Blood Memory in Porgy and Bess

Alfred Walker as Crown in Porgy and Bess

Over the weekend, I saw the Metropolitan Opera’s wonderful new production of George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess.

Choreographer Camille A. Brown, below, was interviewed backstage about the dances she created for the production. She spoke about drawing on the performers’ “blood memory.”

In a recent TED talk, Brown explained that:

Movement has always been a part of the African tradition. So, when you look at the Middle Passage and how the culture of the African people, they attempted to strip them of their culture, but somehow it was still living in their body and we call that a blood memory. That idea of movement being a way of expressing ourselves is something that is traditional and it’s a heritage that continues to be passed down. It’s just something that is innate, in black people specifically. So, you’re tapping into something when you’re moving your body that I believe is very spiritual. 

Here, Brown rehearses the chorus and dancers of Porgy. Are the movements expressive of blood memory?

Do you think blood memory is a real phenomenon? or is Brown using the term as a metaphor for something else? What?

If blood memory is a real phenomenon, to what extent does it govern the choices we make and the actions we take? Are our “blood memories” mutable? Can they be changed? Or are they permanent and inexorable, something to which we must submit?

Brown suggests that blood memory is dormant in all people of African heritage, and can help them to access traditional ways of movement. Are there other blood memories particular to other groups of people? Give an example.

Is soprano Latonia Moore drawing on blood memory here, in her performance of Serena’s Act I aria “My Man’s Gone Now” from Porgy?

What about here, singing “Un bel dì,” Cio-Cio-San’s Act II aria from Puccini’s 1904 opera Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San is a Japanese woman)?

The Gershwins’ estate stipulates that only singers of African heritage can perform the Porgy and Bess, but that hasn’t stopped the melanin-challenged from singing excerpts for years:

The opera begins with the aria “Summertime,” the most covered piece of music of all time. Here it is sung by South African soprano Golda Schultz.

A few of the countless cover versions:

As one critic noted, Porgy and Bess is

a story of “black life” penned by a white Southerner [Dubose Heyward], scored by a New York Jewish composer [George Gershwin], written in dialect (cartoonish, by today’s standards) and containing strong whiffs of well-intentioned paternalism, tourism, and exoticism.

These charges complicate the notion of “blood memory.” Could there be a kind of American “blood memory,” the product and the basis of our mixed cultural origins as a nation — a memory that made it possible for a Russian-Jewish immigrant and a white Southern aristocrat to write a great American opera on one aspect of the black experience?

Read more about the historic controversies surrounding the opera here:

The folk/bluegrass musician Rhiannon Giddens hosts a Metropolitan Opera podcast called “Aria Code,” designed to introduce opera to new audiences. Here, she looks at Porgy and Bess from multiple perspectives, including roots both in minstrelsy and Charleston’s Gullah Geechee culture.

Video of a symposium on the opera at the University of Michigan, including a diversity of viewpoints.

Butterfly Resources, part III: Sources and critical responses

Gustave_Léonard_de_Jonghe_-_The_Japanese_Fan

The Japanese Fan (Gustave de Jonghe, 1880s).

Read “Madama Butterfly: A Study in Ambiguity” by Jordan Serchuk.

Read “The Heartless GIs Who Inspired Madame Butterfly by Rupert Christiansen.

Read “Washington National Opera’s Madama Butterfly, Reviewed,” by Mike Paarlberg.

Read “Past vs. Present: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly vs. Weezer’s Pinkerton” by Maxime Scraire.

Weezer’s “Across the Sea”:

Read “What About Yellowface?” on this blog.

Novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen says it’s time to “Close the Curtain on Miss Saigon.”

Take a look at this Pinterest page of mostly Western women in Japanese kimono.

A database of all the Japanese folk songs Puccini incorporated into the score of Madama Butterfly.

Did Puccini borrow Cio-Cio-San’s main theme from a music box, now in a museum in New Jersey?

Read more of the fascinating story here:

Butterfly Resources, part II

The opera in a nutshell.

Maestro Antonio Pappano and the cast of the Royal Opera production discuss the rehearsal process.

English National Opera presented Butterfly two years ago with a puppet as Trouble, Butterfly’s son.

Do you think it works?

A short animated film to Butterfly’s Act II aria “Un bel dì vedremo.”

Glyndebourne Opera updated the story to 1950s post-World War II Japan:

Punk rock producer Malcom McLaren’s take:

The Kazakh countertenor Erik Kurmangaliev singing Butterfly’s Act III aria in a Russian-language production of American playwright David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly (which actually does not follow the plot of the opera at all, but concerns a relationship between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer

Butterfly Resources, part I

The Balcony, Yokohama (Edward Atkinson Hornel, 1894).
metbutterfly3sm
“Dolore” in the first American production at the
Metropolitan Opera

Read the complete libretto in English translation here.

Watch the complete opera here in a 1975 film version. No subtitles (but you won’t need them because you have the libretto!), but beautifully and sensitively performed.

Claude_Monet-Madame_Monet_en_costume_japonais Wiki

Orientalism: “La Japonaise (Mme. Monet in Kimono” (Claude Monet, 1875).

babylift

Photo from Operation Babylift, Saigon, 1975: a U.S. Naval officer about to take a Vietnamese orphan, one of thousands, onboard a plane to be adopted in America. For more on Operation Babylift, go here:

https://www.fordlibrarymuseum.gov/museum/exhibits/babylift/#

A French film version of the complete opera made in 1996: this is the one we will be analyzing in class.

The opposite of orientalism? More than 100,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry were imprisoned without charge during World War II:

For more, go here to the fascinating 50 Objects/Stories site: