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From 'Porgy' To 'harriet': Black Theme, White Composer

March 10, 1985|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

NORFOLK, Va. — The Center Theater isn't exactly a glamorous opera house. But Norfolk isn't exactly New York, and the Virgina Opera Assn. certainly isn't the Met.

The 18,000-seat, concrete relic of the WPA in this old Navy town was, for a few hours the other day, an unlikely focal point in the operatic universe. The Beautiful People who adore the lyric muse, or who at least carry on a conspicuous flirtation, descended en masse. So did a national broadcasting team and the international press.

The marquee didn't just herald the name of the work on display. It conveyed a message fraught with purple extramusical significance: "HER VALOR WILL LIVE AGAIN IN SONG."

This might have led an innocent visitor to expect a musical version of "Portia Faces Life" at worst, a grass-roots "Fidelio" at best. But the Virginians were exhuming no soap opera and attempting no flights of Germanic heroism.

The valor in question involved the sacrifices and triumphs of Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who repeatedly risked life and limb to conduct others northward on the Underground Railroad. The song in question was the work of Thea Musgrave, a cosmopolitan composer who now divides her time between Norfolk and Santa Barbara.

"Harriet, the Woman Called Moses" could only strike the uninitiated as a curio. Here was a new opera about the struggle for freedom in the Deep South of a not-so-distant America, commissioned by the modest but adventurous Virginia Opera in conjunction with the Royal Opera of London.

Here was a romantic, ultra-serious social statement containing spirituals and gospel tunes and folk themes--most genuine, some fabricated.

Here was a musical drama about a black woman from the Maryland of 1820, written by a white woman from Scotland who has lived in America for 15 of her 56 years.

Ironically, the Musgrave premiere took place only a few weeks after the mighty Met lavished chandeliered shelter for the first time upon a black opera: "Porgy and Bess." George Gershwin's perspective of abject misery and strange alliances in Catfish Row--like Musgrave's perspective of the prelude to our Civil War--filtered the black experience through white sensibilities. Although Gershwin's sensibilities were essentially those of the Broadway of the 1930s, the Met treated his opera, at 50, with the lumbering and pristine reverence usually reserved for "Parsifal."

"Harriet" got mixed notices in Norfolk. Everyone admired the obviously lofty intentions of the composer and her collaborators. Not everyone admired the sometimes banal realization of those intentions.

"Porgy" got mixed notices in New York. Everyone liked the idea of serious, resourceful homage to Gershwin in America's leading opera house. Everyone agreed the attention was overdue. Not everyone liked the bombastic, old-fashioned production the Met invested; not everyone agreed that the intrinsic musical and dramatic values were well served in the big, stodgy house at Lincoln Center.

In both cases, observers searched for cultural, historical and sociological revelations. Some saw "Harriet" and "Porgy" as proof that black sympathies were finally finding their way into the deepest recesses of our artistic consciences and, as a consequence, black opera was at last finding its rightful place on our traditional stages. Others complained that both Musgrave and Gershwin trivialized honest black pathos with naive theatrical cliches.

"Harriet" and "Porgy" would, no doubt, have been different operas if they had been written by black composers. Duke Ellington dismissed the "lampblack Negroisms" of Gershwin's opera, at the time of its premiere, as a white man's caricature. More than one critic found Musgrave's references to black stereotypes in both music and word unwittingly patronizing.

Similar attacks have been leveled, of course, at Puccini, who didn't feel he had to be American to make music of "amore" in the Golden West, Chinese to write of Princess Turandot in Peking, or Japanese to lend poignancy to the predicament of Madama Butterfly. Bizet survived the argument that his Spanish Gypsy sounded French. Even Verdi endured a few contemporary complaints because he, an Italian, dared set an opera in ancient Egypt.

It would be good if, in 1985, we could point with pride to a number of model operas on black themes by black composers. Unfortunately, such operas don't seem to exist. Scott Joplin's "Treemonisha" is little more than beguiling entertainment, however authentic that entertainment may be. William Grant Still's output--what little we know of it--appears to suffer limitations in scope and significance.

It is impossible to say whether the scarcity of authentic black operas relates to the scarcity of black composers, or to the scarcity of outlets for black composers. Be that as it may, no one writes an opera for the fun of it. That is certain. And not many opera houses have offered to stage works by blacks. That, too, is certain.

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