Thursday, June 04, 2009

Porgy & Bess Lecture

2009 Fall Preview Lecture Series on Opera
The San Francisco Opera Guild presents a lecture by Lynne Morrow on the Gershwin and Heyward opera "Porgy and Bess."
Main Library Koret Auditorium
Wed 3 June, 12 p.m.

Lynne Morrow gave a pleasurable introductory talk of about 70 minutes on the opera Porgy & Bess at the library yesterday at noon, which was good for me, since I forgot about the SF Opera's own Insight Panel that evening. Ms. Morrow is a warm speaker, & she made many bold statements along the way.

She started by setting the social & artistic context for the opera. It was a genuinely respectful attempt to uplift African Americans in the culture of the 1930s. The creators wanted to have black performers playing black characters in what was called a "folk opera", but they did not want to sacrifice any of the sophistication of opera. At the same time, Gershwin did incorporate what Ms. Morrow called "folk performance values" into the score, things such as antiphonal response, varying vocal tones (the swooping vendor calls) & religious dancing & shouting. She played some folk recording of the 1930s to show the influence, such as a work song which Gershwin transported into the opera, complete with its grunts as the organizing principle. Even more fun was when Ms. Morrow demonstrated musical examples by singing them to us in her lovely voice.

To end the talk, Ms. Marrow gave us a detailed plot summary, played excerpts from the Rattle recording & added many interesting musical observations. She pointed out Gershwin's Wagner-inspired use of leitmotifs for characters, settings & even objects (the swirling motif for the happy dust). She feels that the honky-tonk piano in the opening scene is probably Gerswhin's homage to the New York stride pianist James P. Johnson. She averred that this is the most complex score the opera orchestra plays this season.

We got some fun facts along the way. We learned that the opera became popular in Soviet Russia, where it was referred to as the American Boris Godunov. The performing rights for Porgy & Bess stipulate that fully staged productions must have an all black cast. Concert versions are excepted. I found this all very informative, & Ms. Morrow's obvious love & familiarity with the work was delightful.


Craig said...

Wow. Thanks for sharing some highlights of the lecture for those of us who couldn't attend it.

Interesting fact about the all-black cast requirement. I've been wondering about this ever since I saw that another non-black singer will perform Otello next year.

Axel Feldheim said...

Hi Craig! I was struck by the all-black cast requirement as well. No question that part of this has to do with Gerswhin's explicit desire to promote the visibility & stature of African American performers.

I've seen Otello at least 3 times, but I've never seen a black singer in the title role.

Will we be seeing you at any of the summer opera performances?