Rise Up Singing

By Mark Clague, PH.D.

Porgy and Bess is about resilience—about a community’s hope for a better future despite the cruel evidence of experience. In turn, Catfish Row resonates the ongoing struggles of American society; our collective battles with racial injustice, poverty, sexism, drug addiction, physical and sexual violence, natural disaster, and the divisions of our national community into sacred and secular, black and white. It is at heart a human drama, and I only wish that performing it was but a reminder of despairs overcome and inequities vanquished. If this were true, Porgy and Bess would celebrate a transcendent human spirit, while serving as a warning about an era that should never return. Instead, Porgy and Bess is not simply a memory, but the narrative of an ongoing quest.

It is with potent intensity that Porgy and Bess expresses a contemporary urgency. The opera’s plot is propelled by the bias of white law enforcement. When Crown attacks Bess after the picnic on Kittiwah Island, we give collective witness to the horror of violence against women. Recalling Katrina, Irma, and Maria, a hurricane decimates the fishing village. And at the opera’s close, drug addiction ensnares Bess, even as in our world today the scourge of opioid addiction continues to entrap and kill. Performing Porgy and Bess thus enacts a critical dialogue, not just with the past, but about the present.

Photo: The residents of Catfish Row pray for safety from the approaching hurricane in our 2012 production of  Porgy and Bess . Photo by Philip Groshong.

Photo: The residents of Catfish Row pray for safety from the approaching hurricane in our 2012 production of Porgy and Bess. Photo by Philip Groshong.

The lullaby “Summertime” is the opera’s first aria. It gives voice to the dreams of a mother for her child. The beauty of its initial note—a difficult entrance, soft and high in the soprano’s range, reflects the challenges facing Jake and Clara’s newborn son. The song’s hope and soaring lyricism serve as a tragic foil that foreshadows the loss to come, yet its endless melody is also the seed of the resilience that will allow Catfish Row to carry on after tragedy.

The opera’s ending has typically left me dispirited. Gershwin’s music seems to sing of possibility—that Porgy could indeed find Bess—but I heard Porgy’s vow as a delusion. Yet, finding Bess is not the point. The opera is about hope, determination, and resilience. Ultimately, the tale is one of Porgy’s transformation. He begins the opera as a clever survivor, who scrapes subsistence from coins dropped by sympathetic passersby. Yet after he defeats Crown—the opera’s symbol of ultimate manhood—he inherits his mantle as the community’s source of strength. Here, Porgy finds not only love but purpose, and Catfish Row follows his lead. Its heroism lies in its resilience, its never-ending resolve, despite the inevitability of tragedy, to rebuild, to struggle, to try again.

The opera itself is an expression of hope. Gershwin places the prodigious talents of Black artists on stage, providing an opportunity too often denied, then as today. This was an act of artistic activism— a powerful model of talent intersecting possibility. If opera heightens our emotional experience of life, to inspire its listeners to be more fully human, Porgy and Bess, because it is challenging, demands that we resolve to struggle, to try again.

Photo: As Clara, soprano Jacqueline Echols sang the lullaby “Summertime” to her baby in pit 2012 production of Porgy and Bess. Photo by Philip Groshong

Mark Clague serves as Associate Professor of Musicology at the University of Michigan and Editor-in-Chief of the George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition.