Jermaine Smith as Sportin' Life in Seattle Opera's Porgy and Bess

I tend to cling to the programs at musical theater shows. Both opera and Broadway narratives can be intentionally slight—a framework to stretch song across—so a good program can act as a sort of ballast, full of hard data, running down cast and crew with a comprehensiveness that puts film credits to shame. And perhaps it’s the programs themselves that explain my experiences at two recent shows.

Last Friday The Phantom of the Operas new production premiered at the Paramount, while on Saturday Seattle Opera began its run of Porgy and Bess. They’re radically different works, in tone and staging (I saw zero pyrotechnics in Porgy and Bess, while for much of Phantom the theater smelled like the Fourth of July). But both are in the theatrical canon and both are distinctly of their times. You’re not going to mistake Andrew Lloyd Webber’s wailing synths for anything but a gaudy blast from the 1980s. And Gershwin sounds—and will always sound, whether it’s Rhapsody in Blue or “Summertime”—like the American 1920s and 1930s. Both are also in their own ways problematic. 

The Phantom is a murderous predator. He kills, he kidnaps—all, supposedly, for the love of his Christine, a woman he’s secretly trained since she was a young girl. And Webber treats the guy pretty damn sympathetically. I don’t think the piece is an argument for murder, or even abuse—viewers should be able to know better, especially in something this schlocky—but if we’re supposed to feel for anyone in this show, it’s the Phantom.  

Porgy and Bess, meanwhile, is a little trickier. It was one of the first Broadway shows to run with an all-black cast. But it was also written by white guys, appropriating black gospel music and jazz. Was it their place to be writing about black lives? Stereotypes—drug abuse, poverty—abound. The relationship between Bess and Crown is discomfortingly violent. But for going on a century now, Porgy and Bess has also been an opera that’s provided rare representation for black singers.

So back to the programs. When I entered each theater, I was handed one. The program at the Phantom runs down the new Broadway at the Paramount theater season. It lists the cast, their resumes. Porgy and Bess also has a program, but since Seattle Opera has been on a mission, lately, toward cultural equity and awareness, this program is full of essays, about cast member Mary Elizabeth Williams (who plays Serena, stunningly), about black artists and activists and their complicated and various relationships with the opera, and about “Breaking Glass”—the public forum that Seattle Opera held before the show.

Interacting with nearly any art form entails a weird sort of matrix of intention. You’re constantly trying to parse what’s ironic, say, from what’s earnest, what the artist meant from what a character says. You can do this through context, through history. But theater adds extra layers: There’s the text and music (of one time and place, usually) and then there’s the new staging of it (now), and there’s the way those interact. Theater is unavoidably about the present. And lately Seattle Opera has decided to make that explicit.   

Both shows made me uncomfortable, in their own ways. Art is not solely a salve, and discomfort is one of its most useful effects, but discomfort for its own sake is pointless. Every work of art doesn’t need an essay accompanying it: Plenty create their own context. But here, I think, it helped. The Gershwins’ lens—white men looking on a black community—is persistent, but the lens of a current production is not. The context offered up around Porgy doesn’t soothe away our anxieties about the piece. It positively deepens them.

Meanwhile the Phantom has a new staging. On Friday night, instead of a chandelier plummeting to the stage at the end of act one, as it has in past productions, it hurtles directly toward the audience, stopping just above, leaving the context of the stage, engaging you. Too bad the actual show can’t do the same.

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