Reflecting on 'Porgy'

March 10, 1998|By Glenn McNatt

COMPOSER George Gershwin auditioned more than 100 singers before settling on baritone Todd Duncan for the lead role in the original 1935 production of "Porgy and Bess." Duncan, who died Feb. 28 at age 95, was a consummate musician and one of the great voices of his age.

I met Duncan last summer, when I visited him at his home in Washington. My visit had all the mystery and anticipation of a pilgrimage, for Duncan was a legendary figure who had influenced two generations of black singers.

By the time of my visit, he was nearly blind and in frail health. His voice was gone, and he seemed to know that he did not have much longer to live. Yet his memory was clear, and he still vividly recalled the day he met Gershwin.

"I had gone up to New York on a weekend because I'd heard they were auditioning," he recalled. "But I didn't really think it would come to anything, because it was a Broadway show, and I was classically trained."

A recognized talent

At the time, Duncan was teaching at Howard University. He was already recognized as a brilliant talent, but in those days there were few opportunities for black singers to perform in the classical music world. The idea of a "jazz opera" such as Gershwin's struck many people as preposterous.

"I went up to Mr. Gershwin's apartment and knocked on the door -- and he answered it himself," Duncan continued. "He just looked at me and said, 'Where's your accompanist?'

"I told him I didn't have one. Then I said, 'Can't you play?'

"Well, what I didn't know was that the night before he had just performed his Piano Concerto in F. And he was the soloist! But all he said was, 'Sure, I guess I can.' "

Duncan had brought French and German art songs and some opera arias to perform. But he'd hardly sung the first lines before Gershwin stopped him and put the lid of the piano down.

"I thought that was it," Duncan recalled. "For a moment he just looked at me. Then he said, very quietly, 'Mr. Duncan, will you be my Porgy?'

"I said, 'I don't know, Mr. Gershwin. I'd have to hear your music.' And he gave me a big smile and said, 'Well, I'd like you to come back next weekend, then. I'll have some people here and we're going to go through the entire opera. Will you come?'"

Duncan agreed to return the next week, but he remained skeptical.

"I came back with my wife the next weekend, and when we arrived at Gershwin's apartment, there were already a lot of people there. After a while, Gershwin sat down at the piano and started playing the overture to 'Porgy and Bess.' It was all real fast and jazzy, and my first thought was, 'This is absolutely terrible!'

"I was thinking how long it would be before we could get our coats and get out of there when suddenly the music segued into the 'Summertime' theme.

"A few minutes later, I looked over at my wife, and she was sitting there with tears streaming down her face. That was when I knew I had to do this opera."

The original production of "Porgy and Bess" opened at New York's Alvin Theatre on Oct. 10, 1935, and ran 124 performances. The critics were lukewarm. Today, 124 performances would represent a hit, but then the show was considered a flop.

Gershwin was crushed by the failure, but he never lost faith in "Porgy's" artistic value. Once after reading through the score he remarked to a friend, ''The music is so beautiful I sometimes can't believe that I wrote it.''

Today ''Porgy and Bess,'' based on DuBose Heyward's novel about a poor, crippled beggar in Charleston, S.C., who falls in love with a beautiful woman of easy virtue, is recognized as Gershwin's masterpiece and the greatest of all American operas. Gershwin drew his inspiration for "Porgy" from the music of black residents of Folly Island, off the coast of South Carolina, during a visit there in 1934.

Yet for years the various forms of African-American song -- spirituals, ragtime, blues and jazz -- simply were not considered suitable material for "art" music. The best the critics could say was that Gershwin had ''made a lady out of jazz.''

And though a handful of singers -- Marian Anderson, Roland Hayes, Dorothy Maynor, Paul Robeson -- had begun to win recognition as classical performers, "Porgy and Bess" did not really break down the barriers of a rigidly segregated music business.

A nonpolitical singer

After "Porgy," Duncan returned to teaching voice at Howard University. Over the next 40 years, he went on to give some 2,000 concerts and recitals. Yet he never achieved the celebrity of his near contemporary, Paul Robeson -- largely, I suspect, because he concentrated on his music rather than allow himself to be drawn into politics.

During my visit with Duncan, he showed me his basement studio. The walls were covered with autographed pictures of famous musicians, politicians and writers.

Sitting on the piano was a framed portrait of Gerswhin with the inscription: "To a great Porgy, a great singer and a terrific guy."

I am too young to have heard Duncan in his prime. Yet that is how I shall remember him, too -- for his consummate musicianship, for all the lives he touched during a long and productive career, for the great gift of himself and his art, which he shared so unselfishly with the world.

Glenn McNatt is arts columnist for The Sun.

Pub Date: 3/10/98

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