Fort Worth Opera Will Perform Porgy and Bess Despite Problematic Reputation

Porgy and BessEXPAND
Porgy and Bess
Karli Cadel

Always bold in its programming choices, the Fort Worth Opera opens its 2019 festival with director Francesca Zambello’s revival of Porgy and Bess, an opera whose depictions of African-Americans have been problematic since its creation. FWOpera tackles any potential controversy head-on by bringing in Margo Jefferson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural critic for The New York Times to deliver a keynote lecture entitled The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

Porgy and Bess is an English-language opera by the American composer George Gershwin, with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin. The opera was originally adapted from the novel, Porgy and was first performed in 1935. In 1942, Porgy and Bess was refashioned in the style of musical theater and appeared on Broadway. Otto Preminger directed the 1959 film version.

The troubling history of the opera includes a performance in 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Denmark, with an all-white cast made up in blackface. After 22 sold-out performances, the Nazis closed the production.

“I grew up with Porgy and Bess," Jefferson says. "I’ve been watching and listening to some form of it since 1959 when the movie came out. I know it as a musical; I know it as an opera. I’ve charted its course as a much-debated racial and cultural document. I'm very excited about the coming Fort Worth production. Porgy and Bess demands that we, its American audience, live with its contradictions and live up to its complexities. When we do that, it rewards us with its musical glories.”

The Fort Worth Opera continues to tread new ground when it presents one of the few operas written by a female composer/librettist. Companionship by Rachel J. Peters was a crowd favorite when presented at Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers last season. It is based on a short story by American author Arthur Phillips.

“This project began on a whim in 2011 with scenes for a concert featuring Brooklyn Book Festival authors, and I just couldn’t let it go," Peters says. "I felt as if Arthur had written this story especially for me; it was already so full of music and crying out for adaptation.”

Joe Illick, Fort Worth Opera artistic director, says Peters is a brilliant artist and the opera is thrilled to work with her.

Fort Worth Opera continues their commitment to Spanish-language opera with El Pasado Nunca se Termina (The Past is Never Finished), a bilingual mariachi opera featuring ensemble Mariachi Nuevo Tecalitlan. Broadway director Leonard Foglia’s story is part romance and part historical drama set on the eve of the Mexican Revolution in 1910 when Mexican society is roiled by abject poverty.

The seventh season of Frontiers, the company’s popular showcase for new operatic works, will present 20-minute segments of the works of five composer-librettist teams. The topics of this year’s operas range from the true story of “the worst restoration in art history,” to a legendary family feud ignited during the American Civil War to an adaptation of George Moore’s classic novella Albert Nobbs, which follows the secret life of a butler in 1860s Dublin, Ireland.

“This year promises to deliver marvelous new pieces that are often as hilarious and entertaining as they are thought-provoking,” Illick says.

Frontiers will be at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden Auditorium in Fort Worth’s cultural district.

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