So why did Gershwin write an opera about African-Americans?

So why did Gershwin write an opera about African-Americans?


norman lebrecht

October 12, 2019

Joseph Horowitz asks the question in a 4,000-word review of the Met production and offers no answer.

What he does highlight is how offensive the opera can appear to African-Americans.

He writes: James Baldwin in a 1959 essay in Commentary liked both the novella and the opera. “DuBose Heyward loved the people he was writing about,” Baldwin opined. And Porgy and Bess—“until Mr. Preminger got his hands on it”—was “an extraordinarily vivid, good-natured, and sometimes moving show.” Baldwin’s complaint about the characters (shared by Lorraine Hansberry) was that they embody “a white man’s vision of Negro life,” that they “veer off into the melodramatic and the exotic,” that—a form of envy more germane to Heyward’s psyche than to Gershwin’s—they seem to speak “of a better life—better in the sense of being more honest, more open, and more free: in a word more sexual.” That is why “Americans are so proud of the opera—it assuages their guilt about Negroes and attacks none of their fantasies.”

But what if Gershwin was not writing about ‘Negroes’ at all? What if he had other folk in mind?

That’s a suggestion that I have just pursued in Genius and Anxiety.

It opens up new avenues of inquiry.


  • Bone says:

    Ugh. Either it is racist filth, degenerate art, or fine theater. I’m not qualified to make up mind anymore…

  • double-sharp says:

    It’s about all victims of oppression and bigotry, wherever. This is why the copyright block on non-Black casting is fundamentally offensive and racist in itself.

  • sam says:

    “But what if Gershwin was not writing about Negroes at all? What if he had other folk in mind?”

    What if Puccini was not writing about Americans, the Japanese, the Chinese, the French, Italians?

    What if Wagner had other folk in mind when he wrote Die Meistersinger, like the Soviet Red Army Men’s Chorus?

    What if Rossini really meant to write l’Algerina in Italia?

    What if…

    • John Borstlap says:

      In Meistersinger, Wagner had wanted to write an opera about a nice singing competition among synagoge cantors in a Jewish ghetto, but changed his mind at the last minute. And Puccini really wrote exclusively about peasants in Sicily dressed-up as Japanese, Chinese, French artists, etc. What Mozart wrote about in reality when composing Don Giovanni, is so indiscrete and politically-incorrect that no musicologist dare it to disclose. The reason that Rossini fell silent when living in France, is because he was blackmailed by his housekeeper who knew what his real opera subjects were. Etc. etc…

  • M McAlpine says:

    Why did Verdi write an opera about Egyptians and Ethiopians? It would seem to me that there was an idea to hand and he embraced it.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Many Egyptians are still frustrated about Aida but their appeals to European opera houses to remove the work from their schedules have been in vain. Hence the rise of salafism in that country.

  • Novagerio says:

    Sure, let’s cancel all performances of Aida from now on, it might offend the latest Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
    And why not Madame Butterfly, Turandot, Otello and the Mikado too, now we are at it?…

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      It’s the Left: it always, always goes too far. It’s in their DNA. Their not-too-distant ‘relatives’ are the USSR and China.

      • TubaMinimum says:

        As we know, the right has always been open-minded to free expression in art and would never come out against a work because of its subject matter.

  • BrianB says:

    BOTH of Gershwin’s operas (Blue Monday is the other) center on African-Americans. The reason, I imagine, was that jazz was au courant and stories dealing with the people who invented it was a natural.
    “veer off into the melodramatic and the exotic”
    As if that’s not a characteristic of opera in general whether it be Catfish Row, ancient Thebes, Rome 1800, or the court of Philip II.

    • As musicians, we embrace what comes natural to us if the music fits. I never see color when making music, in its recreation. Some people know about the 1945 Duke Ellington ‘New World A-Comin’ (aka New World A-Coming), which has a story of its own. I play it (and have recorded it) because I love the music and it deserves to be heard. Music represents a period of time when it is created, which takes in a multitude of elements. (BrianB, I love Blue Monday, and pianists who do not know about the solo piano arrangement by Alicia Zizzo might enjoy it. Although the story did not hit it big, it was enough for Paul Whiteman to invite George to pen something for the First Experiment in Modern Music, which ended up being the hastily composed ‘Rhapsody in Blue’.)

  • Caranome says:

    For God’s sake. Enough about racism and cultural appropriation. What do you expect from an opera about blacks in the American South from a New York Jew? Is there an opera about white folk written by a black composer? How genuine would that be, or would it also be some distorted view about whites and white life? or that would be OK since only whites are racists and bad inherently? The fact is opera is a white, Western art form so whites composers get to distort, dramatize everybody however they wish as free artists, and they do. Rap is a black genre, where whites are cursed, condemned, killed and otherwise distorted and maligned. Who the f&*( cares? Enough of the useless hyper intellectualization, analysis, psychobabble, just enjoy the show!

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Bravo. Just avoid the arid and shallow world of PC and SJWs and enjoy the music.

    • Raoul says:

      Couldn’t agree with you more.

    • John Borstlap says:

      Enjoying the ‘show’ of rap is not quite comparable with opera.

      On the other hand, an opera by a black composer about white life would be welcome. I can imagine such work, in which worries about guilt, PC behavior and frustrations about old opera plots would feature as central concerns.

  • Vovka Ashkenazy says:

    What a load of tortuous overthinking.

  • David Allen says:

    Some of the most glorious songs ever written feature in
    this ‘’opera” and that’s all there is to it.Enjoy the music !

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    The same criticism could be made about “Madam Butterfly”. Just revel in the extraordinary music of Gershwin. You don’t have to revert to SJW tropes.

  • Alexandra Ivanoff says:

    To answer Norman’s question:
    The Gershwins liked Dubose Heyward’s book “Porgy,” and George loved jazz — so much he holed up in Charleston for a few weeks to study the musical life in that city’s black community. Much of what he heard on that study trip informed the rest of what he wrote.
    That, and learning that black singers in the U.S. weren’t allowed to perform – or even attend a performance – in opera houses. Those two factors produced a strong personal mandate for the Gershwins to stipulate the singers should be African-Americans (although that’s a considerably updated term).

  • Jack says:

    I’d love to see the PC police go after Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha. And yes, only Chinese casts for Turandot, and all Japanese casts for The Mikado.

    The Gershwins specified an all-black cast for Porgy. When they made a cast album, though, a very white Lawrence Tibbett took the title role because he had box office appeal that Todd Duncan didn’t possess, though his performance was far more idiomatic.



  • Esperanza D . Pascacio says:

    George and Ira probably used to hear about how their parents were oppresed in Rusia! Their parents spoke Yeddish, so being first generation in USA, they saw the straggle of immigrants and how human explotation continued in this part of the World! It was easy to relate to the African American family disrupture that slavery caused! I doubt that he was racist! He was so eager to be American!