The controversy surrounding the upcoming production of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess is merely the latest stir generated across the storied history of George Gershwin’s “folk opera.” Since Porgy and Bess premiered in 1935, debate has ensued over its portrayal of African Americans and over the restrictions requiring all sung roles, at least for staged productions in the United States, be assigned to Blacks. Even the very nature of the work itself has raised questions – is it opera, musical, or some hybrid of the two?
The controversial nature of the “folk opera” has undeniably affected its popularity over the decades. However, has the equally undeniable beauty and power of Gershwin’s music, DuBose Heyward’s story, and Ira Gershwin’s lyrics finally earned for Porgy and Bess the status as America’s greatest contribution to 20th-century opera?
Have attitudes about Porgy and Bess and interest in performing the work finally reached a level where it can become a staple in the standard repertoire of vocal studios and opera houses?
Author Randye Jones explored current perceptions of Porgy and Bess through a survey of singers, vocal instructors, opera directors and others with an interest in the opera. She analyzed the participants’ responses to questions related to their knowledge of the opera, their depth of experience with the opera as either performers or listeners, their views about the characterization of African Americans in the opera, and their thoughts about the opera’s future, especially regarding the assignment of singing roles to non-Blacks.
The article includes numerous, insightful comments made by the survey respondents, as well as excerpts from interviews Jones conducted with five singers who have performed in the opera.