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Musicology Colloquium: Naomi André, “Working Catfish Row: Writing, Teaching, and Singing Porgy and Bess”

Thursday, February 27, 2020 at 4:30pm

Lincoln Hall, 124
Dept of Music, 101 Lincoln Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853-4101, USA

“Working Catfish Row: Writing, Teaching, and Singing Porgy and Bess

Through an evaluation of the historical context for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, set in the 1920s and first performed in 1935 during Jim Crow, I consider how this work creates multiple meanings when it is performed today. Porgy and Bess has a special place in American music history and Gershwin referred to it as a “folk opera.” Yet these three terms—“American,” “folk,” and “opera”—resonate differently for black and white communities; and while the work was created by a white and Jewish American compositional team, it was performed by black artists. Indeed, Porgy and Bess voices many experiences. After singing in the chorus of a recent production of this work, it is clear that it has withstood the test of time with such memorable tunes and lyricism, even while it is embedded in problematic stereotypes. In writing about, teaching, and singing Porgy and Bess, I find it an opera that is easy to love and so difficult to hate; yet the bigger story is more complicated.

Naomi André is Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, Women’s Studies, and the Associate Director for Faculty at the Residential College at the University of Michigan. She received her B.A. from Barnard College and M.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard University. Her research focuses on opera and issues surrounding gender, voice, and race. Her publications include topics on Italian opera, Schoenberg, women composers, and teaching opera in prisons. Her book, Black Opera: History, Power, Engagement (University of Illinois Press, 2018) examines race, gender, and sexuality in opera in the US and South Africa.  Her earlier books include, Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera (2006) and Blackness in Opera (2012, co-edited collection).  She has edited and contributed to clusters of articles in African Studies and the Journal of the Society for American Music. Currently she is a co-editor for the essay collection African Performance Arts and Political Acts (contracted, University of Michigan Press). She is the inaugural Scholar in Residence at the Seattle Opera (appointed July 2019).


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