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Conceived by its composer George Gershwin as an ‘American folk opera’, Porgy and Bess is one of the most enduring musical theatre works of the 20th century. And still, almost 80 years after its premiere in 1935, one of the most controversial.

Set in the fictional, poverty-stricken Catfish Row in the Charleston, South Carolina of the early 1920s, it tells the story of a crippled beggar, his drug-addicted girlfriend, her violent ex-boyfriend and their long-suffering, hard-praying neighbours, all of whom are African-American. That Porgy and Bess’s authors – Gershwin, his lyricist brother Ira and librettist DuBose Heyward – were white was just one of the many controversies that engulfed the piece.

Ellen Noonan’s telling dissection of the work deals revealingly with the ‘fascinatingly complex series of conversations about american culture and black racial identity’ that have accompanied its production and reception in the seven decades since its premiere. The divergent polarities of ‘white fantasy and black pragmatism’ that informed and interrogated Porgy through the civil rights and Black Power movements and into the present long pre-date the work itself. That some contemporary white critics hailed it as the first ‘native’ American opera seems, in hindsight, somewhat problematic.

In a narrative that deftly mirrors and tracks the profound shifts in American political, social and cultural life between colour and status that are yet to be fully reconciled, Noonan negotiates the often fragile sensitivities the work excites with admirable diplomacy. (Although it’s a pity she doesn’t discuss the 2009 Cape Town Opera production, set in the South Africa of the 1970s, which was seen in London, Cardiff and at the Edinburgh Festival. Or, indeed, the successful 2011 Broadway revival.)

The Strange Career of Porgy & Bess is a cogent, concise and clear aggregation of the many arguments surrounding the work. Writing with intelligence, insight and necessary sensitivity, Noonan delivers an important and incisive analysis of the work itself and, as the book’s subtitle suggest, of ‘race, culture and America’s most famous opera’.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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