Porgy and Bess, A Work that Blurs Genre Lines, Heads to the Metropolitan Opera with Bartlett Sher

Classic Arts   Porgy and Bess, A Work that Blurs Genre Lines, Heads to the Metropolitan Opera with Bartlett Sher The Gershwin show has a history of navigating between the opera and musical theatre worlds.
Eric Owens and Pretty Yende performing a duet from <i>Porgy and Bess</i> at the Metropolitan Opera&#39;s 50th anniversary gala.
Eric Owens and Pretty Yende performing a duet from Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera's 50th anniversary gala. Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

A new production of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess directed by Bartlett Sher will be presented at the Metropolitan Opera during its 2019-2020 season, General Manager Peter Gelb confirmed in a New York Times interview.

Tony_Award_Nominees_Meet_The_Press_Portraits_2017_HR
Bartlett Sher Marc J. Franklin

American bass-baritone Eric Owens will sing the title role of Porgy; additional casting will be announced later.

Porgy and Bess has straddled the line between Broadway and opera since its 1935 premiere. Despite being written as an operatic composition, the show opened in New York on Broadway following a tryout engagement in Boston. It didn’t actually transition to the opera stage until the ‘70s, when Houston Grand Opera took a swing.

It’s fitting, then, to have this Met production helmed by Sher, who himself straddles the Broadway-opera divide. This will be Sher’s eighth opera with the Met, where his productions have ranged from an outrageously campy Les Contes d’Hoffmann to a far more straightforward Roméo et Juliette. He is currently Tony-nominated for directing the Lincoln Center Theater production of Oslo.

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This marks a long-awaited return of the Gershwin opera to the Met stage, where it was last seen in 1990. But New York Gershwin fans have had other ways to sate their appetites. Most recently, Porgy and Bess was performed on Broadway in 2012, in a production directed by Diane Paulus. The staging won Tony Awards for Best Revival of a Musical and for Audra McDonald’s leading performance as Bess.

Audra McDonald in <i>The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess</i>
Audra McDonald in The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess Michael J. Lutch

The title is one that lends itself to transitioning from opera to Broadway stages—with some revisions. Paulus replaced recitative for straight dialogue, and there’s a noticeable difference in production size, from chorus and orchestra to sets.

While there are clear technical differences between musicals and operas, the fluidity of Porgy and Bess points to differences in culture around the musical forms. Broadway is a comparatively progressive space that thrives more on new works. Opera is considered new if it was composed in the last century. Even if George Gershwin wanted to, he could not have premiered Porgy at the Met—it would be another twenty years until the Met had black singers onstage in productions.

Aside from occupying a different space, this upcoming Porgy arrives at a drastically different time from the last Broadway production. Paulus’ show came a year before the Black Lives Matter movement started and four years before the election of Donald Trump revealed a loudly screaming racial divide.

That Porgy and Bess deals with historically problematic subject matters is no new ground for the opera world, which is used to doing mental somersaults over racial stereotypes written more than a century ago. More and more, modern audiences demand directors be considerate of stereotypes and to lean toward cultural appreciation rather than appropriation.

Some directors handle this by getting closer to the actual culture being portrayed. The Met's current production of Madama Butterfly, directed by the late Anthony Minghella, includes traditional Japanese puppetry and elevates the beauty of Cio-Cio San's community. A 2016 production of The Pearl Fishers at the Met was updated to more modern times and set in a detailed shantytown. The productions faced both criticism and praise for their attempts.

Read: METROPOLITAN OPERA DROPS USE OF BLACKFACE IN OTELLO

Sher has had practice with this. He made waves with his choice to not use blackface in his new production of Otello at the Met in 2015, a move that was ultimately deemed overdue. And, after all, Porgy is still a (relatively) young opera. Sher has room, should he choose, to develop the production for contemporary audiences.

Owens, who was last seen at the Met in this season’s Idomeneo, has sung Porgy across the country, starting in San Francisco in 2009.

“Nowadays, I think the opera can be appreciated for its amazing music and for the fact that it is an American classic. It's a work of its period, a piece of historical fiction that's to an extent accurate, and so we don't want to airbrush out all the unpleasantries,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2014. “I think of it as a story of hope, and anyone can relate to that.”

Owens and soprano Pretty Yende performed the Porgy and Bess duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” at the Met's 50th anniversary celebration May 7. Watch footage from the gala event (including their performance) below.

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