‘Porgy and Bess’ meets call-out culture

Judith Anne Still, daughter of the pioneering African-American composer William Grant Still (1895-1978), strives to revive her father’s music, which deserves to be heard much more than it is.

His “Afro-American” Symphony (No. 1) has maintained a foothold in the repertory for generations, and he wrote four more. His Symphony No. 2 in G minor (“Song of a New Race”) is one of the neglected masterpieces of American music, the most successful synthesis of African-American musical tradition and symphonic form that I’ve heard. Still composed nine operas, a long list of ballet and choral scores and many chamber and piano works.

His voluminous catalogue of compositions can be viewed here:

http://williamgrantstillmusic.com

His daughter’s worthy campaign, alas, takes a distractingly negative turn. In comments that have been posted on Norman Lebrecht’s Slipped Disc blog (http://slippedisc.com/2019/12/afro-american-composer-wants-porgy-banned-from-the-stage/), she asserts: “It’s time for the racially defamatory opera ‘Porgy and Bess’ to abdicate the stage. George Gershwin . . . and other white composers stole the music, songs and dances of the prolific Afro-Americans and made millions from them.”

“Porgy and Bess” was an obvious target for what’s nowadays known as “call-out culture” long before that term was coined, and Judith Anne Still is not the first black musical figure to call it out. To cite just one of numerous examples: The late Camilla Williams, the great Virginia-born soprano who portrayed Bess in its first operatic recording in 1951, refused to perform in a staged production, objecting to stereotyped characterizations and the libretto’s pseudo-Gullah dialect.

DuBose Heyward, the white South Carolinian who wrote “Porgy,” the novel on which the opera is based, and subsequently wrote the opera’s libretto, was celebrated in his day for positive portrayals of black characters in his works. That, however, was a pretty low bar to vault in the 1920s and ’30s, and black characters “have come a long way from the way we were portrayed back then,” Williams told me in an interview for an article published in the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1998. (A still longer way, one hopes, 21 years later.)

Eighty-four years after its premiere, “Porgy and Bess” is a cultural relic. That could be said of many operas. Substitute misogyny for racism and you could fault most of the standard operatic repertory. Xenophilia is a not infrequent shortcoming, too (looking at you, Richard Wagner).

Cultural appropriation, the other issue that Judith Anne Still raises, has been a fact of cultural life for all of recorded history.

Music does not recognize racial, ethnic or national boundaries. The only culture that hasn’t borrowed opera from Europeans is Chinese. European classical instruments and forms are freely adopted (and adapted) by composers of non-European ancestry. In folk and popular music, everyone steals from everyone else all the time, and always has.

The music of African-Americans is a special case, as are the musics of indigenous Americans and East European Jews and Romani (aka Gypsies), in that a dominant group has appropriated from oppressed people without credit, compensation or entree to the musical mainstream, and often belittles while it mimics the “other.” American blackface minstrelsy of the 19th and early 20th centuries is an especially grotesque example of this.

While in some respects “Porgy and Bess” is only a few steps up from minstrelsy, it remains widely recognized as a masterpiece of music drama, even regarded as a template for truly American opera. It’s also a cash cow for opera companies: The Metropolitan Opera just added extra performances of its current production, and welcomes the extra revenue. Thanks to Ira Gershwin’s dictum, still in effect in the US, that its black characters must be played by black singers and actors, it has been a professional springboard for many.

Tarnished as its crown may be, this opera’s not for abdication.

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