Published on: February 7, 2020
Last weekend, as was mentioned here on MNB earlier this week, I found myself in a New Rochelle, New York, movie theater watching a live simulcast of "Porgy and Bess," which was being performed at the same time at New York's Metropolitan Opera.
To be honest, I wasn't there by choice. Mrs. Content Guy's twin sister got tickets for a bunch of family members, and so I was persuaded that, if I were a good husband, I'd join them for the almost four hour opera.
I am not, to be clear, an opera guy. I recognize that this my failing, not opera's. It just doesn't resonant with me, or touch my soul or heart in any way. Probably because I'm an ignoramus.
(I am the guy who wrote here on MNB back in 2004, after having attended a CIES event in Rome at which Andrea Bocelli sang - I was reliably informed that people would've donated kidneys to hear him sing in person - that he seemed to have a nice enough voice, but lacked the kind of stage presence that allowed him to connect with the audience. I swear - I had no idea he was blind. But I got a ton of email the next day, all of which I posted on MNB, informing me that I was a moron. They weren't wrong.)
That said, I found "Porgy and Bess" to be an interesting and provocative experience, though it had nothing to do with the music (which includes songs like "Summertime," "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'," "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York).
Written in 1935 by George and Ira Gershwin and DeBose Heyward, the English language opera features an almost entirely black cast, and takes place in an impoverished black community on coast of South Carolina. I found myself troubled by what I was seeing almost from the beginning; I was aware that "Porgy and Bess" was written by three white men, and yet its dialog is what I think of as being stereotypical and sort of insulting black dialect. It just bothered me, and it was almost worse that the lyrics were projected on the screen as subtitles - hearing people speak that way was one thing, but seeing the words written that way was simply awful.
And yet … the opera was being performed by black actors and singers who clearly were not insulted by it. It was introduced onscreen by actress Audra McDonald, who not only was not insulted by it, but won a Tony for playing Bess in a Broadway production several years ago. If they weren't bothered by it, why should I be?
I actually sound the most interesting part of the simulcast to be a series of interviews that took place onscreen during the intermission, in which Audra McDonald spoke to some of the artists and creators, and discussed the fact that "Porgy and Bess" has been a controversial theatrical work. (At least I wasn't the only one who was bothered.)
The most interesting interview was with Camille A. Brown, who choreographed the piece, and she spoke about the fact that while seen from a 2020 perspective it might seem anachronistic and maybe even offensive to some, the fact is that it does represent one part of the black experience in America, specific to the south and the early part of the 20th century. Black people, she said, have "blood memory" about such things - they connect to it precisely because it represents part of their past. Not their whole past, to be sure, and certainly not their present. And she suggested that while it is important to see it through 2020 eyes, it is equally important to understand the context in which it was written and produced.
After all, when the show was originally staged in the mid-thirties, the Gershwins insisted on an all-black cast, which was highly unusual for the time.
I was intrigued by this, and it allowed me to see the second half with a different sort of mindset. It still sort of bothered me, but the words "blood memory" stayed with me for the duration, and still do. They helped to illuminate the importance of seeing things through other people's eyes, and why it is critical to go beyond the top layers of any situation and try to get a deeper sense of understanding.
I still don't like opera. I told Mrs. Content Guy that if the offer gets made again, I respectfully decline. And again, I know it is about me, not opera.
"Star Trek: Picard" is now three episodes into its 10-part first season, and I continue to be thoroughly engaged by the fresh look at Patrick Stewart's Jean-Luc Picard, who was captain of the starship Enterprise in "Star Trek: The Next Generation." This is Picard in the late autumn of his life, finding new meaning as he confronts a United Federation of Planets and Starfleet Command that have become fearful and intolerant, xenophobic and flirting with amorality, attitudes contrary to how he has lived his personal and professional life in the service of both.
Watching Stewart's Picard awaken from the apparent lethargy in which he's been spending his later years, ensconced on his family's vineyard in France, is pure pleasure - the character may be almost 90 (Stewart is almost 80), but there is a sense of resolute decency, intelligence and compassion in every fiber of his being. Watching him come to life, finding new well of energy to propel him - far more than warp engines - into this new and possibly last adventure, is enormously entertaining. Not to mention thoughtful. Provocative. Even timely.
If you haven't watched "Star Trek: Picard," on the CBS All Access streaming service, you should. It is wonderful.
My wine of the week - the 2016 Terre di Chieti Pecorino, which is a lovely Italian white wine, full bodied and tasty, and perfect with seafood.
That's it for this week … have a great weekend, and I'll see you Monday.