A few weeks ago I finally borrowed the cast recording of The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess. I loved the voices. I mean, Audra McDonald. She's arguably the best singer around. The voices on the recording were excellent. But something kept gnawing at me.
The story goes that the Gershwin and the Heyward estates wanted to make the classic palatable for a modern audience. It's something I don't understand, dumbing something down, the assumption that the contemporary audience can't appreciate something so "old." I can appreciate cleaning up language. I was quite happy, for example, when Sondheim changed a lyric in Company from "fag" to something else. I am pleased that Porgy and Bess's racist language could be changed, although productions of the original have been changing those words all along.
But why were the arrangements changed? Why were the original orchestrations replaced with far less interesting orchestrations? Obviously, the producers wouldn't pay for a full orchestra, but an adaptation would work. Instead, a "Broadway" sound was substituted for original intent. Oh, and let's fuck with the original ending so we can get Audra onstage at curtain.
One of the first record albums I bought was the 1951 Columbia Porgy and Bess, so that's the one that's my point of reference. After listening to the new recording, I did a search for that one. I knew Sony released it on CD in 1998 and figured some library somewhere had to have it. About a month later, it arrived. Goose bumps throughout.
I read some articles on The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess and became kind of horrified. There was no visible Catfish Row; mostly it was minimal set. No Catfish Row establishing place. Minimal sets are OK. And they save money. But the background of Catfish Row looming over most of the action is a stark reminder of time and situation. Some of the voices of the 1951 recording are not Broadway quality; instead, they sound real, convincing. There's something to be said for that.
But I keep coming back to the orchestration. For almost any show, the re-imagined arrangements and orchestrations are fine. The estates did say "go to it," make it a contemporary Broadway show. The original opera was staged, I believe, in The Music Box, one of Broadway's smallest theaters with a fair-sized but not huge orchestra pit. Gershwin, for the most part, did his own orchestrations knowing where it would be heard. So why the simplifications? Broadway musicians have not become less talented through the years.
Why is it necessary to assume an audience is incapable of appreciating a serious work? Why did the estates feel it important to update and fuck around with a monumental, if controversial, masterpiece? Is "opera" always an awful word. And then there's the South Pacific revival...pretty much as it was originally done and the original score played by a full-size Broadway orchestra which got its own ovation nearly every performance..
When you play around with the orchestration, particularly if the orchestration is by the composer, you play around with the entire tenor of the show. And it's clear the arranger and orchestrator were charged with making a classic score sound like some show down the street. The creative team decided to make some wise clean-ups; they also decided to make it pretty antiseptic
I do believe there is a serious intent to dumb things down. And I believe that those who do the dumbing down are those who don't understand that a symphony is three or four movements, all of which are essential to the work, not just the one with the catchy theme. I don't have a problem with Rent being a re-imagining of La boheme. Except for an occasional quote, the story was refashioned for the contemporary audience and the music was original.
Is anyone interested in the 1951 Columbia recording? Probably not. It's like an old black-and-white movie. The production values are different, it's not in stereo, the names of the stars are no longer known, how can it be at all relevant to contemporary audiences? As Crown sings referring to Porgy, "Ain't there no whole ones left?"
It's sad to think that few people who saw The Gershwin's Porgy and Bess bothered to find out what the original opera was like. They are happy that it's updated and sanitized, but they don't know how the original presented itself.
Yes, Jews and white people put together an opera about the lives of African Americans, in all likelihood with little subject input and with a certain reliance on stereotype. How long has that been going on? (That's not so much an excuse as it is an observation.) On the other hand, how many operas have even tried to depict African American life? And how many have done it with such an incredibly rich and understanding score? When the music hits home, it hits home because it's about humans, about people. And the orchestra is there to add to the emotion. When the orchestra has to play dumbed-down, so-so reductions of what was once an incredibly gorgeous and moving score so it can sound like any other contemporary Broadway orchestra, something is seriously wrong.