Last year, well before COVID-19 brought about the spectre of respiratory infection and violent asphyxiation on the streets, New York’s Metropolitan Opera staged a new production of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin’s 1935 musical vision of ‘Negro’ life in Catfish Row. Almost 30 years had gone by since the Met last presented the work, a significant chunk of time in our perceptions of race and gender. On the occasion of this new production, the company went out of its way to publicly address its own chequered history and the opera’s complex resonances in today’s world. Written by the sons of successful Russian émigrés, on a libretto by the white Southern couple DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, the setting was a white man’s idea of black society: Porgy as a cripple, Crown as a murderer, and Sportin’ Life as a fun lovin’, dope peddlin’ entertainer. And that’s just for the men.

Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess

The opera’s opening night in 1935 was a glitzy affair with Hollywood royalty like Katherine Hepburn and Joan Crawford in the audience. Porgy and Bessentered history as one of those great imperfect operas,...

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