Naomi André, 10 May 2018

Title of the Talk: “Working Catfish Row: Writing, Teaching, and Singing Porgy and Bess


When: Thursday, 10 May 2018 at 5pm

Where: St John’s College Barn (click HERE for a map; the Barn is number “19” on the provided key).

Speaker: Naomi André (Associate Professor, University of Michigan)

Abstract: Through an evaluation of the historical context for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, set in the 1920s and first performed in 1935 during Jim Crow, I also consider how this work creates multiple meanings when it is performed today. Now over 80 years later we have seen the Civil Rights movement, an era where policies around incarceration have been called the “New Jim Crow,” and a current climate where many contend that #blacklivesmatter. Porgy and Bess has a special place in American music history and Gershwin referred to it as a “folk opera.” Yet these three terms—“American,” “folk,” and “opera”—resonate differently for black and white communities; the sonic representation of blackness through language (dialect) and vocal style projects meaning through embodiment. While the work was created by a white and Jewish American compositional team, it was performed by black artists. Indeed, Porgy and Bess voices many experiences. After singing in the chorus of a recent production of this work, it is clear that it has withstood the test of time with such memorable tunes and lyricism, even while it is embedded in problematic stereotypes. In writing about, teaching, and singing Porgy and Bess, I find it an opera that is easy to love and so difficult to hate; yet the bigger story is more complicated.

Speaker Biography: Naomi André is Associate Professor in Women’s Studies, the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and the Associate Director for Faculty at the Residential College at the University of Michigan. She received her BA in music from Barnard College and MA and PhD in musicology from Harvard University. Her research focuses on opera and issues surrounding gender, voice, and race. Her publications include topics on Italian opera, Schoenberg, women composers, and teaching opera in prisons. Her books, Voicing Gender: Castrati, Travesti, and the Second Woman in Early Nineteenth-Century Italian Opera (2006) and Blackness in Opera (2012, edited collection) focus on opera from the nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries and explore constructions of gender, race and identity. Currently she is completing a monograph on staging race and history in opera today in the United States and South Africa. She has served on the Graduate Alumni Council for Harvard University’s Graduate School of Art and Sciences, the Executive Committee for the Criminal Justice Program at the American Friends Service Committee (Ann Arbor, MI), and has served as an evaluator for the Fulbright Senior Specialist Program.

Convenor: Jason Stanyek (Associate Professor; Fellow and Tutor, St. John’s College)

Free admission – Open to the public. A drinks reception will follow the talk.

Event hosted as part of the Seminar in Ethnomusicology and Sound Studies Series, based at St John’s College, University of Oxford.


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