Coffee Rhetoric: Black Opera

July 20, 2007

Black Opera

I've been on a musical kick as of late. So far I've watched the film version of the Broadway hit Rent, and while I saw it at the theater I've watched the Dream Girls movie several dozen times, in succession. I even accessed to the DVD's set up options and changed it to French. The dubbing job wasn't as amateur as I thought it'd be. Yes, I watched Dream Girls in French. I so love the movie and its soundtrack. I do what I must to fight the ravages of boredom, in any event. Next up, perhaps I'll rent the original incarnation of John Water's Hairspray (starring Rikki Lake), Cry Baby, and/or Sparkle. In the meantime, I'm slowly working my way through the George Gershwin opera, Porgy and Bess. Adapted from the book Porgy, written by DuBose Heyward. As I watched the opera, it suddenly begin to strike me how significant it and the novel really are. DuBose, who is white and a descendant of Thomas Heyward, Jr., wrote Porgy using all black characters living in a fictitious town called Catfish Row. He penned the novel sans the flippant and offensive nature of Thomas F. Dixon, Jr's The Clansman. Which would later be adapted into the controversial film Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith. Heyward found inspiration for Porgy, whilst studying the ways in which African Americans lived in Charleston, South Carolina. While some people (understandably) considered the book, the Broadway hit, and the opera a perpetuation of racial stereotypes, it was still unheard of to read literature or watch portrayals (written or directed by White people) of Blacks in such a sympathetic way, during this time. True to the book, the Broadway show, and Gershwin's opera features an all Black cast- (which Gershwin was adamant about, even though some theater companies and opera houses here and abroad used all White casts due to the political (and racist) climate of that time)- and Gullah dialect. For this reason alone, Porgy and Bess is relevant. It wasn't even considered a legitimate opera, until 1976... which isn't that long ago.
The music is also a good enough reason to consider this a groundbreaking artistic endeavor for the time. Summertime (one of my favorite songs!), I Loves You Porgy, and It Ain't Necessarily So has been covered by many jazz greats including Billie Holiday (who does my favorite version of Summertime), Miles Davis, and Ella Fitzgerald
I guess the whole point in my composing this entry, is to strongly suggest Porgy and Bess as something to take time out and watch or listen to. While I appreciate the effort, I would take a pass on the movie version and soundtrack, and stick to Gershwin's versions of both. The opera is on DVD and is about 3 hours long. It is also reminiscent of one of my favorite musical films, Orfeu Negro (Black Orpheus). An Afro-Brazilian tale based on the Greek tragedy, Orpheus. Orfeu Negro, made by French director Marcel Camus and which features an incredible and infectious soundtrack (which I own on CD), was also considered to be controversial. Critics felt that its depiction of Afro-Brazilians, living in the favelas of Rio as happy go lucky, was buffoonish and that it depicted racial stereotypes about people living in the favelas. While I commiserate with some of that film's naysayers, I do think the beauty of the love story and the lush backdrop of Rio and Carnaval helps contribute to the film's beauty. I would suggest that classic as well.