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Porgy on the bay

Back when I was a sweet young thing of 15, I had already started studying voice and my teacher had me sing “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” with a soprano who was as white as I am. I had no idea at that time that there is a long history of white singers performing in this opera. Right after the Broadway debut, Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson recorded excerpts. And there was a long period during which all-white or mostly-white casts sang it in some of the opera houses of Europe. It wasn’t until 1976 that Porgy and Bess was produced by an American opera company when the Houston Grand Opera cast Donnie Ray Albert and Clamma Dale, a production that eventually ran on Broadway—and won a Tony Award).  

A new DVD of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess features an enjoyable live performance from the San Francisco Opera from June of 2009. As the title characters, we have Eric Owens and Laquita Mitchell,  both singers who can act. Ms. Mitchell, in particular, is a stage animal. She’s mesmerizing to watch and to listen to and she is stunning to look at. Both of them also sing their parts beautifully and are greeted with rapturous applause at the end. I have one quibble with Mr. Owens, and it may not be something he can change, but he squints a lot and when he does, his eyes get lost. It can be distracting in closeups.

In fact, the whole cast is terrific. Crown is sung by Lester Lynch and he really makes you hate the character. Karen Slack, Alteouise deVaughn, and Angel Blue sing Serena, Maria, and Clara respectively and I would gladly pay to hear any of them again. Miss Blue sings “Summertime” with lovely, melting tone and I’d love to hear more from her. And I must mention the wonderful contribution from the chorus. Gershwin wrote beautiful choral music and the SFO chorus rises to the occasion. My only complaint is with Sportin’ Life and I think it’s less a reflection on Chauncey Packer than it on the role. I’ve always felt that he comes across more like Ben Vereen on acid then a real character.

The production is beautiful and takes place almost entirely on the Catfish Row set. The back wall is a multilevel set of homes and off on stage left is Porgy’s home. At various times parts of the set open to allow for mass exits and entrances of the cast. It’s very effective. While watching, I reflected on the set for Faust at the Met in their newest production. At the Met, anyone who sang near the multi-tiered back wall was swallowed by the orchestra; I had trouble even hearing Rene Pape. But in this SFO production, that doesn’t appear to be a problem. None of the singers had difficulty projecting over the orchestra. The costumes suggest the 1930s. The lighting is handled beautifully, especially effective during the storm scene.

On to the opera itself. It’s interesting to note that the opera originally ran to about 4 hours but was cut for the first Broadway run and then cut further for the second Broadway run. David Gockley talks about how the Houston Grand Opera production, which he also oversaw, restored most of what was cut and put back the sung recitatives that had been replaced by dialogue. I’m curious to know what is still missing though, as this performance only runs two and a half hours. If it’s been restored, wouldn’t it be longer than that?

In any case, the opera works. It has been called racist and for a time, Black singers refused to perform it. I leave the politics to others; I enjoyed it musically and dramatically. Numbers flow seamlessly from one to the next and the chorus plays an important role. Gershwin called Porgy a folk opera and while he has written all new spirituals for it, they sound authentic, at least in part because he and Mr. Heyword spent time in South Carolina soaking up the musical idioms.

It may seem strange that a Jewish composer wrote a “Negro” folk opera but the two cultures have much in common. Both spirituals and Jewish music are frequently in minor keys to express despair or longing and both cultures not only deal with oppression but with hope for a better future.  Gershwin had already moved to classical music, having written the Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Concerto in F (1925) and An American in Paris (1928) and in all of those pieces, he leaned toward jazz. Opera was the next logical step and again, it has elements of jazz. Had he lived, it would have been fascinating  to see what he’d have done in future operas.

128 comments

  • zinka says:

    I thought the Gershwin ESTATE prohibited anyone white to sing in this opera..NO????

    • That might be true for the USA, but not so for Europe. I am sure Europe’s more open minded racial views (or at least how they were in the 30′s if nothing else in appearance) had to do with it.

      The USA’s open hostility towards black people combined with the lack of performing opportunities for black singers in the USA, I understand, were what motivated the estate to insist on all black casts here in the USA.

      There is a story of Martina Arroyo going to the estate to personally ask for a waiver so Sheryl Milnes could do Porgy with her at the Met and they refuse; and because she could not have the Porgy she wanted, Martina never did Bess.

      • armerjacquino says:

        Yep. George Gershwin never saw the power of the civil rights movement. He lived and died in a world where black singers were banned from opera houses. The fact that history has moved on since he made his stipulation doesn’t make it an any less honourable thing to have done.

        • papopera says:

          Curious diktat from the Estate. Was that reverse racial discrimination ? No white singers to sing this black American folk opera written by two Jews whose parents, the Gerchowitzes, escaped antisemitism and pogroms of imperial Russia. Go figure.

          • Guestoria Unpopularenka says:

            There’s no such thing as REVERSE discrimination.

          • m. croche says:

            Perhaps you’re not too familiar with the history of American Jews in the 20th century. There’s a decent amount of evidence to suggest that the experience of anti-Semitism made American Jews more likely to empathize with other traditional victims of discrimination.

            Add to this the fact that the Gershwins worked in jazz and pop music. They knew and respected many African-American colleagues, had opportunities to learn about their lives and backgrounds, and were consequently better attuned to white America’s disgusting legacy of blackface.

            The Gershwins would also would have been acutely aware of the ethical problems involved with white appropriation of African-American culture. The Gershwins, obviously, were participants in this process of appropriation, but their casting strictures show an admirable concern that African-American singers actually benefit from their own culture’s products.

            The Gershwins colleagues in the classical music and opera world by and large didn’t have nearly so much close contact with the lives of African Americans. Most, cocooned in white privilege, had a very limited understanding of what it was like to be black in America. The Gershwins broke through that, to some extent. Good for them.

            • papopera says:

              Thank you, merci mon ami. Very interesting. I know American history well going back to the days when our respective colonies shared the same King, George III. I do not particularly like Porgy & Bess. I prefer other compositions of Gershwin particularly his Concerto in F.
              Regards, Gustave, Montréal.

            • m. croche says:

              I think I might have to give the palm to “I Got Rhythm”.

            • Poison Ivy says:

              “The Man I Love” for me:

            • grimoaldo says:

              “white America’s disgusting legacy of blackface.”

              It was not only in the US by any means, people have to remember that at the time of Porgy and Bess, the top entertainer world wide was Al Jolson.
              The most popular programme on British TV from 1958 to 1978 was The Black and White Minstrel Show, and then it ran onstage until 1987 and is the Guinness Book of Records as the stage show seen by more people than any other.
              From *1978*! -- warning- grotesque beyond belief


              Minstrel shows were a whole genre, the Gershwins did not want Porgy and Bess turned into a minstrel show.

            • grimoaldo says:

              My favourite Gershwin is “Of Thee I Sing”, one in a series of pieces specifically modelled on Gilbert and Sullivan, satires of American politics. It was a big hit and the first musical to win Pulitzer Prize but seems to be forgotten now. Book by George Kaufmann, music Gershwin, sequel “Let Em Eat Cake”.

            • Krunoslav says:

              ““white America’s disgusting legacy of blackface.””

              grim is right. hardly just America is implicated…

              Seen Olivier’s Otello? Seen any italian baritone corked u for a seemingly Hottentot Amonasro?

              Seen the mid 60s Salzburg ZAUBERFLOETE and its treatment of Monostatos and co? Actually, within the last 10 years I have seen blackface used in German -speaking countries for Monostatos.

            • armerjacquino says:

              Yes, the UK should be very ashamed of The Black and White Minstrels.

              I’m not sure Amonasro and Othello are on the same page as Monostatos and minstrels though. Shatteringly insensitive, patronising and colonial, yes- but serious rather than mocking in intent.

            • grimoaldo says:

              And, combining the themes of those two posts, I have just seen on youtube a clip of the Black and White Minstrels on British TV in the 60′s performing *Gilbert and Sulllivan*!! in blackface, the men anyway, but I am not going to post it here.
              It seems like something from another planet now, imagine British entertainers making up like caricatures of African Americans to perform quintessentially British material, why did anyone ever find it amusing?

            • Poison Ivy says:

              Russian productions of La Bayadere and Raymonda also use blackface. When Nureyev and Makarova created their versions in the West they dropped it.

            • papopera says:

              Tibbett in blackface in the opera The Emperor Jones ( 1933 )

            • Krunoslav says:

              I meant his kind of Amonasro get-up:

              http://i1.ytimg.com/vi/eQIE1Eo0W6E/hqdefault.jpg

              http://www.operanostalgia.be/RiminiAmonasro.jpg

              …which I still saw on Italian stages-- certainly Verona-- into the 1980s, by which point one would have thought from television other visions of Ethiopian men would have penetrated the theatrical consciousness.

      • Camille says:

        There is also the wonderful story which Leontyne Price tells of the time she was recognised by a fan as Joan Sutherland. She purred “Thank you” and let it be.

        Or was that Marina Arroyo? Maybe it was she as she was always so damn funny.

        • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

          As best as I can recall, someone approached Martina Arroyo and asked, “May I please have your autograph, Miss Sutherland?” to which Arroyo replied, “Honey, the name is Price.”

        • kashania says:

          There’s also the time that the stagedoor attendant at the Met greeted Arroyo as “Ms Price” and she replied “No, honey, I’m the other one”. But I love her Sutherland response too. What a funny lady!

        • MontyNostry says:

          Cami, I happen to have looked at this video just the other day. And don’t you just love Leontyne’s husky speaking voice?

        • you are talking about this:

      • Krunoslav says:

        Actually, she wanted Sheryl Woods but the Estate thought she meant Cheryl Studer and said no.

        Seriously, I have spoken with two major Porgys about this issue and both said it was a double edged sword- they were grateful on behalf of their forbears in the industry that the Gershwins had ensured that there would be employment ( and no blackface) in companies of PORGY; but they also knew that the roles- particularly the male roles-- could ( still) become a kind of trap.

        BTW though the situation was dire, many Met centric folk do not realize that there were some very few exceptions- that some African American singers sang at US opera houses during Gershwin’s lifetime, and certainly before Marian Anderson entered the Met. Of course NYCO invited Todd Duncan ( the first Porgy ) aboard in 1945 as Tonio and later starred Camilla Williams and Lawrence Winters.

        But even before that, Julius Bledsoe did sing Amonasro in Chicago in 1930 or so, though most of his operatic performances were in Europe. I think he also sang — maybe in THE EMPEROR JONES and AIDA--at NYC’s Hippodrome, a popular priced opera company that many today know nothing about, although some Met artists came from there (like Norina Greco) and some ended up there. The soprano Caterina Jarboro also sang with them-- as Selika in 1933. (Maestro Salmaggi got complimented by Eleanor Roosevelt for having hired her.)

        It did prove hard even into the 70s for many black artists not to get stuck singing ‘exotic” or ‘sexpot” roles like Carmen, Amonasro, Cio-Cio-San and the like. I had the honor of speaking with Camilla Williams once and she was proud that at NYCO she had been asked to do not just Cio-Cio-San and Aida but also Nedda and Mimi, for which there was no precedent except in all-black touring companies.

        • yes, but look at the roles: Amonastro, Aida, Selika, all Black or dark skinned so in those cases could we be talking about typecasting? I would be more inclined to give the benefit of the doubt if along with those roles other “less black” roles were performed.

          Look at the Marshallin, can you name a black singer who has sung the role? And don’t tell me Roberta Alexander did not have the voice for it. I find it interesting that Sophie has been OK but not the Marschallin.

          • Krunoslav says:

            Yes, thanks for echoing my post ( did you bother read the last para)? I am not giving anyone the benefit of the doubt. I am stating the fact that a few blacks were indeed hired, albeit in stereotypical roles.

            I am pretty well versed on this issue, though I can’t really say why, but I’ve talked to a lot of singers about it ( including Miss Alexander, who would have been a fabulous Marschallin and also Clairon--it was originated by a soprano, die Ranczak) and read up on it quite a bit.

            I think indeed the Marschallin remains a role no African American singer has done, unless either Nina Hinson or Annabelle Bernard got asked to do it in Germany in the 70s, which I frankly doubt very much).

            Most other mainstream roles have had black exponents-- including Eva Pogner, which Betty Jones did at NYCO. Not sure I can think of a black Baby Doe or leading lady of STUARDA or DEVEREUX-- though Shirley Verrett of course did the STUARDA Elisabetta and recorded Seymour, and Gloria Davy did Bolena with the AOS.

          • Bill says:

            Lindoro -- when Reri Grist sang Sophie in the new production of Rosenkavalier in 1968 at the Vienna Staatsoper (conducted by Bernstein with Christa Ludwig as the Feldmarshallin and Gwyneth Jones as Octavian there was a bit of consternaion among a few patrons as Sophie was considered to be a very Viennese girl and Grist, very attractive did not look specifically Viennese. But Grist, who was well established in Vienna by then and had been Zerbinetta in Salzburg, won all hearts in Vienna with her lovely performance. After the first series of performances under Bernstein the opera was re-rehearsed and conducted by Krips and Otto Schenk returned to rehearse the staging with a somewhat more Viennese cast (Jurinac, Seefried, Popp -- though none of them were born in Austria) and that was an even greater success as well. For some reason Popp was utilized
            in the recording of the opera conducted
            by Bernstein and not Grist -- perhaps recording contract conditions. This production is still utilized in Vienna and has had 357 performances since 1968. It works well enough as evidenced last week in a performance there with Schwanewilms, Koch, Fally conducted by
            Welser-Moest. Some will say the production is tired but it is the kind of producion which embraces many varying singers in the main roles.

            When Lisa della Casa was young she sang in a
            production of Porgy and Bess in Switzerland (in blackface) and years ago I saw Porgy and Bess in Budapest at the opera -- not a black person in the cast or chorus -- Hungarians with me apologized but the performance was really well sung (in Hungarian language).

            • DellaCasaFan says:

              Related to Lisa Della Casa’s Serena from her early Zurich days, I have a vague memory of reading once that the estate also stipulated that, outside USA, it should be sung in the vernacular, unless performed by a visiting American troupe. Does anyone know if that’s correct?

            • Bill says:

              dellaCasafan -- in those days (when Lisa della Casa was young) most everything in any European opera house was sung in the language of the country in which the opera house played. Hence in Covent Garden.
              Welitsch, Hotter, Seefried, Schwarzkopf when engaged at Covent Garden in the late 1940s (not a guest
              appearance of another opera company but as members of the ensemble) had
              to relearn the roles they sang there in English. Salzburg, a major Festival, was an exception with Figaro in Italien from 1948, Cosi from 1953. After about 1957 some opera houses began to perform more operas in the original language though many opera houses in Germany, for example, continued performances in German through the 1960s and beyond (even until today in smaller German Houses). Whatever the Gershwin estate may have degreed, one could not expect a Porgy and Bess in
              English as early as della Casa was singing in it in Zurich. That said Porgy and Bess was not performed all that often in Europe and I believe it generally still isn’t.
              The Volksoper had a well known production
              years ago with black Americans in the lead roles. I think William Warfield was in it at one time. He oured Europe in Porgy circa 1952. By the way did Adele Addison ever sing in any operas ? I heard her in concert in the 1950s and he had a lovely voice.

            • Bill says:

              sorry Adele Addison -- she (not he)

            • DellaCasaFan says:

              Bill, thank you for all these interesting details. I didn’t know that it was so widespread in those days to perform operas in the language of the country. I recently watched Il Barbiere from the late 1950s, with Wunderlich, Prey, Koth, and Hotter. It was sung in German and I didn’t expect as much comic effects because it wasn’t Rossini’s Italian. I was completely wrong. It was one of the jolliest experiences I had with the Barber. It was full of sparkle and onstage fun. Of course, they were all in the superb vocal form too. Probably because I associate him with the Wagnerian repertoire, I was most surprised with Hotter as a wonderful buffo.

              For Adele Addison, I also read that she preferred concerts, but now I see in her online biography that she was Mimi in her NYCO debut. So it must be that she appeared sparingly in some operas.

            • m. p. arazza says:

              Adele Addison did sing at New York City Opera (debuting as Mimi), and with several other companies, one role being Fiordiligi, according to Wikipedia. I have her recording of L’allegro e il Penseroso with Musica Aeterna on LP and I must have played one aria in particular, “Hide me from day’s garish eye,” a hundred times -- such profoundly beautiful singing.

            • Jungfer Marianne Leitmetzerin says:

              At Volksoper Wien, almost everything including Puccini, Verdi, the Mozart/da Ponte operas, “Carmen,” and Sondheim are sung auf Deutsch. Even at Staatsoper there are a few holdouts. When a new Janácek cycle was announced in 2010 I was happy to hear the operas would be performed in Czech for the first time at the house, but yet “Jenufa” remained in German. I asked why and was told that they had soloists who could do it, but there was no time/money for the chorus to relearn its part in Czech (and it has a lot to do in that opera).

          • Poison Ivy says:

            How about also the fact that in Nozze di Figaro there’s been some wonderful Susannas of color (Reri Grist, Kathleen Battle — yes she was wonderful), but at least onstage, almost no Contessas of color?

            It seems as if it’s much more “natural” for audiences to accept African American sopranos in soubrette/maid roles than aristocratic roles, and that’s kind of disturbing.

            • kashania says:

              Did Price never sing the Contessa? I know that she sang a lot of Mozart early in her career. Leona Mitchell also had a Contessa voice. I believe Jessye sang the role when she was a house soprano in Berlin at the beginning of her career.

            • Poison Ivy says:

              Price sang Pamina, but never, AFAIK, Contessa. Norman sang Contessa early in her career.

            • redbear says:

              I saw Grace Bumbry as Venus at Bayreuth in 63. Does that count as an aristocrat?

            • Krunoslav says:

              Roberta Alexander (9 performances) seems to be the lone African-Amercan Countess Almaviva in Met history. Betty Jones did sing it at NYCO in the mid 1970s.

              Any other examples?

              Some aristocratic “European” roles in which African-Amercans have sung: Countess Madeleine ( Gloria Davy was America’s first), Eboli, Elisabeth de Valois, Leonora (FORZA and TROVATORE), Elvira (ERNANI), Helene (VESPRI), Donna Anna, Donna Elvira, Elettra, Vitellia, Constanze, Chimene, Elisabeth, Elsa. Liza, Marina.

            • peter says:

              Kruno, I think it was established earlier on in this thread that Carolyn James sang the Countess at the Met in the mid-1990′s as well.

            • m. p. arazza says:

              I saw Clamma Dale as the Countess at NYCO.

          • kashania says:

            IIRC, Jessye Norman told Charlie Rose that the Marschallin was a role she was dying to sing. Mind you, that was in the year 2000 and wasn’t really singing many operatic roles (especially soprano ones).

            • Clita del Toro says:

              I saw Price’s Pamina. it was in English at the Met.

            • peter says:

              Wow. A Jessye Norman Marschallin. What a glorious thought. Too bad she didn’t at least record it.

            • kashania says:

              Peter: It is a tantalising thought, isn’t it? One the one hand, it could have been too arch. But on the other, Jessye was very good dramatically when she identified with the character. Who knows? Perhaps, she might have been able to connect emotionally to Marschallin. In any case, she had such a natural flair for Strauss’s music but most of his soprano music sat too high for her. The tessitura of Marschallin would have been fine (she could’ve faked the high C — or is it a B? — at the climax of the Trio).

            • armerjacquino says:

              It’s a B- and she probably wouldn’t have needed to fake it if her Ariadne is anything to go by.

      • Donna Anna says:

        I saw a production of P&B at the Volksoper in Vienna; black singers in the lead roles and the chorus in blackface, singing Eet take a lawng poool to get dere…..HAH.
        Jonathan Lemalu sang Porgy in Cincinnati Opera’s 2012 production with the approval of the Gershwin estate. And he did a fine job.

  • Uninvolved Bystander says:

    The Gershwin estate permits Caucasian singers in foreign productions but forbids it in the US.

    • Guestoria Unpopularenka says:

      Wow, what bullshit.

      • If you had taken the time to educate yourself on the troubles that many black classical performers had in having a career you would have not made such a stupefyingly dumb comment.

        I would strongly suggest you read up on Sissieretta Jones, Marian Anderson, Camilla Williams, the early career struggles of Grace Bumbry, Leontyne Price, Martina ArroyoShirley Verrett, George Shirley, Simon Estes and many others. We might live in the “post racial” America, according to some, but it certainly does not feel like that for many. The Chicago Symphony hired its first black musician EVER in 2002 and I know for a FACT that as late as a couple of years ago larry brownlee was bought out of a contract to sing Cenerentola somewhere (believe it or not Europe) because he “didn’t fit the production’s concept” (read: SRWB or “singing Rossibly wile black)

        Maybe taking a look at Aida’s Brother’s and Sisters would not be a bad idea either.

        • m. croche says:

          Not to mention the very unpleasant history in the US and elsewhere of whites performing in blackface…

          Speaking of which, does the MET still blackface the singers performing Aida and Amonasro? Otello?

          • Yes they do. You know? I might catch hell for this, but those do not bother me as much as a white person doing the “minstrel” thing. I have no patience for the likes of Julianne Huff doing it for “fun” in Halloween, but I have no issues with it being done in the context of an opera or play in which the actor is exploring a character.

            In simplistic ways (maybe too simplistic) I see it in the same way as I see drag: a side or part of an art form.

            I do not see an intent to offend when Maria Guleghina dons darker skin for Aida or Milnes does it for Amonastro or Domingo does for Otello anymore than Shirley Verret performing Desdemona in white make up and blond wig (which she did in Boston). To me, a character is a character and it is the actor/singer responsibility to dig deep and do whatever he needs to do to make it real on stage.

            I do not see any intentions to offend when an able-bodies baritone wears a fake hump for Rigoletto, or fakes a severe limp for Porgy, or wears severe eye makeup and eye-patch for Eboli (though modern research say that Patch in the painting was a latter addition to make a hated figure look grotesque), or a 30 year old baritone wears make up to make him look like 65 to singe Germont. I guess what I am trying to say is that theater, the way i see it, is make believe and I see it as above those constrictions. Maybe I am wrong….

            • Noel Dahling says:

              I was about to make the same point you just made. People get so hung up on the “make-up” aspect of blackface that they seem to miss what’s realy offensive: the minstrelsy. If you took away the black make-up, and still played a vulgar, offensive, caricatured stereotype of an African-American, it would be just as offensive.
              A white singer playing Otello or Aida is totally different. I can’t imagine there being any way to bring minstrelsy into a characterization of these roles. At the end of the day, they both sound Italian, just as Butterfly is an Italian woman, and not really “Japanese” in any real way(although in Madama Butterfly there is some faux-Orientalism thrown in).

            • m. croche says:

              Just to answer briefly:

              1) I don’t see that there’s a critical need for Aida and Amonasro to have black skin. If the performers themselves are black, that’s one thing. But there’s not a lot riding on “skin tone” in the text of the opera.

              2) Ot(h)ello is a somewhat different case. My gut feeling is that audiences for Shakespeare’s play are generally aware of the historical tradition of “blackfacing” the title character and are generally aware of the problems associated with racialist ideology that historically have been involved with this role. Even if a white actor were to “blackface” in a straight, traditional way, I have a feeling that many audience members would read it ironically -- a provocative confrontation with the play’s troublesome history, a strategy to use the blackface to make the audience feel uncomfortable.

              I don’t get that feeling when I see a production of Verdi’s Otello. I don’t think there’s the same level of self-awareness. In the context of the opera house, I feel like the audience reaction is, “Otello is black, so of course the white singer should don blackface.” This strikes me as …. problematic.

              In the meantime, this also happened:

            • Camille says:

              No, LA, I think you are dead-ass on the money.

              Theatre is about creating ILLUSION and if a great enough artist can turn him or herself inside out and become something wholly that he or she is not, because they may be so gifted at their craft, well more power to them. It is always wonderful to watch one so gifted and it is an uncommon experience, which may happen anywhere at any time and not just in big famous international puffed up venues.

            • oedipe says:

              Let’s see:
              -Any good reason why dark-haired Gheorghiu was given such a hard time for refusing to wear a ridiculous blond wig as Micaela? Other than trying to prove to the world, yet again, that she is an awfully awful person?
              -Any good reason why Nordic Garanca needs to wear a black wig as Carmen? She didn’t wear a wig for the role in either Vienna or Berlin: she just played a tall blond Carmen.
              -Any good reason why Nordic Opolais has to be grimed “Japanese” and feels the need to bend her body in order to look exotic and short? Why not have her sing the role as the tall blond woman she actually is (maybe in the company of a short, dark haired tenor; there are plenty of those around)?
              -Any reason why youthful-looking Dima needs to wear Rigoletto makeup that transforms him into a repulsive old man?
              -And more generally: why make singers wear makeup/wigs/costumes that attempt to make them look like something they are not? After all, the audience knows (or should know) what the characters are about, their age, skin/hair color, ethnic background, social status, etc.

            • kashania says:

              I agree completely, Lindoro. I think the sensitivities in North America about darkening a non-black singer so he/she can appear black has everything to do with Black Face. If that tradition of Black Face had not existed, then I think people wouldn’t be so sensitive about make-up being applied to singers’ faces.

          • armerjacquino says:

            I played Tito in LEND ME A TENOR a while ago, and given that the plot hinges on two people in a 30s opera house dressed as Otello and being mistaken for each other, I spent the second half blacked up. Even though the plot and setting of the show lessens the implications, it was something that always felt uncomfortable.

            In theory, I’m not against blacking or whiting up; colourblind casting seems to me a better idea than colourblind performance. Ideally, you cast the best person for the role, and if that role happens to be, and has to be, a different ethnicity to the performer, then bring on the makeup. That imperative is rare, too, and only really applies to shows where race is a central theme. While an obviously white Othello or black Iago would make the text troublesome, there’s really no reason why (eg) Hamlet has to be white, despite the way dumb racists will witter on about how there were no black people in medieval Denmark.

            In practice, of course, the filthy history of blackface, and the under-representation of black performers on both theatrical and operatic stages mean that it’s for the foreseeable future, it’s rightly going to be an issue.

            • Camille says:

              Did you now? I liked that play a lot and when I saw it about twenty years ago in a Pasadena Playhouse production, they used the tenor/baritone duet from Don Carlo, which was of course, quite effective in that small theatre.

              I was unaware that Otello was also used for the music in the play.

              At first, when I saw Tito I thought you were going to say Clemenza di Tito!!!!!!!!!

            • armerjacquino says:

              The DON CARLO duet is sung in the first act (along with ‘Celeste Aida’) but the whole play is about a performance of OTELLO. They must have rewritten the play to unrecognisable levels in Pasadena- the two Othellos running around is the motor of the entire second half (which ends with Max singing ‘Vien- Venere Splende’)

            • Cicciabella says:

              That must have been loads of fun, AJ, being in Lend Me A Tenor, and you must be very talented to have been cast as Tito. Did you point out to the powers that be that it should be Tito Merelli, Lo Stupendo not Il Stupendo, as one always reads in the ads? Or is the incorrect Italian intentional and part of the plot? It’s always “lo” before masculine nouns starting in “st”, as in “lo stupido”.

            • manou says:

              Ah -- it’s our old friend la S impura. Nice title for an opera.

            • semira mide says:

              Speaking of Denmark, The Royal Theater in Copenhagen recently presented Porgy and Bess with an all black cast -- many from the US, I believe.
              A big deal was made of the fact that P&B had its Danish premier in 1943 while Denmark was under Nazi occupation. The censors must have been dim-witted to allow a piece about black people written by a Jew on the stage at that time.
              Marion Anderson actually sang in Aarhus, Denmark at the opening of their university there ( date escapes me) but it was at the time when she was “barred” in DC. History is really strange.

            • armerjacquino says:

              ciccia- I did point out the ‘lo stupendo’ gaffe, and as I was backed up by our Maggie, who is half Italian, it was changed.

              What wasn’t changed, to my fury, was that the dialect coach told Max to call the tenor lead of Carmen ‘Don Hosay’. I pointed out until I was blue in the face that it was a French opera and that opera people would pronounce the J in the French manner, but she just said ‘Listen, you’re not American. This play is set in America. We say ‘Hosay’.’

              So that was that.

            • MontyNostry says:

              Cicciabella, I believe it was a (very good) British soprano, Elizabeth Llewellyn, as Bess in Copenhagen. I have this awful feeling that it can still be a bit dangerous for singers to appear in Porgy and Bess, since casting directors sometimes don’t seem to be able to imagine them in other roles, despite their vocal suitability for them. Llewellyn has expressed a desire to sing Desdemona.

          • Camille says:

            Croche,
            It’s actually looks more like the spraying tanning technician at the spa went overboard. Never very convincing and worse on some than on others.

            I had a dear friend from Eritrea once (a part of Ethiopia which has sectioned off and is independent), whom I lost track of. He spoke very well Italian as he had been a refugee forced to flee his country and ended up in jail in Chad and was rescued and somehow ended up in Milano! He had never heard of Aïda! His colour was chocolate and he thought Aïda and its entire concept was just hysterically funny and thought I’d made the thing up until I played him some music, whereupon he became very quiet, and never laughed at AÏDA again. I just loved him and I wonder what became of him as he was so smart. Maybe he has seen Aïda by now. I hope so.

            Just sayin’.

            • semira mide says:

              Camille, you were at the Pasadena Playhouse 20 years ago? Small world. Did you just pop in for the performance? I went with a friend who had a subscription, but I no longer remember what we saw.

            • Camille says:

              Not visiting, but living there for three years, a lacuna of calm in the life of Hurricaine Camille, as dear old Mater was wont to call me.

              In fact, there is a remote hope that I may return, as Monsieur Camille has recently dropped a bombshell in announcing he may want to move to SoCal, an absolute stunning turnaround for Mr. New Yawk. I don’t quite know how it will work out yet but if things go as I would like them to, you may soon be seeing me in the Camillemobile as ‘The Terror of Colorado Boulevard’, as in this magnum opus:

              I hear it has gotten much more expensive, but what hasn’t? Go, granny, go!

        • Guestoria Unpopularenka says:

          I’m not going to delve into the subject of affirmative action. Segregation is not the answer as you have pointed out in your example, this decision by the Gershwin estate hasn’t changed anything.

          • well, for starters it opened the door for many black singers to do roles besides Aida and Amonastro. And if things are bad now, imagine 70 years ago and do the math.

            • kennedet says:

              I hate discrimination of any kind under any set of circumstances. If having white singers perform P&B at the Met will enable all singers to be listed on the roster, regardless of color (instead of P&B being treated as some kind of “special” event with a different destiny)…then I am all for it.

          • Evenhanded says:

            Well.

            Segregation is hardly the topic of discussion here, Guestoria. Are you seriously arguing that a decision made by the Gershwin estate (under conditions very different in SOME ways than we live in currently) was misguided? Are you trying to argue that keeping Caucasian performers out of productions of Porgy and Bess can be labeled as “segregationist”? Really? Do you think that was the aim of the original decision? And how do you know that it “hasn’t changed anything”? I didn’t realize you were a Gershwin scholar. Or is it a specialist in modern American race relations? Perhaps you’d care to amplify on your “opinions”?

            • Noel Dahling says:

              You don’t want him amplifying his opinions. Trust me.

            • grimoaldo says:

              As I understand it, the Gershwin estate is following the wishes of the Gershwin creators of the piece, that “Porgy and Bess” should not be turned into a “minstrel show”, with white people “blacking up” to appear in it. I think that is very commendable, especially when you think of how different things were in the US at the time of P&B premiere.

        • kennedet says:

          Lindoro,another concern brought to my attention years ago by Simon Estes is that after blacks perform lead roles in P&B they are not put on the roster like others. Obviously, Grace Bumbry and Roberta Alexander were the exceptions but their debuts were not P&B. I’m not making an accusation but inquiring. Surely the P&B roles can be of equal difficulty vocally and especially physically to any opera in the repertoire. I understand Damon Evans (Lionel)of the 1975 television sitcom fame The Jeffersons refused to sing Sportin’ Life at the Met because afterwards he would be “ushered out of the door”.

          • You are not the first one to say that to me. We all have heard how Leontyne Price was told not to debut at the met in Aida otherwise that was the only thing she would do there. I know a more recent soprano who, by the looks of it, had the same experience: Aida debut, some other things and after that, nothing.

            Porgy seems to have the same issue: Companies will call you when they need you and after that, if I run into you on the streets I will cross and blame the sun.

            I mean, wasn’t there grumbling when Larry Brownlee was cast opposite Renee in Armida because there was no way a white soprano could fall in love with Larry?

            • DonCarloFanatic says:

              Larry Brownlee is lovable. Whether Renee Fleming could love him is a different story.
              Brownlee was being extremely careful not to over-touch the august lady in Armida. I don’t think it was a white-black thing so much as a no chemistry thing or even a perceived fame/status thing. The lack of chemistry can have many sources, and only the two of them know what it was. He’s obviously got better chemistry with other leading ladies, and nobody has been saying he’s not credible as Arturo to this Elvira, so I would myself discount race as an abstract factor. I suppose it could have been a personal factor. But then, so could being French. People relate to each other as they do.

            • No, some of that was racial. I saw the comments.

            • La Cieca says:

              The lack of Brownlee/Fleming chemistry could also have something to do with the director of the work, Mary Zimmerman. She’s given us a Lucia in which the pinnacle of Lucia and Edgardo’s passion is a sedate foxtrot during “Verrano a te sull’aure” and a Sonnambula in which Amina and Elvino act like brother and sister. At least as far as opera goes, Zimmerman doesn’t seem to do sex.

            • I did not mind that Lucia at all. I thought the lack of touching between them I attributed to it being a constriction of the Victorian era in which she close to set the opera.

              I know I am in the minority here. I liked the production very much.

            • la vociaccia says:

              Lindoro, I know who you are referring to and her Met career dried up after those Aidas because her singing fell apart (not unrelated to the gastric bypass…). She was amazing in that Aida but sadly she really doesn’t sound the same today.

            • semira mide says:

              I don’t remember the grumbling about casting Brownlee opposite Renee. I do remember grumbling about casting Renee ( who was not up to the job) and miscasting Brownlee as Rinaldo ( his voice being better for one of the other tenor parts in Armida) However Brownlee rose to the occasion several times and was the only one who set fire to Rossini’s inscrutable opera. I say this as an unapologetic Bruce Ford fan, whom I believe you have admired, too, Lindoro. OK, OK, I know he is no longer performing!

            • Aidas because her singing fell apart

              Wrong! completely wrong. I have heard her after those Met Aidas and the voice is still there, all of it. Whomever told you that is completely and absolutely wrong.

            • la vociaccia says:

              Lindoro, I don’t need to be ‘told’ that i’m wrong; the proof is all over YouTube. Her voice isn’t the same anymore. Period.

            • the proof is all over YouTube

              Of course! My apologies. I should have known that YouTube is a more reliable source of information than someone who has seen said singer in the flesh, even after said surgery.

              I am very sorry, I should have known better than to dare question YouTube. It won’t happen again.

            • la vociaccia says:

              Wait, I may have the wrong soprano. Are we talking about the one who sang Aida in 2004 and 2007, or the one who covered it in 1999? I’m talking about the latter, who used to have an incredible voice which is now long gone. The former, who I think you are referring to, does indeed still have her voice intact

              Sorry for the confusion

            • Porgy Amor says:

              She’s given us a Lucia in which the pinnacle of Lucia and Edgardo’s passion is a sedate foxtrot during “Verrano a te sull’aure” and a Sonnambula in which Amina and Elvino act like brother and sister. At least as far as opera goes, Zimmerman doesn’t seem to do sex.

              It has been a while since I saw it, but in the Netrebko/Kwiecien revival of the Lucia, the brother and sister were the only ones who did seem on the verge of “doing sex.” Their big scene had the most highly charged one-on-one interaction in the thing. I remember Piotr Beczala’s beautiful singing, but when I think of people locking eyes and getting a charge going, I remember Netrebko on the floor and Kwiecien looming over her. That may, of course, have been a quirk of the performers, who obviously work well together (although in real life they are probably are not each other’s type).

            • Porgy Amor says:

              I may have the wrong soprano. Are we talking about the one who sang Aida in 2004 and 2007, or the one who covered it in 1999? I’m talking about the latter, who used to have an incredible voice which is now long gone. The former, who I think you are referring to, does indeed still have her voice intact

              I am glad you two got that cleared up, because I thought 2004/2007 was the unnamed singer as well. I had seen a mighty impressive Elisabetta de Valois from her just a few years ago and hated to imagine she was in ruins just since then (or that she had been in ruins then and I had somehow failed to notice).

            • grimoaldo says:

              Why are people talking in code and hints here? (the unnamed soprano, the soprano who sang Aida in 2007, no, wait,the one who sang it 1999). I’m confused. Is this another blind item?

            • Rackon says:

              Porgy, I dunno where this response will end up but regarding “the soprano who sang Aida in 2004 and 2007″…

              I just saw/heard Angela Brown last month in Indy -- apropriately for this thread -- in concert highlights from Porgy and Bess. She looked and sounded fab. AB is a hometown girl so we hoosiers may be prejudiced in her favor but she was rapturously received. She conducted a fine master class next day too.

              Lindoro, were you there?

            • kashania says:

              Grim: Colour me confused as well. Is one of the sopranos in question Angela Brown?

            • alejandro says:

              I looked up Met Aidas for those years and my guesses are Angela Brown and Sharon Sweet

            • Gualtier M says:

              This conversation is going off the rails somwhat. I think the main problem in the Armida loves scene was the height differential between Fleming and Brownlee. Zimmermann kept them apart. Also Brownlee was directed to play Dudley DoRight and Fleming was doing Glinda the Good Witch as played by Jeanette MacDonald on xanax.

              As for Angela M. Brown -- what did happen to that voice/career? I have seen recent pictures and she looks great. She seems to be recently married and happy. But there are so few decent Verdi spinto sopranos around why is she doing Bess in concert and then recitals instead of opera? What happened to the international operatic career? Someone here said that Brown now has a wobble. Is that true?

              Also btw: Carolyn James sang the Contessa Almaviva at the Met.

            • la vociaccia says:

              I was talking about a Soprano whose intials are IT

            • phoenix says:

              Iano Tamar?

            • la vociaccia says:

              No. We’re talking about African american sopranos

            • MontyNostry says:

              Indra Thomas, then. I didn’t know she had sung at the Met. The only time I’ve seen her was when she was in the audience of a concert in London. Stunning woman.

            • MontyNostry says:

              … and, from what I’ve heard on videos, a sumptuous, but slightly unwieldy voice. At least it seemed to be on the right scale for Aida, though. I think one of the reasons it is seen as ‘OK’ to type-cast dark-skinned sopranos as Aida is that Leontyne Price managed to transform it into a badge of honour. But it still amazes me that, 50 years after she was in her prime, opera houses’ attitudes hardly seem to have changed on this particular operatic matter.

            • la vociaccia says:

              Monty, it was, at that time (late 90′s/early 2000s), a marvelous voice with a beautiful, blooming top. Sadly it has declined very far from there. I don’t want to pour salt in the wound, as it were, but there’s a video of her singing Vissi d’arte from last summer that breaks my heart.

            • MontyNostry says:

              Oh dear, triste canto indeed.

            • Porgy Amor says:

              Thomas and Brown were the only African-American Met Aïdas I knew who had had gastric bypass surgery, and then the years given matched up at the Met site.

              Actually, Thomas had not bypass but something less invasive within the bariatric procedure category, but close enough.

            • kennedet says:

              Race, race, race. It certainly is a hot topic in the news these days. I feel there will always be racism. How will you stop it? It can very difficult to prove subtle racism versus playing the “race card”. Fortunately, you can get into trouble if it’s blatant these days and handled by competent people. However, as long as there is capitalism, there will be racism because captalism depends on competition and if you think competiton is fair, I have a magic wand that will cure all of the problems at the Met. The problem of race has been discussed ad nauseum and forgotten until another egregious act is committed which will follow with more conversation. That is why many people believe in establishing entitities with their own race, as though that will solve anything… only to find that greed, arrogance, betrayal, jealousy exists among all kinds of people of every race and creed. I’m tired of reading about it and experiencing the entire mess.

        • mia apulia says:

          hell, we don’t even live in a “post-racial” era in basketball

          • Clita del Toro says:

            Please identify the singers you are writing about. DUH!

          • Clita del Toro says:

            “…Fleming was doing Glinda the Good Witch as played by Jeanette MacDonald on xanax.” LOL Gualtier.

            That describes Renée personality quite well. She ain’t no Billie Burke! If only..

  • phoenix says:

    Could a legal challenge against the ‘Gershwin Estate’ ruling be made using DNA evidence -- by a so-called ‘white’ appearing artist with African DNA?

    http://www.theroot.com/articles/history/2013/02/how_mixed_are_african_americans.html

    • m. croche says:

      In what universe would the expense, time, hassle and rather dubious notoriety associated with such an undertaking be at all worthwhile?

      If people want to get mad at the Gershwin Trust, let it for be the Trust’s role in promoting the Copyright Extension act of the 1990s, which kept Mickey Mouse and Rhapsody in Blue under copyright for no discernibly good reason.

    • If I was the lawyer of the Gershwin estate, I would request to see years of self identification forms and if (s)he consistently marked “white” I would state in court that since this person self identifies as such, (s)he would not be given a waiver.

      The fact is that in a couple of decades the copyright will go away and anyone will be able to perform those roles.

    • DonCarloFanatic says:

      I read that article by Gates about DNA, and what he does not actually say but what appeared obvious to me was that within a few generations, there won’t be anybody able to “pass” for anything anymore. At most, people of each race would have a tiny bit of the other. That’s assuming low-to-no intermarriage producing children. And I don’t know if the statistics on trends bear out my conclusion or completely refute it, but I know in my own family we’re getting less and less Irish with every generation.

  • Camille says:

    Sanford,
    I had not noticed this was by you and I am so greatly relieved you, too, were a sweet hing a age fifteen. Everyone should have been one, at some point.

    How goes the singing? Still on the job? Some day I’ll hear you but until then keep up all your hard work. I am very proud if what you did for yourself. Pat yourself on the back.

  • Poison Ivy says:

    Well, guys, I thought this would be a good time to get Richard Nixon and the Berlin Wall’s ideas of a mixed-race cast onstage in tonight’s Puritani:

    http://poisonivywalloftext.blogspot.com/2014/04/puritani-gate.html

    • m. croche says:

      Well, goddamn…

    • alejandro says:

      Sue me, but I really loved I Puritani. Granted that production is just awful, but I was charmed by Peretyatko and Brownlee. I was shouting plenty of bravos . . . especially after their Act 3 duet. I think Peretyatko has a lot of pontential. I sensed there was a little bit of work in progress element to her, but I found the voice much more pleasant in the house than on her recital album . . . and I appreciated how genuinely transported she looked during various points in the opera.

      Brownlee’s voice can turn me into mush. Other than that ugly F, which was quick, I found it an absolutely gorgeous performance.

      Kwiecen was not too bad in his first act, but there’s something about him I just cannot connect to. The voice feels so opaque to me.

      • Poison Ivy says:

        Brownlee didn’t take the high F last night … Were you at an earlier performance?

        • alejandro says:

          I was at Saturday’s performance.

          • Poison Ivy says:

            Oh I was at last night’s and everyone seemed really off. The orchestra was out of tune, and Olga Peretyatko sounded wan and flat from the start. There was a huge cut in the Act One finale so the ornamentations I heard her do opening night were gone. Brownlee was in good voice for most of the night but ran out of steam somewhere in Credeasi misera, didn’t go for the F, and actually I think he might have transposed it down. Even Pertusi sounded sick.

            • alejandro says:

              Huh. That’s unfortunate. They were great on Saturday. And the audience was really loving them.

            • Poison Ivy says:

              I wonder if a cold is going around because Peretyatko sounded so much worse than she did opening night. She skipped several acuti that she took opening night, and excised some ornamentation. Her voice was thin and weak, especially in the upper range, and didn’t project well. And as I said her husband took some internal cuts that didn’t allow her repeats that weren’t there opening night. Dramatically she was off too. During “Qui la voce” she threw her veil into the fake candles and Mariusz had to run upstage to grab the veil because it was so ridiculously having a big veil sit on top of candles and not catch fire.

              Larry sounded great in Act One but very tired in Act Three. Mariusz was announced as sick, and sounded decent, although he ducked the G in Suoni la tromba. Pertusi sounded sick too. I hope they recover for the broadcast.

            • alejandro says:

              She threw the veil on the candles on Saturday too. I think she may need to just not throw it. LOL.

  • kennedet says:

    There was an exchange on this subject regarding race which no longer exists. It was very troubling but I am glad I can’t find it. If Cieca is responsible for removing it….. I just want to say I have a new found respect for you.