PORGY AND BESS: Gal, Lawd, and Song

POrgyThe Lyric Opera’s production of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was a revelation.

I knew, according to music critic Joseph Horowitz 1, that George Gershwin, along with Charles Ives, was the genius composer who, with Porgy and Bess, mediated between high culture and popular music.

I knew, according to the Lyric opera’s dynamic general manager Anthony Freud’s program notes, that Porgy and Bess is an opera which portrays “a community. It does so with great depth, with a believability and a power that can be legitimately compared with any other opera in which the idea of community is central.”

I knew that I would witness the Gullah culture and hear the Gullah sounds of Charleston’s Catfish Row.

What I was not prepared to see in Porgy and Bess was a culture so totally absent from all contemporary stage and screen offerings – a genuine living Christian culture.

The people of Catfish Row live, breathe, speak, act, and sing their faith and hope in their Lord. In good times, they thank and praise Him. In bad times, they seek His shelter and comfort. In sickness, they pray for His healing. When confronted with the Enemy, they rally to and call on His power. Their lives have a clear purpose: they are heading to the Promised Land. The words of Saints Peter and Paul are the subtexts of their lives: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. “ “Live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.” They follow Christ’s new command to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” in all aspects of their lives. And when trouble and evil arrive in either the form of Happy Dust, drunkenness, murder, or doubt (“It Ain’t Necessarily So”), they name its source for what it is: Satan, the Devil.

The characters echo Biblical types. Porgy limps like Jacob as a sign of his having wrestled with God and having won God’s favor. Porgy is the community hero: all stop when he approaches. He enters through the largest gate, framed in golden light. Like the Bible’s Mephibosheth, Porgy’s flaw is a sign of his blessed state. Like Hosea choosing Gomer, Porgy takes lost and broken Bess, now and forever, here and everywhere. The libretto gives Porgy a goat cart. The goat is an important symbol, and reminder that Porgy’s journey is not a unique one. His goat bears all of the sins, troubles, hopes, and fears of humanity. Porgy’s pilgrimage, our pilgrimage, to the Promised Land actually started in the days of Abraham.

Porgy and Bess resonates not only with glorious musical power but with rare spiritual power.

The Lyric Opera’s staff and performers could not have created a more wonderful production. Director Francesca Zambello‘s concept, in the hands of master designers Peter J. Davison, Paul Tazewell, and Mark McCullough serves the play magnificently. The cosmic struggle between Light and Dark, Good and Evil, is evident even in each fabric tone and lighting angle. From Porgy’s first back-lit entrance through grand sliding doors, to his full circle stage exit into a shaft of golden sun, the design team underscored the heroic dimension of Porgy’s story. His community of the faithful comes alive in the background picturizations and pantomimic actions of the stage “extras.” But each “extra”, in Ms. Zambello’s God-like careful direction, is handled as if each were the most important person on the stage. Even the beautiful curtain call continues the opera’s message of the power of humility and gratitude.

Every performer is a star. Eric Owens (Porgy) seems to have actually become Porgy. His profound bass voice touches and shakes his hearers’ souls. Adina (Bess) acts as magically as she sings. Her duet with Mr. Owens (“Bess, You is My Woman Now’) attains the holiness of Bernstein’s “One Hand, One Heart.” Eric Green (Crown) and Jermaine Smith (Sportin’ Life) take and dominate the stage with beauty and power when appropriate, and then graciously retreat to serve the larger action of the story. The amazing chorus provides the opera’s musical universe, a Holy Spirit of sound, within which all find their sustenance.

Like Abraham before us, on our journey to the Promised Land, we and Porgy need only to make sure that we

 Got my gal, got my Lawd, Got my song.

We need each equally, as the Lyric Opera’s Porgy and Bess so wonderfully demonstrates.

1 Horowitz, Joseph. “On My Way”.The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess. New York: W.W. Norton, 2013.

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