Whilst I do understand their place on the 1001 Classical Works list, operas and ballets are so much a visual art form that listening to their soundtracks in isolation cannot give you the complete experience. Still though, imagine me sitting at work listening to 3 hours of opera as I am running statistics. Really lends a tinge of grand drama to writing a few lines of Python.
Going into this I already knew a number of the songs. Most of them I heard as Nina Simone covers; more recently I heard a cover version of ‘Summertime’ the Big Brother & the Holding Company album Cheap Thrills. I have become so used to hearing rocky and soulful covers that hearing them sung as part of an opera really gave them a whole new context. Although that context is somewhat troubling.
There is no denying what Porgy & Bess (and other works by George and Ira Gerswin that have also found their way onto this list) were significant in the progression from opera to what we now know as musical theatre. The way that they fused jazz with opera to make something completely different – well it was pretty much a unique venture and it really works.
However, there are some issues with this opera in terms of racial sensitivity. In some ways Porgy & Bess became very much a means to an end as there were few mainstream large-scale musical productions that feature a majority non-white cast, which is a great thing. On the other hand, these character negotiate a world of drugs and violence and speak with a slightly exaggerated cadence.
Stepping away form the politics of the piece and looking more at the music itself – this really is unlike any sort of opera that I have ever heard before. Would it have benefited on my actually watching it so that I was able to better understand the story? Maybe, but the beauty of it being an English language opera is that I could make enough of it out as I was listening to it at work.
One day I’ll watch the Dorothy Dandridge and Sidney Poitier film version to get the better context. But until then let’s see where the classical list takes me next.