Sarai Elizabeth Cole & Rebecca L. Hargrove Discuss the Black Community’s Love-Hate Relationship With ‘Porgy and Bess’

By Mark Nimar
***Editorial Note: This article has been modified from its original version.
(Credit: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera)

“Porgy and Bess” is arguably America’s most celebrated and beloved opera. Following its premiere in 1935, the opera by George Gershwin about an African-American community in Charleston, South Carolina has become a mainstay of opera houses across the world, receiving major productions at theatres like the Houston Grand Opera, the Glimmerglass Festival, and the Metropolitan Opera.

“Porgy” is also one of the rare pieces of classical music to have cross-over appeal. Famous popular artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Fantasia Barrino, and Frank Sinatra have covered the opera’s famous aria “Summertime,” and Tony winner Audra Mcdonald even starred in a successful revival of “Porgy” on Broadway in 2012.

What most people don’t realize about this opera, however, is African-American singers’ complicated, love-hate relationship with the work. For some Black singers, “Porgy” is a steady source of employment in an unstable profession, an opportunity to bond with other Black singers, and a chance to sing some of the most gorgeous American music ever written. But for many others, a production of “Porgy” is ground zero for much of the racism that occurs in the opera industry towards African-American singers, and a painful reminder of the discrimination Black singers face every day in classical music.

One of the reasons people in the Black community dislike “Porgy” is that many Black singers are afraid of opera houses type casting them as a “Porgy and Bess singer.” They fear that once opera houses have hired them to sing “Porgy,” companies will not think they are good enough to sing anything else.

“My observation has been that once you’re a ‘Porgy and Bess’ singer, then you are no longer a classical musician with multiple degrees,” says Sarai Elizabeth Cole, a Wagnerian soprano who has sung productions of “Porgy” at the Princeton Festival, the Utah Festival, and abroad in Europe and Israel. “You’re like a church singer, basically… Even though ‘Porgy and Bess’ has some of the hardest music that you could think of, you’re somehow a lesser degree or less technically good singer than a traditional classical opera singer. And so I don’t put all of the productions that I’ve done on my resume” when she does auditions for other opportunities, because “once you do so many of them, it’s hard to be seen as anything else.”

But despite feeling pigeonholed by doing so many “Porgys,” Cole felt that doing “Porgy” was a necessary evil for continuing to work in the opera industry, noting that “before I stopped doing ‘[Porgy],’ it was like ‘well this is always work that I can get…in an industry in the U.S. that doesn’t let singers make a living off of singing…so it’s a difficult balancing act. But I have felt that once you do it, that’s it.”

Rebecca L. Hargrove shares the same opinion as Ms. Cole. Hargrove, a soprano who has appeared in “Porgy” at the Metropolitan Opera and the Spoleto Festival USA, remembered that “growing up, my  [music] teacher who taught me in high school always said, ‘never get stuck in the ‘Porgy’ circuit.’ And I didn’t understand it then. It probably wasn’t until I did my first ‘[Porgy]’  where I would look at some people’s bios…and the only role they [ever] had was a role from ‘Porgy and Bess.’”

Hargrove says that when opera houses view Black singers as only capable of singing “Porgy and Bess,” “What ends up happening is that the scope of what Black artists can do gets narrowed down to this one show. And I don’t know where that ideology came from truly. I can’t speak to the origin of it, but it just happens to be that a lot of Black artists get trapped in ‘all I do is this show. I’m only seen as this character.’ It’s not like I did Bess, and now they want to hear my Mimi or my Tosca. Or I did Serena, and they’re dying to hear my Aida. It’s almost like, ‘I did Serena and Bess, and now that’s all they want to see me as. And so they’re going to sit me on a shelf until five years later when they’re ready to pull ‘Porgy’ out again.”

As a result of this type casting, opera houses have become less diverse and more segregated environments. Because of opera companies’ limited view of Black singers’ capabilities, we often see the most frequently performed works of an opera house’s season, such as “La Bohème,” “Tosca,” and “La Traviata,” presented with all-white casts, which makes opera not only less representative of contemporary audiences, but also less relevant to them.

But despite the fact that Cole felt that doing “Porgy” had hurt her career, she also felt that “the experience of being in a room with like sixty to one hundred Black opera singers” while doing a production of “Porgy” “is unlike any other.”

Because most African-American opera singers are often the only Black artist when they are in the cast of any other opera, doing “Porgy”kind of gave me a sense of home the first time that happened. It was just like so comfortable being around other people who were just like me…Being in a room with so many other people who love the same thing that I do who look like me was really just exciting the first time…Every time it’s had that feeling.”

Because so many Black singers do multiple productions of “Porgy” over the course of their careers, cast members often grow very close to one another. “If it were 65 of us in the ensemble, I’d say a solid forty were very close friends and acquaintances that I had already met or worked with on other productions, or that we sing in the same church choir,” said Hargrove about the cast of “Porgy” when she did it at the Met. “They’re like my best friends, and we’re all in this show together…We would pray before every curtain.”

There lies one of the main reasons for Black singers’ love-hate relationship with the show: Although singing in a production of “Porgy”  can sometimes limit Black singers’ careers, doing the show provides a safe space for African-American artists,  a rare opportunity for them to feel just like everyone else in an industry where a Black singer is so often the only Black artist in the room.

And even though “Porgy and Bess” features an all-Black cast of opera singers, Black opera singers continue to face racism and discrimination while rehearsing “Porgy” in opera houses that white administrators, directors, and conductors control. Cole remembers one production of “Porgy” that she did that  “wasn’t really mindful of stereotyping” where the director made questionable requests for his production, “like, ‘throw watermelon during the picnic,’ and, you know, dancing with chicken and just all sorts of really offensive imagery that,  after that,” she “was just not okay with being in the show anymore.”

Hargrove has had similar experiences performing “Porgy” in opera houses run by all-white staffs. She said that when performing and rehearsing the opera in many mainstream opera houses, “It’s completely othering to walk into a space, and for someone to look at me, a Black person, and say ‘Have a great ‘Porgy’ tonight!’ But what if I was in ‘Magic Flute?’ That you just looked at a Black person, and said, ‘Have a great ‘Porgy’ tonight’ implies that you know my only place in this building is to be in this show.”

In spite of the negative experiences they have had doing “Porgy and Bess,” Cole and Hargrove both still love the show, and have solutions for improving conditions for African-American singers in the opera industry overall.

“I would like to see more equity from the top to the bottom” in opera houses, Hargrove said. “I want to see [them] actively seeking Black board of directors and trustees. I want to see [them] actively creating positions and safe space[s] in these companies for minorities that come in.”

Hargrove also called for more ethnic representation onstage in other operas in a company’s season.  Hiring more singers of color for shows other than “Porgy” would not only provide more performance opportunities for singers of color, but would also make opera more relevant to mainstream audiences.  “If art is to reflect life,” she says, “then I want the theatre to I go to to reflect the world that I walk in. Which is not all-white, it’s not all-Black, it’s not all-Asian. When I walk out of my door, I see all different types of people. So why then, would I pay 17,000 [dollars] to go sit in orchestra level and not see all different types of people?”

Hargrove feels that while these measures are the right thing to do, they will also help with an opera house’s bottom line. She says that the Black community will buy tickets to the opera and “will show up” to performances “if we see ourselves onstage.”

Cole also feels similarly to Hargrove, noting that addressing the issues of racism and inclusion in opera houses “needs to start from the top down. It needs to be administration, it needs to be more inclusion with conductors and directors, in my opinion. And then, I think once you have those things, once you diversify those areas of a company, you’re automatically going to see a much different makeup of singers.”

Cole also feels that although “Porgy” itself can perpetuate certain racist tropes about Black people, the opera can be done without being offensive. Cole says that “the productions that I’ve loved are the ones where the director has really taken the time to understand the community that it’s portraying…When it’s done well, it’s one of my favorite pieces, and it’s a really powerful work, but when it’s not treated respectfully, then it can just be a disaster.”


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