Kids and Race Goes to the Opera: Porgy and Bess

by Katharine Strange

What comes to mind when you hear the word ‘opera’? Blonde Brunhilda singing Wagner at an glass-shattering pitch? Seattle Opera hopes to change that by presenting operas that reflect our community and serve as springboards for discussion. This season they’re producing Porgy and Bess.

Porgy and Bess is an American opera composed by George Gershwin which premiered in 1935. It follows the story of Porgy, a disabled beggar on the streets of Charleston, as he tries to rescue Bess from Crown, her abusive lover, and Sportin’ Life, her drug dealer.

Since its premiere, Porgy and Bess has been controversial. Some productions have been hailed as wonderful, complex portrayals of marginalized Black characters, others have been panned for being “minstrelsy.”

Gershwin has been critiqued for being a white composer who did not fully understand the Black characters he aimed to portray. Then again, the opera has been hailed as a rare opportunity for many talented Black performers who were seldom granted such substantive roles.

Kids and Race Executive Director, Jasen Frelot, recently sat down with Courtney D. Clarke, the Seattle Opera School Programs Manager, music teacher, and singer (who has previously performed the role of Bess) to discuss Porgy and Bess and its relevance today.

To Courtney, the quality of the production is of paramount. She emphasized that Seattle Opera’s production was rigorously produced with performers and crew working at the highest levels. She also emphasized that Gershwin’s storytelling was groundbreaking for centering the stories of Black people, and noted that all the white characters are tertiary, non-singing roles.

Jasen and Courtney recommend this as an opera for kids eight and older. After the opera experience, allow your child to tell you what they thought of it without interjecting too much critical race theory. Instead, they recommend listening to your kids’ thoughts and questions. Great art offers us space for reflection and evolution rather than neat-and-tidy answers.

Listen to the whole conversation between Jasen and Courtney here!

Porgy and Bess is playing at the Seattle Opera from August 11-25, 2018.