“Not even the Met can rescue Porgy and Bess from appropriation” wrote Michael Zarathus-Cook in the spring issue of Opera Canada. Seeing no way to rescue the opera from charges of appropriation, he simply says, “Porgy should go away.” His main contention seems to be what he calls “profiting from the depiction of a minority culture solely from an external perspective, while simultaneously avoiding to include members of this demographic in the creative process.”
Let’s face it, Porgy and Bess was created by three white guys: Dubose Heyward, who wrote the novel (1925) and the play on which the opera is based, George Gershwin, who wrote the music, and Ira Gershwin, who created the lyrics to most of the songs. The opera was first produced on Broadway in 1935. The creators of the work insisted, from the start, that the cast must be all black singers and dancers. Since most theatres in New York of the time, and also the present, were owned and operated by white people, it isn’t surprising that stage crews, directors, and choreographers would also be white. But Zarathus-Cook finds this objectionable, saying, “Porgy productions invariably rely on nearly all white creative teams, and therein lies the act of cultural appropriation.” Sorry, but I don’t get it.
The Met’s hiring of a black choreographer, Camille A. Brown, for this production is dismissed as an “an attempt to be ‘progressive.’” Wouldn’t it have been impossible, if not ridiculous, for the Met to replace its entire technical and backstage crew with black people? Not to mention the office, marketing and box office staffs. And what about the audience? Is it OK for a mostly white audience to be enjoying this spectacle?
For me Porgy and Bess is a drama about human emotions: longing for love, protection, and self-sacrifice. Yes it takes place in a black slum community, but the characters are just as human as they would be in any other setting. I would find it difficult to see anything like stereotyping in the playing out of Bess’s struggle with addiction and Porgy’s tender and devoted love for her.
So what about an opera like Madama Butterfly? Shall we condemn that, too, as cultural appropriation? Is it ever performed with Japanese singers, directors and choreographers? If anything might be objectionable it is the pseudo Japanesery of this opera, not to mention the Chinesery of Turandot. Nobody is fussing over those. The more you think about it, the more you can see that 99% of the operatic repertoire would have to be junked.
But it’s not only opera. If you want to go on, just think of plays like A View from the Bridge (Arthur Miller) that deals with love and violence in an Italian immigrant family. Is this stereotyping? And should the Italian characters be played only by genuine Italian immigrants? And don’t even think about The Mikado! The problems created are endless.
I think Michael Cooper pointed out what really matters when writing about Porgy in The New York Times: “The work seemed to be taking its place in an operatic canon full of contradictory, discomfiting, occasionally offensive works that time and again nevertheless demonstrate their relevance and power.”
As for the Metropolitan Opera, a look at the orchestra and chorus will quickly show that black and other non-white artists are hired based on ability. It’s safe to say that colour has nothing to do with it. Ever since Rudolph Bing broke the (American) colour barrier by casting Marian Anderson in Un Ballo in Maschera colour-blind casting has been the rule. If you want to know what that looks like, check out a recent Met production of L’elisir d’Amore in which the love-beats-all couple Adina and Nemorino were sung by African soprano Pretty Yende and American tenor Matthew Polenzani. Clinches and kisses abound in the final scene when love triumphs over all.
And then what? If we insist on avoiding anything that smacks of appropriation, won’t we end up creating ghettos of art works that can only be performed by identifiable racial groups? Wouldn’t that be worse than the mix and match that people like Zarathus-Cook are complaining about?
Dare I say that great art transcends racial, physical, and mental differences of all kinds? I think so.