Busy Telling Stories

Hope and Lies and the Power of Song

So.  There's a song I'll never hear in the same way again.

Summertime.  Wikipedia claims that it's "the most popular cover song in popular music," although the sourcing is a little suspect.  No matter.  It's certainly ubiquitous.  But I never realized how dark and bitter it really is.  When I saw it in context the other night, in the Washington National Opera's fabulous production at the Kennedy Center, it was transformed.

When Clara first sings it, near the beginning, it sounds like the lullaby that I've always thought it to be.  Of course it's not true.  Jake is certainly not rich and the living is far from easy.  But Clara herself may be pretty and it's a sweet thing to pretend for your child that life is more beautiful than you know it to be.

It's different when Clara sings it the second time.   Now she's desperate.  The hurricane is howling and Death seems to be knocking at the door.   This is no gentle lullaby now, it's an incantation.  If Clara can sing it strong enough, maybe she can keep Jake alive and protect her baby from the inevitable dark future.

It's no use.  And when Bess sings it to the baby in Act 3, the song is a deep and bitter lie.  The truth is that your daddy and momma are dead and the chances that you have for anything like an easy life are less than zero.  Bess knows what's in store for her own self.   Porgy's dedication won't be enough to save her.   She no longer believes that she'll be able to escape her own doom, even though she fights it for awhile longer.

And yet she sings the lies to the baby with a fierceness that brings me to tears.  Every word of the song is a lie and Bess knows it and yet she sings it as if she believes it entire.  She has nothing to offer, nothing to give, except this song, and she sings it as if it might somehow protect the baby from ending up in the life like hers.  It's one of the most wrenching things I've ever seen.

At the very end of the opera, Porgy heads to Chicago, determined to save Bess again.  One shudders to think of what awaits him there.  He doesn't stand a chance.  But he believes.


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