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A color blind Porgy and Bess?


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#1 Alexandra

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Posted 20 March 2002 - 11:49 AM

From today's NY Times:

All-Black Casts for 'Porgy'? That Ain't Necessarily So

I don't want to excerpt anything from the article, because there are several views presented. Issues include: the opera doesn't get performed often enough because most opera houses don't have enough black singers for the roles (an argument for having enough black singers for the roles, IMO smile.gif ) yet a prominent black singer -- and honored soldier in the fight to integrate opera -- is quoted as saying that he thinks it's time for the ban on white singers to be raised.

I think it's an interesting topic -- what do you think? (This discussion will be far richer if everyone reads the article smile.gif )

#2 dirac

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Posted 21 March 2002 - 01:50 PM

The Gershwin estate's insistence on African-American singers may also owe something to the white performers in blackface around during Gershwin's lifetime and for some time after; the ban makes perfect sense to me, in that context. Color blind casting is something I prefer to decide on a case-by-case basis, but in something like Porgy and Bess, where it's understood that everyone is supposed to be black, I should think it would work just fine.

#3 Alexandra

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Posted 21 March 2002 - 02:20 PM

I agree, dirac. Somehow, insisting on white singers for a Norse opera just has a different ring about it to me than insisting on black singers for Porgy and Bess.

I watched part of the broadcast -- not all, unfortunately -- and another thought struck me. The "darkness," if I may say that, of the voices. There's a richness, a different timbre, to black singers, I'm sure emanating from the gospel tradition (not anything to do with racially-mandated vocal chords!) that's very distinctive. In the same way that Russian singing, to me, always sounds very rich and sweet -- and lower than Western European singing. The Irish tenor is different from the Italian, French or Russian tenor. I don't know anything about singing. I imagine there's something to do with the training and tradition. It's as distinctive to me as style (can be) in ballet.

I did think the author's example of a black Desdemona and a white Othello was interesting. In that case, it did seem that casting was color blind -- and a good thing.

#4 Helena

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Posted 21 March 2002 - 04:04 PM

I've been in the chorus for several concert performances of Porgy and Bess, and I found it incredibly difficult to sing. Not the notes - they are very simple - but the style. If you have been trained in the European (in my case English) choir style, and are used as I was to singing Bach, Mozart, Mahler, Britten and Elgar in a highly disciplined way, it's very hard to adapt to the much freer style needed for something like this. (I would find it near-impossible to sing like a gospel choir singer, for instance.) In the performances I was in the soloists were all black, the chorus all white, which is odd when you come to think of it - I took it for granted at the time. I imagine an opera chorus of whatever colour would find it easier, since acting is part of their job, but a style of singing is deeply ingrained in most people. It varies from culture to culture, and it isn't easy to adapt.

#5 Alexandra

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Posted 21 March 2002 - 04:19 PM

That's fascinating, Helena. Thank you for posting that experience. Interesting, too, that it seems to be accepted that there are different singing styles, and that one should try to sing in the style of the work. While in ballet.....


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