Terry Cook as Crown, seated, and Indira Mahajan as Bess during… (AP photo )
Seventy-five years ago, the first great American opera - and, many would persuasively argue, the greatest American opera - was born. Not everyone noticed.
An eminent critic complained about "a libretto that should never have been accepted on a subject that should never have been chosen [by a composer] who should never have attempted it." Another bristled at "sure-fire rubbish" in the score.
But in time, George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" came into its own.
The opera happens to be particularly prominent around the region these days. This weekend, Marin Alsop conducts the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in an hourlong concert suite from the work, joined by the Morgan State University Choir and a group of soloists that includes soprano Indira Mahajan as Bess.
And next month, Mahajan will sing that role in one of two casts for Washington National Opera's revival of "Porgy and Bess," in the compelling 2005 production conceived and directed by Francesca Zambello.
Given such indelible numbers in the score as "Summertime," "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'," "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," the opera's continuing appeal is easy to hear, whether in a fully staged production or a concert abridgment.
" 'Porgy and Bess' is now a period piece in terms of African-American history," Alsop says, "but in terms of the music, it's really a timeless piece. It doesn't feel dated at all."
Based on a novel and subsequent play by DuBose Heyward, the opera's plot is set in a poor black community of Charleston, S.C., a section called Catfish Row. Here, the crippled beggar Porgy loves the sensual Bess, who can't quite break her previous bond with the abusive Crown. The story is not without its stereotypes, including a dope peddler.
"We are not as offended by a lot of the stereotypes now," says Mahajan. "We can see past them. But we're not stuck there anymore. Whether we like it or not, it was representative of its time and a very real part of American history. And the themes in 'Porgy' - jealousy, deceit, despair, poverty - are the same basic themes in so many operas, themes that can make an opera great, and even profound."
"The story is based in the grand opera tradition of Verdi and Mussorgsky, models [Gershwin] looked to," the director says. "So we do look past the stereotypes and look at the fact that it's a great drama. It's a piece that offers an enormous amount to work with, and gives you so much. The same way Mozart speaks to us today, anything of this masterpiece level always has a relevance. It touches so deeply into the human soul."
Gershwin saw early on the possibilities of making an absorbing opera from Heyward's material. (Heyward wrote the opera's libretto; he and Ira Gershwin shared credit for the lyrics.) The composer clearly related to the marginalized folk of Catfish Row, their passions and dreams, their strengths and weaknesses.
He and Heyward "didn't want these characters to be buffoons," Mahajan says. "They weren't mocking. They wanted to show the whole world of emotions we all feel." As Alsop sees it, "Gershwin's music is so brilliant that you can tell he's coming from a place of complete respect, and that matters," she says.
The composer also carried his respect for the subject into the theater for the premiere of "Porgy and Bess," which was groundbreaking in more than musical ways. "The amazing thing is Gershwin's insistence on an all-black cast," Alsop says.
That first cast included the Baltimore-born soprano Anne Wiggins Brown, who attended Morgan College (now Morgan State University) for a time, was denied admission to the Peabody Conservatory because of her race, and went on to complete her studies at New York's Juilliard School. When she heard that Gershwin was writing an opera based on Heyward's "Porgy," Brown wrote the composer asking for an audition. After just a few minutes of singing for him, she was hired to create the role of Bess, a role Gershwin expanded for her.
Today, the world that Brown knew in 1935 seems far away in many respects, given the advances in civil rights. But not everything has changed since then.
" 'Porgy' holds a mirror up to the social and economic struggles of a people," says Mahajan, "and to the issue of race and class, which is still a part of what's happening today."
One racial element invariably arises today, now that the opera is well-established and performed fairly often around the world.
"It does give many singers of color an opportunity," Mahajan says. "Unfortunately, you can get hired to do some of the big roles in 'Porgy,' but some companies would not necessarily hire these singers for other works. That's a very real concern."