Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Maybe Tuesday will be my good news day

  I like a Gershwin tune, how about you? 

    For those of you not in the know, the title of this entry is a line from the Gershwin brothers’ classic song “The Man I Love.” Well, it’s Tuesday, and here’s some pretty good news:  Barack Obama has taken office as the first African-American president of the United States of America.

    ‘Swonderful... We have overcome so many obstacles to have made this possible. Of course, we have a long way to go. The fact that race was even an issue for some voters is still a crying shame. Most tears shed this Tuesday, however, were tears of joy. I myself got weepy on several occasions during this campaign - from the moment Senator Obama announced his candidacy to the moment President Obama was sworn into office. ...Love walked right in and drove the shadows away...

    There were two moments during the inauguration today which were especially moving for me as a classical singer. The constitution provides that a president’s term begins at 12 noon on inauguration day, with or without oath. At exactly 12 noon, the quartet of renowned musicians were still playing. The piece was a  virtuostic rendition of the Quaker hymn “Simple Gifts,” which brought a peaceful hush over the enormous crowd. President Obama sat there, attentive and appreciative of the wealth of talent playing before him (and for him). The serene smile on his face grew maybe slightly wider when his wife Michelle, at 12 noon exactly, briefly put her gloved hand on his shoulder. One could hear a few cheers out of the crowd, but they quickly subsided until the song finished, at which point the uproarious cheering resumed explosively.

    I was amazed at how polite over a million people could be. After all the hatred, incivility and scornful behavior during the elections, the Americans showed that they are capable of respect, reverence and regard. The world literally turned in a new direction underneath their feet, but they still listened to the music. ...I got rhythm, I got music ... who could ask for anything more? ...

    Then it was time to take the oath. As an opera singer who has flubbed up her spoken lines on several occasions, I winced when the “dialog” between President Obama and Chief Justice Roberts didn’t go quite so smoothly. Of the many conditions under which a slip of the tongue can occur, I’m inclined not only to chalk this one up to bad prompting (an epidemic in some opera houses), but also to skirting around the president’s middle name. The elephant in the room was named “Hussein.” The announcer referred to the president as Barack H. Obama, while Dianne Feinstein, head of the inaugural committee, called him simply Barack Obama, then for the first time during the taking of the oath, his full name was used. The subconscious ramifications of the controversy surrounding this name (controversial, of course, only for the hateful, incivil and scornful people) surfaced in this otherwise innocuous repeat-after-me situation. ...Wadoo, zim bam boddle-oo, Hoodle ah da wa da, Scatty wah! (scatty what?) ...

    George and Ira Gershwin were born Jacob and Israel Gershowitz, sons of a Russian musician who changed his name upon immigrating to the USA. It was easy for them and other Jewish immigrants to change their names and shed some of their Jewish identity in order to fit in -- after all, their skin was white. Would it have made any difference had our new president changed his name to Billy H. O’Brien? I am impressed that he proudly clings to his heritage by standing by his name.  Even if he would change it, it would serve no purpose, because the world still sees him as a black man. Why this should be a problem for some defies all logic, but for now, that seems to be the way it is. ... In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay. Our (hate) is here to stay...

    The Gershwins were lucky enough to have parents who immigrated to the USA already at the turn of the 20th century, avoiding the strife (to put it ultra-mildly) in Europe during the time when George and Ira were writing their greatest hits. Theirs also being an oppressed race, judged not only on their beliefs, but also the size of their noses and the circumferences of their skulls, they were better able to relate to their black neighbors. They had good reason to be touched by a 1925 novel titled Porgy by DuBose Heyward, which depicted life in the black tenements of Charleston, South Carolina.

    Together with Heyward, the Gershwin brothers adapted the novel into the opera Porgy and Bess, first performed in 1935, featuring a cast of solely African-American singers (with the exception of a few minor roles for whites). In fact, the Gershwin estate stipulates that only blacks be allowed to play the lead roles when the opera is performed in the United States (Not surprisingly, the only all-white production took place in Europe under Nazi occupation in the 1940’s, and few other mixed productions have taken place since then). While I love singing “Summertime” as much as the next soprano, it seems to me a matter of course that Gershwin would have reserved this opera for African-American singers. Am I being audacious to purport that this is their story, they’ve deserved it, it belongs to them?

    Wait a minute. ...It ain’t necessarily so!... The more reading I do on the subject, the more it I learn that this opera is not the pride and joy of the African-American opera community. Apparently, there’s not much appreciation for a story which stereotypically depicts its characters -- impoverished beggars, violent crooks and drug addicts. Still, poet Langston Hughes said of the author, “Heyward was one who saw with his white eyes, wonderful, poetic qualities in the inhabitants of Catfish Row that makes them come alive." And biographer James M. Hutchisson thought Porgy to be the first major southern novel to portray blacks without condescension.” I personally find the music magnificent and challenging, and realize that the authors fastidiously researched the lifestyle and dialect before putting pen to paper.  The opinions on the work are mixed, but I conclude that it is not the piece itself which causes the controversy. 

    I happen to know two people personally who are currently singing in Porgy and Bess, both of them idols of mine. I asked one of them (I’ll call him “Porgy”) what his thoughts were on the subject. It ended up being impossible for him to sum his feelings up in a few words, and I do realize what a big can of worms I’ve opened up just by beginning to write this article. I’ve followed Porgy’s career since I met him in 1998. I was Ines to his di Luna in Il Trovatore.Then he was well on his way to the top, if not there already. I remember him telling me about a discussion he had with a (German) opera director who did not want him to play Rigoletto. Why? Well, the woman playing Gilda (his daughter) is white. It just wouldn’t be believable, he was told. Whatever happened to willing suspension of disbelief?  

    Why do I scoff at the notion of racial discrimination in Italian opera, yet support Gershwin’s stipulation for Porgy and Bess?  I guess it’s two sides of one coin being told you can’t play Rigoletto “because you are black” and being offered to sing Porgy “because you are black.” How many sopranos singing Bess have been denied a Butterfly or a Desdemona on account of their race (even though the real reason is seldom given)? These incidents are rare, I hope, and my friend “Porgy” did get to sing Rigoletto, of course. Why? Because he is an exquisite artist who has studied thoroughly. He is an intelligent musician and an expressive singer who channels humanity itself through his voice and stage presence. 

    I know when I hear sincerity in a voice. It is a sound which also resonates in our new president. Let’s go back now to the inauguration and listen to John Williams’ arrangement ... ‘Tis the gift to be simple, ‘tis the gift to be free... being played by Itzhak Perlman (Jewish immigrant), Gabriela Montero (Venezuelan), Anthony McGill (African-American) and Yo-Yo Ma (Chinese-American). Is this a presidential inauguration or a United Colors of Benetton commercial? Were these performers chosen on the basis of their race? Are we trying too hard? Hmmm... maybe. But they also happen to be the very best in the business, the most qualified for the job.

    Surely we’ve overcome many a prejudice, and we should rejoice in this day. But the memory of all that has come before cannot be so easily forgotten. ... No, no they can’t take that away from me...So, I return to Tuesday, my good news day, and I’ll try to leave race out of it: 

Barack Obama, the man most qualified for the job, has taken office as President of the United States of America.

Ain’-a that good news?

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