“Porgy and Bess” is an opera crafted by George Gershwin, an American composer. Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward collaborated to craft the lyrics and the libretto, respectively. The opera is adapted from the play titled “Porgy,” crafted by DuBose Heyward and Dorothy Heyward. The play had been an adaptation of DuBose’s novel, also titled “Porgy.”
“Porgy and Bess” premiered in Boston in 1935, before moving to New York City and joining Broadway. The cast was unique, featuring a host of classical African-American performers - a choice was fearless and attracted much controversy. The initial public reaction was adverse, which was later turned around. After the creators passed away, the opera was generally adopted on a smaller scale. It remains one of the most frequently performed operas of all time.
History & Performances
Gershwin's original version had a runtime of 4 hours, including 2 intermissions. In 1935, it was first performed privately at the “Carnegie Hall” in New York City. The premiere was hosted in Boston on the 30th of September. It was a try-out for the Broadway debut, which finally took place on the 10th of October at New York’s “Alvin Theatre.” Gershwin made several refinements and adjustments to shorten the runtime, and also to incorporate greater dramatic essence. The Broadway performance lasted 124 stagings. A short tour followed, covering Chicago, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia - culminating in Washington in March 1936. In January 1942, it returned to Broadway through the hands of Cheryl Crawford, who produced a performance at the “Majestic Theatre” in New York City. In May 1942, a live 1-hour version was broadcasted by the Radio station “WOR.”
“Porgy and Bess” crossed the Atlantic in March 1943, premiering at Copenhagen’s “Royal Danish Theatre.” This performance was marked for utilizing an “all-white” cast, albeit through the usage of “blackface” - a result of the Nazi occupation of Denmark. The show went sold out for 22 performances until the Nazis forcefully closed down the production. Other European productions included performances in Stockholm, Gothenburg, and Zürich between 1945-1950. From 1960 to the early 1970s, “Porgy and Bess” was mostly boycotted due to the perceived accusation of racism. New productions did take place, but they were scarce and didn’t do enough to convince the African American population. Critics refused to label it as a “true opera.”
In 1976, Jack O'Brien came out with a new production in collaboration with the “Houston Grand Opera.” It staged the complete restoration of the original musical score. This followed a return to Broadway in 1976, with RCA Records recording the performance. This instigated the revival of the opera, with subsequent productions held at the “Radio City Music Hall” in 1983. In February 1985, the doors of The Metropolitan Opera were finally opened for “Porgy and Bess.” The production continued for 16 performances and was again revived later for a total count of 54.
The first scene depicts a summer evening at Catfish Row. Jasbo Brown is playing his piano for the community, while a young mother named Clara sings the lullaby “Summertime” to her baby. The workers are getting ready for a game of craps. Jake, a fisherman and Clara's husband, tries another lullaby titled “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing,” but in vain. Robbins, who is intent on playing, rebukes his wife Serena for stating otherwise.
Mingo, another fisherman, and Jim, a cotton-hauling dock worker, also joins Jake. Porgy, a handicapped beggar, also arrives at Catfish Row with his goat cart. Peter, an aged honey vendor, also enters while belting his “vendor's call.” Crown, another dockworker, enters hurriedly with his counterpart Bess and purchases some whiskey from “Sportin' Life,” a dope peddler.
The local community of women has shunted Bess to the periphery, and only Porgy stands up for her from time to time. As the game commences, the players are subsequently crapped out, with only Crown and Robbins remaining. Robbins eventually wins the game, after which a drunk Crown stabs him to death and runs away, leaving Bess to fend for herself. As Bess starts going door to door for help, only Porgy responds, letting her in.
The following evening, an Aria titled “Gone, Gone, Gone” is sung in memory of Robbins. A saucer is also placed on his chest to raise donations for his burials as the song “Overflow” is performed in the background. Bess also arrives to donate, but Serena rejects her until she explains that she is living with Porgy. Next, a detective enters the scene, informing Serena that if her husband is not buried within a day, his body will be confiscated and transferred to medical students for dissection. He also abruptly accuses Peter of the murder and orders his arrest. Peter refuses but is taken into custody as a witness for testifying against Crown, the actual murderer.
Serena sings “My Man's Gone Now,” lamenting the loss of her partner. Soon, the “undertaker” arrives. Although the money raised is short by 10 dollars, he agrees to perform the burial, albeit only if Serena promises to pay the dues. Bess, who was silent for a while, suddenly starts singing, “Oh, the Train is at the Station” as the others joyfully join her, finally accepting her as a part of the community.
A month has passed. Jake is preparing for work with his fellow fishermen as the chorus, “It takes a long pull to get there.” Clara implores Jake to stay, as it is the time when the annual storms occur. Jake, who is desperate for money, refuses. Porgy, who witnesses the event from his window, sings the Aria, “I got plenty of nothing.” Sportin' Life is seen selling the drug “happy dust” and waltzing around. He is soon confronted by Maria, who threatens him through the Aria, “I hate your strutting style.”
Frazier, a fraudulent lawyer, arrives at the scene to forcefully divorces Crown and Bess. He further increases his fee upon discovering the couple was never actually married. Archdale, another white lawyer, arrives to inform Porgy that the police will soon release Peter. Porgy is overjoyed, but soon discovers a buzzard flying over Catfish Row, which is a bad omen. He sings an Aria, “Buzzard keep on flying over” trying to scare it away.
Meanwhile, Sportin' Life tries to give some “happy dust” to Bess and lure her to accompany him to New York, but Porgy scares him away. The drug peddler leaves while reminding Bess that he will be always there for her. As Porgy and Bess are left alone, they express their feelings for each other through the song, “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” It is soon followed by a chorus titled, “Oh, I can't sit down.” Maria invites Bess to the picnic, but she rejects the offer as Porgy cannot attend due to his disability. But when Maria insists, she leaves for the Picnic. Porgy watches them leave on a boat as the reprise version of “I got plenty of nothing” is performed.
The picnic is in full force at the Kittiwah Island as the attendees sing the chorus, “I ain't got no shame.” Sportin' Life sings his own rendition of the Bible titled, “It Ain't Necessarily So.” Serena chastises them through the Aria, “Shame on all you sinners!” After the party, as everyone prepares to leave, Bess is left a little behind. Suddenly, Crown emerges from the shrubs. He laughs at her and reminds her that her fling with Porgy is just “temporary.” Bess, however, wants to cut off her ties forever and tries to cajole him through the Aria, “Oh, what you want with Bess?” Crown refuses and forcefully grabs and kisses her, commanding her to accompany him to the woods with a wicked smile.
A week has passed since the picnic. Peter has been released from prison. Bess is lying ill in Porgy’s room. She has been hysterical since returning from the picnic. Serena prays for her as the Aria, “Oh, Doctor Jesus” is performed. Outside, the Honey Man, the Strawberry Woman, and the Crab Man pass and wave at each other, as the “Vendors' Trio” plays in the background. Soon, Bess recovers. She admits to Porgy that she has been with Crown. She also acknowledges that she wants to stay with Porgy and pleads him to protect her. Porgy promises to take care of her as the Aria titled, “I Loves You, Porgy” is sung. Meanwhile, Clara is seen thinking about Jake as the hurricane bells start ringing.
The residents are seen gathered inside Serena's room to take shelter from the storm. The hymn, “Oh, Doctor Jesus” is being frequently sung, albeit accompanied by Sportin' Life’s mocking jibes. Clara is seen desperately singing a reprises version of the lullaby titled “Summertime.” Suddenly, someone is heard knocking at the door. The crowd believes it to be death, as the chorus “Oh there's somebody knocking at the door” is performed. However, it turns out to be Crown, who has swum all the way back from Kittiwah Island for Bess. He tries to taunt everyone with a vulgar Aira titled, “A red-headed woman.” Suddenly, Jake’s boat is seen through the window, upside down, floating across. Bess heads out to save him. Crown joins him after mocking Porgy, who is unable to help. The crowd continues singing the chorus.
A day has passed, as a group of women are seen mourning the dead, as the chorus titled, “Clara, Clara, don't you be downhearted” is heard. They also mourn from Crown, which is sarcastically jeered by Sportin' Life. Bess is heard yearning out the reprises version of the lullaby titled “Summertime” to Clara's baby. As darkness embarks, Crown stealthily enters the area and is subsequently confronted by Porgy. After a brief fight, Porgy successfully dispatches Crown off. He joyfully exclaims, “You've got Porgy!” to Bess.
The next day, the detective arrives again to investigate the twin murders. Susan and the rest deny any sort of knowledge. The detective, frustrated, targets Porgy, who has admitted to knowing Crown. He is dragged off after refusing to identify the corpse. The cunning Sportin' Life tells a distraught Bess that Porgy will be imprisoned for a long time, so she only has him standing beside her. He offers her the “happy dust,” and subsequently forces her to take a whiff. He further paints an alluring picture of life in New York, as the Aria “There's a boat that’s leaving soon for New York” is performed. However, she soon regains her strength and runs away. Sportin' Life leaves another packet of the drug at her doorstep and waits patiently.
After a week, Porgy is released from prison. He has returned a rich man, after winning a lot of wealth by playing craps in the cell. He offers everyone gifts and also shows off a beautiful dress for Bess. However, Serena and Maria inform him that Bess has gone away to New York with Sportin' Life. The Aria, “Oh Bess, Oh, Where's My Bess?” accompanies the scene. Soon, he brings his goat cart and becomes resolved to go after Bess to save her. He starts singing the Aria, “Oh, Lord, I'm on my way,” as he embarks on the journey, praying for strength.
The instrumentation of “Porgy and Bess” utilized close to 30 different instruments. The percussion section included strings, piano, train whistle, sandpaper, cowbells, African drums, bass drum, glockenspiel, xylophone, timpani, etc. The other instruments included one each of tuba, bass trombone, trombone, bassoon, and bass clarinet. It also used three each of trumpets, French horns, clarinets, and two each of oboes and flutes.
In 1933, Heyward and Gershwin had collaborated with Theatre Guild to craft the opera. In 1934, Gershwin was further inspired by a small vacation to Folly Beach to work on the music. He crafted the libretto and a major portion of the lyrics, including the popular number “Summertime,” while Ira Gershwin contributed with some classic numbers. Gershwin was further inspired by the musical traditions of the Gullah community. His music in the opera does reflect his jazz roots, but also utilizes southern African American traditions. The numbers were structured on a vast array of music - traditional recitatives and arias, spirituals, street cries, prayers, jubilees, and other folk songs. There remains a substantial influence of eminent European musicians like Henry Cowell, Charles Hambitzer, and Edward Kilenyi - all of whom Gershwin had worked with. There are also perceived links with Jewish ceremonial music.
His score in “Porgy and Bess” utilizes multiple leitmotifs, the majority of which represented individual ‘characters.’ The remaining motifs are used to depict places and objects. The score gradually develops these leitmotifs using sophisticated techniques, most visible in the Arias. There is also a frequent usage of “reprise versions” of the numbers, with “Summertime” alone offering 4 different versions.
Usage In Popular Culture
- Robert Russell Bennett arranged “Porgy and Bess - A Symphonic Picture,” in 1945 - a medley for orchestra.
- In 1950, Morton Gould also arranged his own rendition of an orchestral suite.
- In 1951, Percy Grainger, an Australian composer, crafted a 20-minute piece for two pianos. It was titled “Fantasy on Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.”
- In 1959, a movie of the same title was directed by Rouben Mamoulian. André Previn won an Academy Award for his adaptation of the original score.
- In 1945, Warner Bros incorporated an extended musical sequence in the “film biography” section of Gershwin. It was titled “Rhapsody in Blue,” and featured a recreation of the opening sequence of the original Broadway performance.
- In 1985. the movie “White Nights” featured the song “There's a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York.”
- In 1987, Luther Henderson created his own rendition of the opera’s music. It was produced by the “Canadian Brass,” while a recording was subsequently released by “RCA Red Seal.”
- In 1993, Trevor Nunn stage produced his own version of the opera, which was also videotaped in a TV studio. It was later released on DVD and VHS.
- In 2002, a liver performance of “Porgy and Bess” was held at the Lincoln Center by the New York City Opera.
- In 2009, another production was staged by the San Francisco Opera to stupendous critical acclaim. It was subsequently aired in 2014 and released on Blu-ray and DVD.
- The Metropolitan Opera has broadcasted the complete version of “Porgy and Bess” thrice as a part of its live radio series.
- In 2019, it was announced that Bobby Geisler and Mike Medavoy are developing an updated movie version of the opera, with due approval from the Gershwin estate.
“Porgy and Bess” is perhaps the best work by one of America’s greatest songwriters, and it definitely features some of his best romantic compositions. However, the bold orchestrations and the mighty choruses do reinvigorate the burning question - is it a musical or an opera? Since it came back to prominence (read 1976), it has been always cited as the Grand American Opera, but to date, it continues to divide opinions. Does it really perpetuate the demeaning stereotypes surrounding the black people, or to quote its critics - usage of “cringe” dialect? Or is it a sensitive representation of the African-American community like it is portrayed? The fact that it holds the crown of being the most-performed opera depicting the African-American community, but is the work of an all-white cast, is not lost.
The Gershwins’ were aware of this, which led to their insistence that the opera should strictly be performed by black artists. “Porgy and Bess” has definitely helped generations of classical African-American singers to portray their talent at the World stage. Most importantly, at a time when discrimination was prevalent. The historic segregation of the National Theater in Washington - a result of African-American artists taking a stand against “blackface” has become an important symbol of the diverse American culture.
The rule to cast “black performers” remains active, and so does the musical essence. It might be considered discomfiting and even occasionally contradictory, but Gershwin’s music has time and again demonstrated its own power and relevance. His operatic canon also displays something extraordinary - a taste of intent. A hint of powerful defiance, like in the story, Gershwin’s Porgy remains a tiny David against the Goliaths of this world.