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Seventy years after Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway, audiences continue to argue over its proper place in history. For some, the turn-of-the-century tale is simple musical theater populated with racist caricatures. Others find it a masterful opera with homespun heroes.
Despite conflicting views, George Gershwin's bittersweet love story remains a powerful and controversial mirror of America's evolving attitudes about race, culture and class.
The Washington National Opera brings Porgy and Bess back to the stage in an all-new production, originally webcast live on NPR.org Nov. 12 from the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The special four-hour webcast includes commentary and features that explore the landmark musical's history, the personalities behind it and its social context over the past 70 years. These include archival interviews with the late Todd Duncan, who originated the role of Porgy in 1935, and William Warfield, who performed the title role opposite Leontyne Price in the 1952 revival. NPR's World of Opera host Lisa Simeone co-anchored the program with singer Michael Feinstein. Feinstein is a revered vocalist and pianist with a 30-year career performing and preserving works from the Great American Songbook.
Set in the fictitious slum of Catfish Row in 1912 Charleston, S.C., Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a crippled black man, and his attempts to rescue Bess from her pimp, Crown, and her drug dealer, Sportin' Life. It was a commercial failure on its first Broadway run, but was eventually regarded a classic from one of America's most important composers, blending traditional black church music, chords from Gershwin's Jewish heritage and quintessential American jazz.
The Washington National Opera's production features internationally renowned baritone Gordon Hawkins as Porgy, and Indira Mahajan as Bess. Francesca Zambello directed the work, with conductor and Gershwin specialist Wayne Marshall offering a new interpretation of the score.