Racism in Opera: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess


On the 10th of October 1935, George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bessopened in the Alvin Theatre on Broadway, New York. A few years earlier, Singer Al Jolson attempted to musicalise the story starring as a comic blackface Porgy, his minstrel shows, an unacceptable racist concept nowadays. The Broadway opening was unprecedented in U.S. history due to the fact that it featured an all-African American cast of classically trained opera singers. The work amalgamated European orchestral techniques mixed with American jazz and folk, African-American beats and Russian-Jewish resonances.

The story, in brief, was that of the black residents of Catfish Row, a fishing village in Charleston, South Carolina set in the early 1920s. Bess, a woman of questionable reputation and a history of addiction tries to break free from her violent lover Crown who is on the run from the police, wanted for murder. Shunned by the locals, Bess is…

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