As America was establishing itself as a cultural power, and setting up its institutions to garrison that culture, it conspicuously and contemptibly omitted much of black American culture and history from that sanctum. America’s hallowed depictions of itself in claimants to the Great American Novel and the Hollywood studio classics were not given to portray any African-American perspective, nor to consider the influences drawn from African-American culture or the significance of black history. George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess is an enduringly great opera for a number of reasons, and one reason brazenly realised in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production is that it takes black history as American history itself, and it depicts the expressive and exuberant aspects of African-American life as the essence of America’s brash, new, singularly energetic place in world culture.
The most obvious feature of Gershwin’s musical style is the common attribute of American culture in general: It blends a variety of contrasting styles and origins, from diverse cultural origins, and arrives at something boldly new and flavoursome. Gershwin’s particular brand of the new musical styles was one that overtly paid respect to and acknowledged its roots in African-American culture. Taking a leaf from Dvořák’s bountiful and neatly compiled book, Gershwin saw that the way forward for music in America would come out of black people’s music, and he developed his personal artistic voice founded on that idea.