Chicago ethnomusicologist Jackson takes a critical look at Gershwin’s Porgy and BessBy Stephanie White
Office of V.P. for Communications
The Lyric Opera of Chicago has turned to University ethnomusicologist Travis A. Jackson for some challenging commentary to accompany its widely acclaimed production of Porgy and Bess.
Jackson, Associate Professor in Music and the College, is best known for his work on rock, jazz and recording technology. But in a series of pre-concert lectures for Lyric fans, he will turn his attention to George Gershwin, Catfish Row and one of the icons of 20th-century American music.
“When the Lyric first approached me about doing lectures, I was a little concerned,” Jackson said, “since I am actually critical of the piece.”
Rather than a pure appreciation, Jackson said his lectures will question whether Porgy and Bess is truly an opera. He also will raise the question of how accurately the work depicts African American life in the South, and will discuss how conflicted some black operatic performers have been with the work.
“The world of concert music has always been a difficult space for African Americans to navigate,” he adds. “Porgy and Bess, however unflattering its depiction might be, gives many performers an otherwise elusive opportunity to get a hearing.”
Gershwin’s 1935 masterpiece is widely celebrated as one of the greatest American operas, and fully established itself in the international opera repertory as well the popular musical imagination.
With lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Dubose Heyward, the score is inspired by traditional black church music, chords from the brothers’ Jewish heritage, and a wealth of blues and jazz idioms into the classical art form of opera. Its tunes have become standards for jazz improvisation, and the lullaby “Summertime” has since achieved folk song status.
At the University, Jackson’s curriculum spans jazz, world music and spatial concepts, fused with urban geography, race and culture identity, and aesthetics.