Porgy & Bess

Wednesday night we went to see a performance of Gershwin’s “Porgy & Bess” staged by the Cape Town Opera Company at the Tel Aviv Opera House. Talk about mixed messages, here was a Black African group singing a Black American Opera written by an American Jew for an audience of Israeli Jews, including many American Jews. And they were singing about the “promised land” while we were in it! But, everything depends on the genius of the music and the story as well as the quality of the performers. As far as the latter is concerned the voices were excellent, especially the challenging role of Porgy that was sung by a superb strong bass.

We were very glad that the Opera Company had ignored calls by Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others to boycott Israel and cancel their visit. Such calls based on false beliefs about Israeli so-called “racism” and “apartheid” are simply ridiculous. Any person, black, white or Arab, could buy a ticket and sit in the audience and enjoy the show. There is no separation, whatsover within Israeli society. Certainly there is a conflict with the Palestinian Arabs, who are not Israeli citizens, but that’s another complex story with at least two sides.

It had never occurred to me before that in order to gain sympathy for a black man in the starring role of Porgy, Gershwin had to portray him as something less than a man, in other words a cripple. A strong black man, like Crown, would have been threatening to white audiences at that time when it was first performed in 1935. Everything depends of course on the pathos of the cripple who wishes to be treated like other men, a metaphor for Blacks wishing to be treated equally too, and why not? Most people don’t realize that the lyrics were not written by Gershwin himself, but by Dubose Heyward, on whose novel the opera was closely based. Everything was done to ensure the accuracy of the language and culture of the actual people living in Charleston, South Carolina. By giving white people an insight into the lives of ordinary blacks in America this work certainly helped to change opinions and eventually change society.

This Opera could only have been written by a Jew! Most other white men would not have risked writing it, and no black man alone could have succeeded in having such an Opera produced. It was the genius of Gershwin, writing such classics as “Summertime” and “It ain’t necessarily so,” that raised the level of the Opera to that of a groundbreaking classic. How instrumental that a Jew whose parents fled from persecution in Russia would be there to perform this vital task. As Porgy rides off on his cart in the finale we know that his search for Bess represents metaphorically that “heavenly land” that he is seeking of acceptance and equality.

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