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ANN ARBOR, Mich. (AP) — A restored edition of a pioneering, enduring American opera emerges at a time its racial and social themes are as relevant as the era in which it premiered.
The long-in-the-works "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" gets a test-drive Saturday in Michigan en route to a planned, official debut in 2020 by the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The staging is a collaboration of the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, the University Musical Society and The Willis Patterson Our Own Thing Chorale blending students, community singers and professional performers.
University musicologist Mark Clague says the goal is to deliver on co-lyricist Ira Gershwin's late-in-life declaration, "We must do right by Porgy." Among other things, the nearly final draft restores some deleted music as well as an onstage "Orphans' band," and dialogue that clarifies Bess chooses to stay with Porgy.
Work began in 2002, nearly 20 years after Gershwin's death. Descendants of the lyricist and his composer brother, George Gershwin, sought music librarian Wayne Shirley to edit a new performance edition. The University of Michigan's involvement in curating the project came through Todd Gershwin, the Gershwins' grandnephew who graduated from the school in 1997. The family also donated one of George Gershwin's pianos to the university — likely the one on which he composed "Porgy" — that will be used in the performance.
Clague said restoring original elements provides "a deeper artistic engagement" for the 1930s work criticized for cultural appropriation by its white creators but also praised for possessing an activist spirit and affirming humanity. He adds that the opera's themes of mistreatment by law enforcement and the justice system stubbornly remain part of the black experience.
Surrounding the performance is a multiday symposium designed to provide an overview and context of the work, as well as explore appropriation in popular culture.
"What I would love is for this to be a nostalgia piece," said Clague, who oversees the Gershwin Initiative, a scholarly deep-dive into the brothers' works in partnership with descendants. "Instead, it intersects with so many (current) themes. ... We're confronting those moments."
From the beginning, the principal roles were given to blacks — unprecedented at the time — but that doesn't erase all concerns.
Clague is sensitive to the call from former Michigan professor Harold Cruse, who asked black artists of the 1960s to boycott the opera because he viewed it as "a symbol of that deeply engrained cultural paternalism that obscured black artists' originality." Clague said the "all-white creative team" wrote from a "limited perspective and experiences" but they embraced "an opportunity to bring the talents of black artists to the cultural mainstream."
Morris Robinson, who plays Porgy, recognizes it isn't "black music per se," but he respects what George Gershwin did for black artists through his prominent platform.
"I don't think he's exploiting us at all. I think he was trying to replicate that which he saw and made good on it by saying, 'Only people who look like this should be able to perform this,'" said Robinson, who first played Porgy at Milan's La Scala opera house in 2016.
Talise Trevigne, who plays Bess, understands the concerns of Cruse and others — views still held by some today. She said her generation "benefited from the paths paved by those singers before us" and they owe it to their forebears to bring "great integrity" to "Porgy and Bess."
"You cannot replace history, you cannot change it — though we may not like it," said Trevigne, who first performed as Bess last year at the Cooperstown, New York, Glimmerglass Festival. "I think it's a very reverential attempt to put to opera a people."
Naomi Andre, a Michigan associate professor specializing in opera and issues surrounding gender, voice and race, writes in the program notes there is much to love and be troubled by in "Porgy." Some consider it "the Great American opera," she said, while others see "a frustrating collection of stereotypes that emphasize a vision of black people who speak in dialect-ridden English, drink and gamble too much, and have a loose moral code."
Her view is softened by the "compelling picture of black Southern life" and "true-to-color" casting. Most of all, she's moved by the Gershwins' sonic offerings — timeless melodies woven throughout, including those in "Summertime," ''It Ain't Necessarily So," and "Bess, You Is My Woman Now."
Trevigne agrees "the music is breathtaking," but what's crucial is the connection among characters, itself a lesson for contemporary society.
"What I think the African-American community in our times needs to remember is its sense of community," she said. "That's really what it's about — these people who live so closely with one another and it is often a time of life or death. And they cling to one another, good or bad. They are a community."