Today’s topic is black heroines in opera. We’re not talking about Aida. Those heroines are actually Italian, in spite of what the libretto says.
We’re talking about Bess in Porgy and Bess (1935) and Treemonisha (ca. 1914) in Scott Joplin’s opera of the same name. Strictly speaking, Bess doesn’t count, since George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward weren’t Black, but they all identified strongly with Black Americans.
We’ve been thinking about these two heroines since we received the latest 2 CD recording of Treemonisha, which we ordered a few days ago and just arrived yesterday. There are excellent notes giving more context to Joplin’s life than we’ve read anywhere, as well as a complete libretto. We highly recommend this version to anyone with even a passing interest in Scott Joplin and his only extant opera.
The contrast between Treemonisha and Bess is striking. Joplin had a mission – this opera was intended for what he called “his race.” The clear lesson, unapologetically delivered, is that to get ahead Black people must be good to each other, get an education, and give up superstition, booze and drugs.
Drugs? To us, the “bag o’ luck” offered by the “conjurer” Zodzetrick, is some kind of drug and Joplin knew it. Zodzetrick says the bag is “worth its weight in gold” and also calls himself “de Goofer dus’ man. And I’m king of Goofer dus’ lan’.”
This dialect makes many modern people very uncomfortable, just as the Gullah language makes people uncomfortable about Porgy and Bess. BTW, the latest version of P&B was very controversial, with actors objecting to the weakness portrayed in the original version of the opera. Also, the lesson, as far as we can tell, was, “Aren’t these people interesting?”
Treemonisha is the only educated person in her neck of the woods and acclaimed for her leadership qualities by the entire community. She’s dignified, calm and forgiving of those who wanted to do her ill. At the end of the opera, she leads them in a inspiring and wonderful “Slow Drag.”
What about Bess? She succumbs to the Gershwin/Heyward version of Zodzetrick, known as Sportin’ Life, and follows him to almost certain doom in New York City. She’s weak and ignorant. Porgy is disabled and noble. Tragic victims we have become so accustomed to in modern political rhetoric. At least there is no overt villain causing their downfall.
BTW, Zodzetrick and his sidekick, like Sportin’ Life, were colorful, entertaining and powerful at the beginning of the opera. They end up getting beaten up by Treemonisha’s boy friend and step-dad, and cowering before the community begging for mercy. What a difference!