Justin Lee Miller: Architecture and the operatic angst

A scene from the original 1935 Broadway production of "Porgy and Bess," directed by Rouben Mamoulian and designed by Sergei Soudeikine. (©Photofest 2012)

A scene from the original 1935 Broadway production of “Porgy and Bess,” directed by Rouben Mamoulian and designed by Sergei Soudeikine. (©Photofest 2012)

Justin Lee Miller, the opera singer, actor and playwright, has sent me a fascinating essay that elucidates the parallels between opera and architecture, especially in regard to the handling of traditional works by their modernist interpreters. Here is the passage that sums up Miller’s thinking: “The argument being made by traditionalists in both the opera world and the architecture world is the same.  Return to craft.  Return to coherence.  And for God’s sake, don’t needlessly alienate the public just to please a handful of academics and critics.”

Miller’s essay coincidentally showed up (at my invitation) in my inbox the day before Martin Luther King Day, and I am happy to publish it on the holiday itself:

Architecture and the operatic angst

By Justin Lee Miller

As George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess turns 80 this year, I’d like to take some space here to reflect on it, and to draw a few comparisons between the worlds of opera and architecture.

Justin Lee Miller

Justin Lee Miller

In 1927, George Gershwin attended a performance of the stage adaptation of Dubose Heyward’s novel Porgy.  If you’ve never come across this hidden gem of American literature, go out and see if you can find it.  It’s a brisk and fascinating read.  The play was a huge success and Gershwin, like many others, was eager to adapt it.  The others wanted to turn the piece into a musical.  In the 1920s and 30s black musicals were extremely popular – and profitable – on Broadway.  Gershwin had something thing else in mind, though. He envisioned a grand American opera.

Gershwin meticulously studied African-American culture.  He knew the jazz scene in New York City, of course, but he wanted to understand the world of Heyward’s novel.  That meant traveling south to the coastal Carolinas, studying the Gullah dialect, visiting Charleston, and exploring other African-American musical traditions like work songs, spirituals and folk songs.

He wanted to create a vernacular American opera, something authentic, something apart from the Al Jolsen-style representations of Southern blacks that were popular at the time.  What Gershwin was after was realism, and the work that he created really belongs alongside such other 1930s examples of American realism as Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) and John Steinbeck’s novels Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939).

At this point, I’m sure you’re wondering what any of this has to do with architecture.  Porgy and Bess is popular with European opera-goers.  It is a perennial favorite at many of Europe’s state-funded opera houses. In fact, the average middle to upper-middle class opera-goer in Europe has probably seen Porgy and Bess more often than her American counterpart. I would attribute its popularity to the genius of Gershwin’s score, to the beauty and complexity of African-American musical forms, and to the fact that most directors simply leave it alone.  The work is presented as American realism and the piece speaks for itself.

So as the European masterpieces have been deconstructed in a myriad of outlandish productions in the post-war era, Porgy and Bess has more or less stayed the same.

Lately, this has begun to change.  Postmodernism and Deconstructivism have finally come to Porgy and Bess.  The first radical departure was Götz Friedrich’s production at the Bregenz Festival in Austria in 1997.  He set the opera in contemporary Los Angeles during the race riots following the verdict in the Rodney King police brutality case.  Suddenly, the piece became more about current events and the personal expressions of the genius-director than about the piece itself.  Did it matter that the African-Americans portrayed on stage were dressed to sing contemporary gospel but instead sang traditional spirituals?  Did it matter that zoot suits were replaced by modern hip-hop clothes, even though the jazz in Gershwin’s score remained?  And did this mash-up of modern Los Angeles and 1920s Charleston help the Austrian audience understand the history, culture, and humanity of African-Americans?

In 2008, not one, but two postmodern productions of Porgy and Bess premiered in France.  The Opera de Lyon production included video art, breakdancing, and clown make-up.  While the production at the Opera Comique in Paris was set in an all-white cube set inside a Johannesburg slum, the original is set in “Catfish Row” a fictionalized version of “Cabbage Row,” which still exists in Charleston today. Why the change?  Because the director Robyn Orlin is South African.  Much as in the world of starchitects, in the world of contemporary European stage directors the personal expression of the director is paramount, everything else is secondary.  

In Orlin’s production, the character Clara, who sings the haunting lullaby “Summertime,” didn’t sing to her baby per se, but sang while holding a white sheet onto which a video of a baby was projected. “Summertime” is probably the most popular song in the score. I’m sure you’re singing it in your head at this moment.  Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. Fish are jumpin’ and the cotton is high! The Parisian audience might have found the digital baby on a white sheet clever and amusing, but in the end, it was merely a gimmick that made the audience step out of the story and giggle.

The argument being made by traditionalists in both the opera world and the architecture world is the same.  Return to craft. Return to coherence.  And for God’s sake, don’t needlessly alienate the public just to please a handful of academics and critics.

Of course, an opera house is not a museum, nor can a city be a museum.  No one wants to go back to the stage lighting of Mozart’s day, when the basic goal was to make the singers visible without burning the place to the ground.  Similarly, no traditional architect working today is advocates the elimination of indoor plumbing, electricity, and the big-screen TV.  What they call for is legibility.  The terms “courtyard” and “square” are legible.  “Open space” is not.  A window and a wall are not interchangeable, and for good reason!  Legibility serves a practical purpose.

Architects can use their positions in academia and the bureaucracy to impose bad buildings and bad urbanism on the public. But when the classical music world produces bad work, the audiences simply shrink and disappear.  Or in the case of state-funded European opera houses, they make themselves highly vulnerable to budget cuts when austerity measures are called for.

I would argue that architects should also be wary of becoming culturally irrelevant with the public. Whether it’s a museum project that looks like a space ship or a new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin set on a space ship, obscurantism has a big price tag.


“video art, breakdancing, and clown make-up”:


“video baby on screen”:


Here is his blog that, where you can hear him sing “I’ve Got Plenty of Nothing” from Porgy and Bess, an aria from a Mozart opera, other songs, and elsewhere on the blog other items.

About the author:  Justin Lee Miller is an actor, singer, and playwright based in Brooklyn. He can be heard on the 2006 Decca recording of Porgy and Bess with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Justin has appeared with opera companies across the country and in Europe. In 2014, he made his Broadway debut in The Phantom of the Opera, by Andrew Lloyd Webber, and his New York Philharmonic debut in Sweeney Todd, by Stephen Sondheim.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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