TERRY GROSS, host: Some people consider George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" the great American opera. Others question whether it's really an opera at all, or even if a white, Jewish composer from New York had any business writing a show about poor, Southern African-Americans. Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz just attended two productions: one at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge - that production is headed to Broadway - and one by the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood. Before we hear Lloyd's review, here's a sample of how the BSO version sounded.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IT AIN'T NECESSARILY SO")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Listen up. (Singing) It ain't necessarily so.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Singing) It ain't necessarily so.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing) The t'ings dat yo' li'ble to read in de Bible, it ain't necessarily so.
LLOYD SCHWARTZ: George Gershwin called "Porgy and Bess" an American folk opera. It was his most ambitious undertaking. And from the very beginning, it was a source of intense controversy. Could it be a true opera if it combined operatic arias, duets and sung dialogue with vaudeville numbers like "I Got Plenty o' Nuthin'" and "It Ain't Necessarily So"? Are its characters the mythic archetypes Gershwin intended, or just stereotypes? Some of its own performers had their doubts.
Yet "Porgy and Bess" was also a powerful tool for civil rights. When the first road company came to Washington, D.C. in 1936, the cast - led by Todd Duncan, who played the crippled beggar Porgy - refused to perform unless the theater admitted black patrons and allowed them to sit anywhere. That's how Washington's National Theatre was integrated.
This summer at Tanglewood, the Boston Symphony Orchestra presented a powerful concert-opera version of "Porgy and Bess" based on the original 1935 New York production, for which Gershwin cut an hour of music during its Boston tryout. British composer and jazz pianist Bramwell Tovey was the incisive conductor.
The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, with more than 100 voices, underlined the way "Porgy and Bess" is in a tradition of operas that show us entire communities, like "Boris Godunov" or "Carmen." I wish only that the Boston Symphony had used the more complete score. The outstanding cast included Alfred Walker as a warm and deeply touching Porgy, Jermaine Smith as the seductive drug dealer Sportin' Life - complete with mid-air splits - and soprano Marquita Lister as the widowed Serena. Her "My Man's Gone Now" makes a strong argument for an operatic Porgy.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MY MAN'S GONE NOW")
MARQUITA LISTER: (as Serena) (Singing) My man's gone now. Ain't no use a listenin' for his tired footsteps, climbin' up the stairs. Old man sorrow's...
SCHWARTZ: At the other end of Massachusetts, in Cambridge, the American Repertory Theater, ART, has just staged a new "Porgy and Bess," also in a shorter version, but one emphasizing musical theater over opera. It's actually scheduled for a Broadway run. When ART's production team - director Diane Paulus, Pulitzer Prize-winning African-American playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, and musical adaptor Deirdre L. Murray - announced that they were going to flesh out the original by changing dialogue, adding back stories, and having a new, more upbeat ending, and that the original orchestration was being rearranged for small, contemporary ensemble, Stephen Sondheim got so angry, he wrote to the New York Times attacking what he called their willful ignorance and arrogance. Doesn't Gershwin's music, he argued, already flesh out these characters?
But after a series of previews, much of what outraged Sondheim has been abandoned. Had they actually listened to him? I was relieved, but also disappointed that most of what was left was so conventional. And given ART's intention to play down the work's perceived racial problems, I was surprised how much of the acting and choreography seemed to play up minstrel-show stereotyping. The star, though, is charismatic Audra McDonald. Her soaring voice, closer to opera than to Broadway, endows Bess with both power and a heartbreaking vulnerability, no back story necessary. Her poignant, second-act reprise of the lullaby "Summertime" is one of the high points.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SUMMERTIME")
AUDRA MCDONALD: (as Bess) (Singing) Summertime and the living's easy. Fish are jumpin' and the cotton is high. Your daddy's rich and your mamma's good lookin'. So hush little baby, don't you cry.
SCHWARTZ: As Porgy, Norm Lewis, singing in a solid, Broadway style, is strong and unusually embittered, putting excessive emphasis on Porgy's painful handicap. "In Living Color's" David Alan Grier is a stylish Sportin' Life. The conducting and scenes with extended spoken dialogue can afford more of Grier's expert timing and show-biz pizazz. My biggest disappointment is the under-sung, yet overacted "My Man's Gone Now." "Porgy and Bess" is fundamentally a hybrid, an opera with Broadway numbers. I think it can work either way, as long as Gershwin's great score remains its heart and soul. Tanglewood got it mostly right. The Cambridge production, for all its virtues, at least on opening night, still seemed like a Broadway tryout.
GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. He reviewed performances of George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" at Tanglewood and the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge Massachusetts, where it runs through October 2nd. The ART production is scheduled to open on Broadway, with previews beginning in December.