. “When they become caricatures, it just seems to ring false.”
Mr. Owens, the bass-baritone singing Porgy, said that he viewed the work as “one part of an African-American experience.” He may define the role of Porgy these days, but it does not define him. A star who has performed in operas by Wagner, Mozart, John Adams and Kaija Saariaho at the Met and will sing Wotan in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s “Ring” cycle in the spring, Mr. Owens said that when he started singing Porgy a decade ago, he made a conscious decision never to make his debut at an opera house with it.
“It just put people on notice that I’m an artist who does many things,” he said in an interview in his dressing room.
The new production shows how much deeper the Met’s roster of black singers is now than it was when the company first staged “Porgy and Bess,” in 1985. That production was led by a pair of Met stars, Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry, in the title roles — but the Met had to bring in newcomers in order to cast black singers in many of the other roles. This year, by contrast, almost all of the singers in the main featured roles have already sung at the Met, including Denyce Graves (a distinguished Carmen) and rising younger singers including Ms. Schultz, Ryan Speedo Green and Latonia Moore.
At a rehearsal earlier this month, shortly after Hurricane Dorian had devastated parts of the Bahamas and as it was heading toward the Carolinas, the “Porgy and Bess” cast was on the Met’s stage rehearsing the scene in which a deadly hurricane strikes Charleston.
The power of Gershwin’s terrifying and inventive music came through, even when played by just a rehearsal pianist in the pit. The chorus sang its anguished prayers with passion and precision. Yet some of the dialect (“hab mercy!”) still sounded jarring.
The moment suggested perhaps the only answer to the many questions that have surrounded “Porgy and Bess” for almost a century. The work, on that day, seemed to be taking its place in an operatic canon full of contradictory, discomfiting, occasionally offensive works that time and again nevertheless demonstrate their relevance and power.