A common denominator

The 1926 Gershwin classic opera ‘Porgy and Bess’ still strikes a resonant chord today.

Porgy and Bess 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Porgy and Bess 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is no secret that opera can sometimes be a somewhat highbrow art form, but surely no one could attach that epithet to Porgy and Bess. On November 12, the Cape Town Opera company opens the Israeli Opera’s 26th season with 14 performances of its awardwinning production of the masterpiece by George and Ira Gershwin. David Stern, the musical director of the Israeli Opera, will conduct the Israel Symphony Orchestra Rishon Lezion. The opera is performed in English with Hebrew and English surtitles.
The ever-popular Gershwin opus is based on a book called Porgy, written in 1926 by DuBose Heyward and on the play of the same name, which he co-wrote with his wife, Dorothy Heyward. All three works deal with African American life in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s. Porgy and Bess was first performed in 1935, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. The story depicts the eponymous male character, a disabled black beggar living in the slums of Charleston, and his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin’ Life, the drug dealer.
In the intervening three quarters of a century, the opera has gradually gained in popularity across the world, particularly since its acceptance as a bona fide opera in the United States which, did not happen until the mid- 1970s. Several of the songs taken from it have been performed in countless renditions and genres by many artists, including the hit numbers “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Many of the themes depicted in Porgy and Bess remain highly relevant, particularly for the members of the incoming production company. “The story of Porgy and Bess resonates strongly in South Africa today, too,” says Cape Town Opera director Michael Williams, “even though the opera has its roots in Charleston and is composed by a Russian Jew. It is simply a masterpiece. Gershwin could tap into the zeitgeist of the moment and understand the heartfelt emotions of poor African Americans in the South. That is why we are so attracted to the piece.”
Williams adds that the social milieu of the original story also strikes a chord with parts of contemporary South Africa. “We have problems with abuse against women, drug abuse, poverty, and with self - identity. As we slowly move towards a more egalitarian society, we see the new generation of black South Africans developing in a powerful way. All of these themes resonate with us, and it is essentially a human story. It is about a man’s faltering love for an unattainable woman –we’ve all been there. But Porgy is a cripple, but his heart is huge. And even though he has his one moment of bliss, we root for him, even though we know it’s not going to turn out well.”
Williams also sees a common denominator in the community aspect of life in the Deep South in the 1920s and in presentday South Africa. “We started looking at some of the aspects of the opera, and we started homing in on details that we could identify with strongly. For example, in a South African township if someone is caught stealing or committing rape, the community gets involved and tracks down the perpetrator and brings him to the police.
The idea is to make the townships safer. When Porgy sets out to kill Crown, the community also gets involved. We understand that the rogue element has to be gotten rid of.
The director says that Gershwin took his work on the opera very seriously, and it wasn’t just another musical project for him.
“Gershwin felt very strongly about the plight of the African Americans and the fact that they were not able to break into Broadway and the white business. He was very touched by DeBose’s novel and went to the Deep South to meet people and to see things for himself.”
Therein, says Williams, lies the secret of the opera’s enduring popularity. “Great art is always sparked by real inspiration. The music is all original but it is informed by African American music, although it is not gospel. Gershwin had an amazing understanding of melody, and people will always hook into good melodies, tunes that they can hum.”
For more information: www.israelopera.co.il . Telephone bookings: (03) 692-7777