John McWhorter, on top of everything else he does, has agreed to write two substantial essays a week for the New York Times. I discussed the first one recently, and found it wanting. It was about the origins of the term “woke,” and while it was worth reading and surely instructive, it was simply too long. And that is the problem with this week’s column, too, which is about the tortuous history of a black opera that fell into the hands of white lyricists and musicians.
McWhorter, who writes very well, surely deserves a column in the NYT, and not just as a palliative for the paper’s toxic wokeness, but because he has thoughtful things to say. But, as I feared, writing two longish pieces per week for the paper simply can’t be done well on top of all the other columns, video podcasting, and book writing he does, not to mention his regular academic duties at Columbia. It’s simply too much. I have my fingers crossed, but I fear that for McWhorter, something’s gotta give.
His “newsletter” at the NYT is accessible only to those who subscribe to the paper, and you won’t be able to see it even as part of the five-free-articles deal they have (or whatever the number is now). But if you do subscribe, you can see the article by clicking on the screenshot:
The answer to McWhorter’s question is “yes”, but he doesn’t think black people will necessary like the opera (it has music written by white men, and uses a lot of black jargon), which in its present incarnation McWhorter loves. Let’s briefly go through the gyrations of this piece:
b. In collaboration with Harlem Renaissance authors Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes, the book was made into a play, as many popular novels were at the time. The play was called “St. Louis Woman” and it fizzled.
c. The authors decided to gussy up the play with music, and called in the great musical writers Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer, both white men. But the musical version fizzled as well, though, as McWhorter said, the music is sublime, and “When I first heard this recording at 24, if I had hairs on the back of my neck they would have been standing up.”
d. In the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer turned “St. Louis Woman” into a piece called “Blues Opera.” According to McWhorter, this was a really good work:
Anyone could hear that this music deserved another chance, and in the late 1950s, Arlen and Mercer transformed “St. Louis Woman” into “Blues Opera.” And I mean “transformed” — we’re talking recitatives, leitmotifs, ensembles and even a murder: opera. There are times when you’d almost think you were at Strauss’ “Salome,” the scoring is so rich; there is even an atonal tango, for goodness’ sake. And a sword dance.
Yet all of this is written in the musical language of the blues and jazz. The motifs are ever morphing, as if improvised — Arlen was good at this, writing pop songs like “Right as the Rain,” that feel organic and accessible and yet never repeat a phrase. Black-born music served up with a busy classical orchestra? You first think of “Porgy and Bess.” But this is different: Blacker, frankly. With “Porgy and Bess,” George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward grafted Black idioms onto the idioms of Debussy and Ravel. Arlen and Mercer let the Blackness flow purely — my synesthetic take on the score is that it’s Maryland blue crab so flavorful it makes you sneeze.
e. Sadly, “Blues Opera” didn’t come off, and was actually shown only in Europe.
f. Now, the opera has been partly reworked by John Mauceri and Michael Gildin, and it still is in statu nascendi. As McWhorter says, “when do we get to see it?”.
Well, we don’t know. McWhorter says that a lot of “Black English” is used in the play and the songs, and perhaps people would object to that, even though he says that “Blues Opera” got it about 99 percent right, and Mauceri and Gildin have brought someone in to fix the rest” (it was McWhorter!)
McWhorter finishes by discussing previous attempts by white writers to create black plays, like “Porgy and Bess” (they should also mention “Showboat”). He argues that “Porgy and Bess” does not deserve damnation for being written by whites, as the music is great. His point is that we shouldn’t demand that “black art” be created only by black artists, just as white art shouldn’t be created only by white artists:
“Porgy and Bess” and “Carmen Jones” have both had their days in the sun recently, and as the world opens back up, producers, directors, and performers are likely to be on the hunt for other shows that speak to the Black experience. And to be sure, there are operas written by Black people that are also deserving: I recommend H. Lawrence Freeman’s “Voodoo,” William Grant Still and Langston Hughes’s “Troubled Island,” and Anthony Davis’s opera about Malcolm X (yes, in 1986!).
But there’s also “Blues Opera” waiting for us. It deserves — nay, needs — a good look and listen. To experience it as merely something “white” is to deny the roiling essence of what America has been — and is.
As far as McWhorter’s essay goes, it’s okay, well written and fairly absorbing, but perhaps not of general interest. It’s too long and a bit discursive. I hope McWhorter finds his groove in his biweekly essays, but I think that he’ll have to let some other stuff go if that’s to happen.
By the way, the page where you’re supposed to sign up to get access to his column at the NYT doesn’t seem to show his column. It should be under “newsletters,” so I don’t now what’s going on.
To end: a great song from the opera “Porgy and Bess”, written by George Gershwin “with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin.” (Gershwin, by the way, died at only 38 of a brain tumor. Imagine the music that we would have if he’d lived!)