Why Don’t I Like Opera? Random Thoughts on the Washington National Opera’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Kennedy Center, April 1, 2010

In case you are wondering, I had a good marathon. I am now recovered, and regular updates will resume here.

I’m not into opera, despite the self-evident accumulation of great music in that genre. My latest theory regarding why not: Opera has too many conventions to which I’m not accustomed, not having grown up an operagoer. Nevertheless, I went to the Washington National Opera’s “Porgy and Bess” last Thursday, eager to see this American masterwork in full stage bloom and reacquaint myself with tunes I hear most often when Miles Davis’ Porgy suite is in my CD player. I found the following impediments to my full enjoyment:

An opera in English should not require surtitles. From Alyson Cambridge’s opening “Summertime” lullaby, in which expansive vowels drowned all consonants in their wake, I spent most of the opera looking up at the words over the stage simply to hear what people were singing,.  For a dramatic art, it would seem to be imperative to enunciate the sung words so they can be heard by the audience, thus communicating what’s going on in the plot by.

Actually, I don’t understand why original English-language opera is not performed more in the United States.  It seems to me that, by removing a hurdle the audience must surmount to enter into the narrative, performing in the native tongue of the audience would make the resulting dramatic experience more immediate.  Translation of the best-loved classix would be tougher, since so much of drama is wrapped up in the sound of the words, but it would also seem to be worth a shot given the huge gains to be reaped. (And yes, I do prefer my foreign-language movies subtitled rather than dubbed, but opera is a re-creative art, not a duplicative art. I would argue that all these modernist productions I read about on Anne’s blog do more violence to the original intention of a composer than presenting the libretto in the local tongue.)

I like the original intermission break better. The synopsis indicates an intermission after everyone leaves for Kittiwah Island for their awesome Bible picnic/party and Porgy reprises “I Got Plenty O’ Nuthin’.” Cheery! In this production, intermission came after Crown has beaten up Bess and prevented her from getting on the boat off the island. Right before the curtain comes down, Crown has Bess slung over his shoulder, doubtless ready to rape her. Then we go into the lobby and hang out for 25 minutes. (Want some Junior Mints?) The reason for the change was not self-evident in the performance. And speaking of incongruities…

Weird socioeconomic things occur at a performance of an opera about poor people. Tix for this performance were advertised at $60 to $300; discounts were available, but let’s estimate that folks paid an average somewhere in that range to hear Eric Owens’ Porgy sing “I Got Plenty O’ Nuthin’.” So the best song in the opera (and Owens sung it well) was a nostalgia trip at the very best for the audience, certainly unlikely to reflect its current situation.

Also, in the program notes, it was noted that the original producers of “Porgy and Bess” experienced “some difficulty…in finding enough skilled African-American actors for the play’s large cast.”  The notes did not go on to explain, “This is because white people systematically oppressed African-Americans from slave times up to (and past) the date of the premiere; the resulting material and social deprivation limited African-American outlets for creative expression in the wider cultural realm.” It might have been useful to note that. (Wikipedia handles the discussion of the stereotypes that populate the opera better than I could, but such thoughts were going through my mind too.)

Inappropriate clapping. So near the end of the opera, the drug dealer Sportin’ Life gets Bess back on his “happy dust” and induces her to abandon the only man who’s ever been good to her (i.e., Porgy), instead heading with Sportin’ Life to New York City. This transpires in the aria “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon,” the rousing tune of which only makes what’s happening more horrifying — Bess is losing herself, literally, to the promise of glitz so well embodied in the song. At the end of the song, a bunch of people clapped. Both Jermaine Smith as Sportin’ Life and Morenike Fadayomi as Bess performed admirably, but I sure didn’t feel like clapping, horrified as I was at what had just happened. Why did people clap? Is that just what you do after a well-performed, rousing aria, no matter how what’s going on dramatically?

The hardest-working man onstage. Smith’s Sportin’ Life had some amazing dance moves, including pelvic thrusts of vigor and depth that I’m pretty sure would have sent 1930s audiences and townsfolk into unassuageable fits of offendedness. Though I appreciated the showmanship, the other aspects of the production seemed to be stuck in the 1920s, making me wonder where Smith had gotten the idea to swing it like James Brown. Another incongruity, tearing at the dramatic fabric. (At one point, Sportin’ Life also appeared to be makin’ it rain.)

And yet, that said, I enjoyed a whole lot about it. Owens sang tremendously well, giving Porgy the gravitas he deserves and making an effective mockery object for his foes Crown (Terry Cook) and Sportin’ Life. Serena’s lament for her dead husband Robbins, from the pipes of Lisa Daltirus, broke through the wall of convention and artifice and tapped into genuine emotion, as did the title duo’s “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Most of the comic numbers were actually funny, particularly Smith’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” And the tunes remained in my head for the entire time I was awake after seeing the show, and said tunes were still rattling around between my eardrums as I showered and brushed my teeth the next morning.

It didn’t compare to my affection for my all-time favorite operatic perfomance I’ve attended — WNO’s Peter Grimes, baby! — but there’s at least a hint that I might one day acclimate to the conventions (and the vagaries of productions and performance) and enjoy a wider selection of operas. A hint that I might.

Real reviews: Anne Midgette, Sophia Vastek.

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3 Comments on “Why Don’t I Like Opera? Random Thoughts on the Washington National Opera’s “Porgy and Bess” at the Kennedy Center, April 1, 2010”

  1. Clayton Says:

    I second your views about opera in English. It’s an issue under discussion in other forums, and I’m happy to say that the last opera in English (translated from French) that I saw I was able to follow the story by what was being sung on the stage. (Not always the case.) There is a lot of opera originally written in English that I wish had more exposure on the stage, too.

    I saw WNO’s current Porgy production in its first run a couple of seasons ago and thought it grand. I wish I could have made it to this second run. Lisa Daltirus was in the cast? Another reason I wish I’d been there. Have only read about her so far. Daltirus was to be Baltimore Opera’s Bess had that company not dissolved.

  2. Derek Says:

    I don’t agree with the idea that the Italian / German operas should be translated – the words are NOT just there to communicate the plot or provide information, as they are used in almost every other context . . they are there as notes, and as part and parcel of the music itself. To change the word is to possibly change the sonority of the piece.

  3. […] Neither of these operas was perfect — the mental institution setting of “Adam and Eve” seems played out at this point in history, and some of the later reveries in “At the Statue of Venus” seemed to exhaust their ideas before they ended. But they engaged with contemporary life and gave the listener a sense that opera can still be a vivid and immediate form, a sense I often lack after my rare forays to opera houses. […]

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