UMS and SMTD to present new edition of the Gershwins' ‘Porgy and Bess’ Saturday

Thursday, February 15, 2018 - 6:02am

There is perhaps no better known American opera than the Gershwins’ “Porgy and Bess.” Even those who don’t necessarily know it are generally familiar with its music to an extent, with tunes like “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” and — above all others — “Summertime” having become jazz standards in their own right, widely recognizable by a musical layperson. But strangely enough, despite all this popularity, there has never been an authoritative, critical edition of the opera’s score. Never, until now.

On Saturday night, the University Musical Society and the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance will be jointly presenting the first ever performance of “Porgy and Bess” from the UM Gershwin Initiative’s scholarly performing edition of the score. The product of years of labor, this new edition is so far the crowning achievement of the Initiative.

“Late in his life Ira Gershwin, talking to the person who was the Gershwins' musical adviser, said ‘We’ve got to do right by ‘Porgy and Bess,’’’ said Wayne Shirley, the editor of the new edition. “Because unlike almost every other opera of its age and importance, it had never been formally published in the sense that there was an edition of it that was on library shelves. It was available in rental copy if you wanted to perform it, or if you were a scholar and you held your breath a little bit they would rent it to you as though you were trying to perform it.”

When it came time to finally prepare a definitive edition of “Porgy,” Shirley was approached about the task, a labor which he has described as one of his greatest states of happiness.

“A friend of mine, who is a Shakespeare scholar, had been asked to edit the new Shakespeare variorum edition of ‘As You Like It’ 30 years ago, and had told me, ‘This is the greatest happiness of my life’ until he was asked to edit ‘King Lear’ five years later, and I thought, ‘Nothing like this will ever happen to me,’” Shirley said. “And [now] I realize it [has]. ‘Porgy and Bess’ is one of the monuments of 20th-century music — and I’m not saying 20th-century American music, I’m saying 20th-century music.”

The tunes from Gershwin’s most adventurous foray into music drama are recognizable still today, with certain of them seeping into the cultural idiom.

“It’s about the only opera I can think of immediately, one of whose songs is now a folk song, ‘Summertime’ is now a folk song,” Shirley said. “A few more are jazz standards.”

Shirley started the process of editing the score, note by note, around 2002, when he moved to New Hampshire. In the process, he would travel between his home, the Library of Congress and Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University to consult original sources. To supplement the written texts, the editor would listen to some of the early recordings of “Porgy” to develop a better understanding of how the performance practices have evolved and influenced the opera over the years. In the end, Shirley feels that the score he has produced is an accurate reflection of the Gershwins’ original intent and preference.

“Basically, what I came up with is very close to being what would have happened if someone sat down at the beginning of ‘Porgy and Bess’’s career and engraved the full score … it’s a very straightforward ‘Porgy and Bess,’” he said.

Shirley explained that, for performers at least, the new edition is full of small changes and corrections that will make playing the work better, but in addition to this, several larger elements were reintroduced.

“I did manage to bring the band back,” Shirley said, referring to a band which marches onstage during the production, modeled after the Jenkins Orphanage Band. “Everyone knows the New Orleans Orphans’s band because Louis Armstrong came from it, but the Jenkins Orphanage Band in Charleston, South Carolina, was almost as important.”

While this major reintroduction might miff some producers (the expense of paying and equipping 13 additional musicians is certainly not insignificant), on the whole, the presence of the ensemble — which does have written parts in the score — onstage should bolster the work.

The opera itself has a fascinating history. Premiered in 1935, the music was composed by George Gershwin (popular as a composer of Tin Pan Alley songs and today most famous for “Rhapsody in Blue”), with the plot and libretto adapted by the composer’s brother Ira and DuBose Heyward from Dorothy Heyward’s play “Porgy,” itself an adaption of the novel of the same name by DuBose. Set in an African American community in Charleston during the ‘20s, the plot centers around the love story of the titular characters, the former of whom is a paraplegic beggar and the latter of whom, initially, is the romantic partner of an abusive man.

From the beginning, the racial implications of the opera have been contentious. On the one hand, the story is said by some to present harmful stereotypes of Black Americans, a criticism accentuated by the fact that Gershwin is a Jewish New Yorker and can hardly lay claim to the experiences of African Americans in the Deep South. On the other, Gershwin’s call for an all-Black cast gave an opportunity for excellent artists to achieve successes that, for institutional reasons during the 20th century, might otherwise have been unavailable to them.

“There are three main questions that people ask about ‘Porgy and Bess,’” said Naomi André, a professor in Women’s Studies, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies and the Residential College. “One, is it an opera or musical theatre piece? And I think finally we’re now accepting it as opera… two, what’s the full version? And luckily we’ll know now, with this new edition; and the third question is, is it racist or not?”

“And my feeling, is it racist? Yeah — oh heavens, you’re probably going to quote that,” André said. “Yeah, but I don’t think that’s the most interesting question to ask about ‘Porgy and Bess.’ There are a lot of things that are really hard to watch in 2018, today. There are things that probably had a different feel in 1935 — the use of minstrel stereotypes, the fact that it’s unremittingly grim. There’s no happy ending.”

André explained that, despite some of the problematic elements within the opera, “Porgy and Bess” is ultimately a compelling drama, well composed and written, with characters the audience can really care about.

“As a Black person watching a lot of ‘Porgy and Bess,’ there’s a lot of frustrating things about it … but there are a lot of wonderful things too,” André said. “Gershwin, even though it’s his first real, full-length opera — and it takes opera composers forever to learn … he really gets a lot right,” André said.

This upcoming performance (in which André will be singing as a chorus member), in addition to being wonderful entertainment, offers an exciting possibility for those who study music professionally.

“As a musicologist, this is an Olympic-sized event,” André said. “This is the premiere of a critical edition of a well-known work, and we get to do it right here.”

André also spoke about the many events surrounding the performance, a great number of which address the problematic elements that can be found in the work.

“It’ll draw people, and it’s a great American work, but it’s also a tough work, especially in the political climate we’re in now, with the resurgence of a very vocal white supremacist group in the United States,” she said. “These issues feel extra raw right now, so how do we do this work in a way that doesn’t flame the fire, but help with greater understanding?”

In response to these questions, UMS and the Gershwin Institute will be hosting numerous events dedicated to the discussion of the issues inherent in Gershwin’s work, as well as to promote the work of African American composers and artists. At the end of the day, however, the largest event is the performance of the new edition itself. For editor Wayne Shirley, this moment is a special one.  

“I’m not a composer, and the way that I can write music is to write somebody else’s music down, and it’s a pleasure,” he said. “This is my equivalent of ‘King Lear.’”