Opinion | Can White Men Write a Black Opera?
As someone who wants “Blues Opera” to see the light of day, a few points: First, these characters would indeed have spoken this way. Black people slide gorgeously between standard and Black English. Where people get tripped up is the assumption that Black English is merely grammatical errors. But Black English is fiercely complex in its ways just as the standard is. Characters like the ones in “Blues Opera” speak more, not less, English than Tucker Carlson.
Some insist that only Black writers can render the dialect “properly,” and there is certainly a history of white people getting it hideously wrong. I own a copy of a resonantly forgettable little novel of 1873 in which an ex-slave is depicted as saying “I’se” always where standard English uses just “I”: “I’se hope you’ll forgive me,” “I’se isn’t,” “I’se know ’tis.” This is all wrong, page after page.
But “Blues Opera” got it about 99 percent right, and Mauceri and Gildin have brought someone in to fix the rest (disclosure: that would be me). And then we must also note that much of the lyrics come from Bontemps’ work. How “inauthentic” was he?
On “Blues Opera,” the sarcastic reaction “Oh, good — white men’s version of Blackness” could seem like a due signaling of awareness of authenticity and appropriation. But to view this piece with an impregnably cynical squint would also evidence a certain numbness to the complexities of social history as well as to just plain art. Not for nothing did Ethel Waters call Arlen “the blackest white man I ever knew,” for example.
I think of how Black people of my mother’s generation adored “Porgy and Bess” (one of the first records my mother pointed me to was the soundtrack album of the film), and how, not long ago, Black people were lined up around the corner to see the Broadway revival. Would these people prefer that “Porgy and Bess” had been written by Black people? Probably. But life isn’t perfect, and “Porgy and Bess” (nearly) is. Who would wish that “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” were known only to musicologists, because the rest of us have no reason to hear “white men’s version of Blackness”?
“Blues Opera” is high art about Black people, devised by people who made a living reaching ordinary people and fashioned an opera designed to do so, rooted in the work of three Black geniuses. It was anticipated by those who knew of its creation as an artistic step beyond “Porgy and Bess,” and it was one. Yes, Black writers would have been much less likely to get it performed in the 1950s — but then, Arlen and Mercer barely managed to get it on the stage either.
“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!).