Porgy and Bess is an opera, first performed in 1935, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. It was based on DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy and the play of the same name that he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy Heyward. All three works deal with African American life in the fictitious Catfish Row (based on the real-life Cabbage Row) in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s.
Originally conceived by Gershwin as an "American folk opera," Porgy and Bess premiered in New York in the fall of 1935 and featured an entire cast of classically trained African-American singers—a daring and visionary artistic choice at the time. Incorporating a wealth of blues and jazz idioms into the classical art form of opera, Gershwin considered it his finest work, but it was not widely accepted in the United States as a legitimate opera until 1976 when the Houston Grand Opera production of his complete score (followed nine years later by its Metropolitan Opera premiere) established it as an artistic triumph. The work is now considered part of the standard operatic repertoire and is regularly performed internationally. Despite this success, the opera has been controversial; some, from the outset, have considered it racist.
"Summertime" is by far the best-known piece from the work, and countless interpretations of this and other individual numbers have also been recorded and performed. The opera is admired for Gershwin's innovative synthesis of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music idioms. Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a crippled black man living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina, and his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her pimp, and Sportin' Life, the drug dealer.
The Porgy and Bess original cast recording was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress, National Recording Registry in 2003. The board selects songs on an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."
|Role||Voice type||Premiere cast|
30 September 1935
(Conductor: - Alexander Smallens)
|Porgy, a disabled beggar||bass-baritone||Todd Duncan|
|Bess, Crown's girl, who is also a prostitute||soprano||Anne Brown|
|Crown, a tough stevedore who is also Bess's pimp||baritone||Warren Coleman|
|Sportin' Life, a dope peddler||tenor||John W. Bubbles|
|Robbins, an inhabitant of Catfish Row||tenor||Henry Davis|
|Serena, Robbins' wife||soprano||Ruby Elzy|
|Jake, a fisherman||baritone||Edward Matthews|
|Clara, Jake's wife||soprano||Abbie Mitchell|
|Maria, keeper of the cook-shop||contralto||Georgette Harvey|
|Mingo||tenor||Ford L. Buck|
|Peter, the honeyman||tenor||Gus Simons|
|Lily, Peter's wife||soprano||Helen Dowdy|
|Frazier, a black 'lawyer'||baritone||J. Rosamond Johnson|
|Strawberry woman||mezzo-soprano||Helen Dowdy|
|Jim, a cotton picker||baritone||Jack Carr|
|Crab man||tenor||Ray Yeates|
|Scipio, a small boy||boy soprano|
|Mr. Archdale, a white lawyer||spoken||George Lessey|
|The Eva Jessye Choir, led by Eva Jessye|
The opera begins with a short introduction which segues into an evening in Catfish Row. Jasbo Brown entertains the community with his piano playing. Clara sings a lullaby to her baby ("Summertime") as the working men prepare for a game of craps. Clara's husband, Jake, tries his own lullaby ("A Woman is a Sometime Thing") with little effect. Porgy, a cripple and a beggar, enters on his goat cart to organize the game. Crown, a lowlife, and his woman Bess enter, and the game begins. Sportin' Life, the local supplier of "happy dust" (cocaine) and bootleg alcohol, also joins in. One by one, the players get crapped out, leaving only Robbins and Crown, who have become extremely drunk. When Robbins wins, Crown starts a fight, and eventually kills Robbins. Crown runs, telling Bess to fend for herself. The door is shut on her by most of the residents, except Porgy, who shelters her.
Scene 2: Serena's Room, the following night
The mourners sing a spiritual to Robbins ("Gone, Gone, Gone"). To raise money for his burial, a saucer is placed on his chest for the mourners' donations ("Overflow"). A white detective enters, in a speaking voice telling Serena (Robbins' wife) that she must bury her husband soon, or his body will be given to medical students. He arrests Peter (a bystander), whom he will force to testify against Crown. Serena laments her loss in "My Man's Gone Now." The undertaker enters, and agrees to bury Robbins as long as Serena promises to pay him back. Bess and the chorus finish the act with "Leavin' for the Promise' Lan'".
Jake and the other fishermen prepare for work ("It take a long pull to get there"). Clara asks Jake not to go, and to come to a picnic, but he tells her that they desperately need the money. This causes Porgy to sing from his window about his outlook on life ("I got plenty o' nuttin'"). Sportin' Life waltzes around, selling cocaine, but soon incurs the wrath of Maria ("I hates yo' struttin' style"). A fraudulent lawyer, Frazier, arrives and farcically divorces Bess from Crown. Archdale, a white lawman, enters and informs Porgy that Peter will soon be released. The bad omen of a buzzard flies over Catfish Row, causing Porgy to sing "Buzzard keep on flyin' over".
As the rest of Catfish Row prepares for the picnic, Sportin' Life asks Bess to start a new life with him in New York; she refuses. Bess and Porgy are now left alone, and express their love for each other ("Bess, you is my woman now"). The chorus re-enters in high spirits as they prepare to leave for the picnic ("Oh, I can't sit down"). Bess leaves Porgy behind as they go off to the picnic. Porgy reprises "I got plenty o' nuttin'" in high spirits.
Scene 2: Kittiwah Island, that evening
The chorus enjoys themselves at the picnic ("I ain't got no shame doin' what I like to do!"). Sportin' Life presents the chorus his cynical views on the Bible ("It ain't necessarily so"), causing Serena to chastise them ("Shame on all you sinners!"). Crown enters to talk to Bess, and he reminds her that Porgy is "temporary." Bess wants to leave Crown forever ("Oh, what you want wid Bess?") but Crown makes her follow him into hiding in the woods.
Scene 3: Catfish Row, a week later, just before dawn
Jake leaves to go fishing with his crew, and Peter returns from prison. Bess is lying in Porgy's room, delirious. Serena prays to remove Bess's affliction ("Oh, doctor Jesus"). The Strawberry Woman and the Crab Man sing their calls on the street, and Bess soon recovers from her fever. Bess talks with Porgy about her sins ("I wants to stay here") before exclaiming "I loves you, Porgy." Porgy promises to protect her from Crown. The scene ends with the hurricane bell signaling an approaching storm.
Scene 4: Serena's Room, dawn of the next day
The residents of Catfish Row drown out the sound of the storm with prayer. A knock is heard at the door, and the chorus believes it to be Death ("Oh there's somebody knocking at the door"). Crown enters dramatically, seeking Bess. The chorus tries praying to make Crown leave, causing him to goad them with the un-Christian "A red-headed woman make a choo-choo jump its track." Clara sees Jake's boat turn over in the river, and she runs out to try and save him. Crown says that Porgy is not a real man, as he cannot go out to rescue her from the storm. Crown goes himself, and the chorus finish their prayer. Clara dies in the storm, and Bess will now care for her baby.
The chorus mourns Clara and Jake ("Clara, Clara, don't you be downhearted"). Crown enters to claim Bess, and a fight ensues, which ends with Porgy killing Crown. Porgy exclaims to Bess, "You've got a man now. You've got Porgy!"
Scene 2: Catfish Row, the next afternoon
A detective enters and talks with Serena and Maria about the murders of Crown and Robbins. They deny knowledge of Crown's murder, causing the detective to question an apprehensive Porgy. He asks Porgy to come and identify Crown's body. Sportin' Life tells Porgy that corpses bleed in the presence of their murderers, and the detective will use this to hang Porgy. Porgy refuses to identify the body, and is arrested for contempt of court. Sportin' Life forces Bess to take cocaine, and then tells her that Porgy will be locked up for a long time. He tells her that she should start a new life with him in New York with the dazzling "There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York". She shuts the door on his face, but he knows that doubt at Porgy's return will make her follow him.
Scene 3 - Catfish Row, a week later
Porgy is released from jail and returns to Catfish Row richer, after playing craps with his cellmates with his "lucky bones", as he calls his dice. He gives gifts to the residents, and does not understand why they all seem so downhearted. He sees Clara's baby is now with Serena and madly asks where Bess is. Maria and Serena tell him that Bess has run off with Sportin' Life to New York. All three sing the trio "O Bess, oh where's my Bess" . Porgy calls for his goat cart, and leaves for New York to find Bess in the closing song "Oh Lawd, I'm on my way".
In 1926 George Gershwin read Porgy by DuBose Heyward, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, and immediately wrote to the author suggesting that they collaborate on a folk opera based on the novel. Heyward was enthusiastic, but it was 1934 before Gershwin's composing and performing schedules permitted him to begin actual work on the project. Meanwhile, Heyward and his wife Dorothy dramatized Porgy for a 1927 production which incorporated spirituals into the action. This Theater Guild presentation of Porgy ran for 367 performances and elicited interest from others, among them Al Jolson, in using it as a basis for some sort of musical production. However, nothing came of these ideas and in 1934, after years of correspondence, George and Ira Gershwin joined DuBose Heyward in Charleston to write the opera which had been germinating in George's imagination for several years.
Gershwin's first version of the opera, running four hours (counting the two intermissions), was performed privately in a concert version in Carnegie Hall, in the fall of 1935. The world premiere performance took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on September 30, 1935 - the try-out for a work intended initially for Broadway where the opening took place at the Alvin Theater in New York City on October 10, 1935. During rehearsals and in Boston, Gershwin made many cuts and refinements to shorten the running time and tighten the dramatic action. The run on Broadway lasted 124 performances. Rouben Mamoulian produced and directed and Alexander Smallens conducted.
After the Broadway run, a tour started on January 27, 1936 in Philadelphia and travelled to Pittsburgh and Chicago before ending in Washington, D.C. on March 21, 1936. During the Washington run, the cast—as led by Todd Duncan—protested segregation among the audience. Eventually management gave in to the demands, resulting in the first integrated performance of any show at National Theatre.
Around 1938, the original cast reunited for a West Coast revival; the exception being that Avon Long took on the role of Sportin' Life. Long continued to reprise his role in several of the following productions.
After trying out her concepts at a professional stock theater in Maplewood, New Jersey in September 1941, the show opened at the Majestic Theater on Broadway in January 1942. Duncan and Brown reprised their roles as the title characters, with Alexander Smallens again conducting. Etta Moten replaced Brown as Bess in June. This production was far more successful financially than the original.
Notable also was this production's original cast, with Leontyne Price as Bess, William Warfield as Porgy, and Cab Calloway as Sportin' Life, a role that was conceived with him in mind. The small role of Ruby was played by a young Maya Angelou. Price and Warfield met and wed while on the tour.
After a small tour of Europe financed by the United States Department of State, the production came to Broadway's Ziegfeld Theatre. It went on the road again in the fall of 1954 to Latin America, the Middle East and Europe, though Price and Warfield had since left the production. This tour saw Porgy and Bess premiere at La Scala in Milan, in February 1955. A historic yet tense premiere took place in Moscow in December 1955, the first time an American theater group had been to the Soviet capital since the Bolshevik Revolution. Author Truman Capote travelled with the cast and crew, writing an account of this event in his book The Muses Are Heard: An Account.
The Houston Grand Opera production which opened on September 25, 1976 helped to turn the tide. For the first time, an American opera company had tackled the opera, not a Broadway production company. This production was based on Gershwin's original full score and did not incorporate the cuts and other changes that Gershwin himself had made before the New York premiere, but it allowed the public to take in the operatic whole as first envisioned by the composer. In this light, it became clear that Porgy and Bess was indeed an opera, not a serious piece of musical theatre. Donnie Ray Albert, Clamma Dale and Larry Marshall starred, respectively as Porgy, Bess and Sportin' Life. This production won the Houston Grand Opera a Tony Award—the only opera ever to receive one—and a Grammy Award.
Another Broadway production was staged in 1983. After toying with the idea of staging the opera since the 1930s, the Metropolitan Opera finally did so for the first time in 1985, opening on February 6, with a starry cast including Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry, Bruce Hubbard, Gregg Baker and Florence Quivar. England's Glyndebourne Festival tackled the work in an acclaimed 1986 production directed by Trevor Nunn, which was scenically expanded and videotaped for television in 1993 (see below in "Film and television"). These productions were also based on the "complete score," without incorporating Gershwin's revisions. A semi-staged version of this production was performed at the Proms in 1998. The centennial celebration of the Gershwin brothers from 1996–1998 included a new production as well. On February 24–25, 2006, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of John Mauceri, gave a concert performance at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center that incorporated the cuts made by Gershwin himself for the New York premiere, thus giving the audience an idea of what the opera sounded like on its Broadway opening. In 2000 and 2002 there was a revival directed by Tazewell Thompson at New York City Opera. In 2007, Los Angeles Opera staged a revival directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by John DeMain, who led the history-making Houston Opera revival of Porgy and Bess in 1976.
This original cast of this version included:
A planned production by the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle in the late 1930s, part of the Federal Theater Project, had been cancelled because actors were displeased with what they viewed as a racist portrayal of aspects of African American life. The initial plan was that they would perform the play in a "Negro dialect", which these Pacific Northwest African American actors did not speak, and were supposed to learn from a dialect coach. Florence James attempted a compromise of dropping the use of dialect pronunciations, but ultimately the production was canceled outright.
Another production of Porgy and Bess, this time at the University of Minnesota in 1939, ran into similar troubles. According to Barbara Cyrus, one of the few black students at the university at the time, members of the local African American community saw the play as "detrimental to the race" and as a vehicle that promoted racist stereotypes. The play was eventually cancelled due to pressure from the African American community, which saw their success as proof of the increasing political power of blacks in the Twin Cities.
This belief that Porgy and Bess was racist gained strength with the American Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. In fact, as these movements advanced, Porgy and Bess was seen as more and more out of place. When the play was revived in the 1960s, social critic and African American educator Harold Cruse called it, "The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World." African-American Author John Hope Franklin did not totally agree with this view, stating in his introduction to Three Negro Classics "Sportin' Life clowns but not for white audiences. Porgy's clowning is a deliberate frustration of white power. Porgy also plays Uncle Tom, but he is never servile and lives for no white master."
Gershwin’s all-black opera was also unpopular with some celebrated black artists. Harry Belafonte declined to play Porgy in the late 1950s film version, so it was offered to Sidney Poitier who regretted his choice ever after. Betty Allen, president of the Harlem School of the Arts, admittedly loathed the piece and Grace Bumbry, who excelled in the 1985 Metropolitan Opera production as Bess, made the often cited statement: "I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there.
Over time, however, the opera gained acceptance from the opera community and some (though not all) in the African American community. Maurice Press stated in 2004 that "Porgy and Bess belongs as much to the black singer-actors who bring it to life as it does to the Heywards and the Gershwins. Indeed, Ira Gershwin stipulated that only blacks be allowed to play the lead roles when the opera was performed in the United States, launching the careers of several prominent opera singers.
During the era of apartheid in South Africa, several South African theatre companies planned to put on all-white productions of Porgy and Bess. Ira Gershwin, as heir to his brother, consistently refused to permit these productions to be staged.
The music itself reflects his New York jazz roots, but also draws on southern black traditions. Gershwin modeled the pieces after each type of folk song that the composer knew about; jubilees, blues, praying songs, street cries, work songs, and spirituals are blended with traditional arias and recitatives.
In addition to being influenced by New York jazz and southern black music, many biographers and contemporaries have noted that for many numbers Gershwin borrowed melodies from Jewish liturgical music. Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski has claimed that the melody to "It Ain't Necessarily So" was taken from the Haftarah blessing, and others have attributed it to the Torah blessing. Allusions to Jewish music have been detected by other observers as well. One musicologist detected 'an uncanny resemblance' between the folk tune Havenu Shalom Aleichem and the spiritual It Take a Long Pull to Get There.
Bess' idea of Porgy is expressed by snippets their duet "Bess, you is my woman now," in which they pledge their fidelity to one another:
Her idea of Sportin' Life is shown through snippets of his aria "There's a boat that's leavin' soon for New York" in which the drug peddler tries to persuade Bess to leave Catfish Row with him:
Bess's difficult decision to follow him is represented by a conflict of these two melodies. The first is heard in a sparse and distant orchestration:
Sportin' Life is sure that Bess will follow him, and the quiet cocaine motif is heard. Then his own song is heard in a dazzling, overblown orchestration, complete with swaggering rhythms:
This contrast represents Sportin' Life's successful corruption of Bess's love for Porgy.
For years, the two albums mentioned above were the only ones available of music from Porgy and Bess.
Although there was an initial feeling by members of the jazz community that a Jewish piano player and a white novelist could not adequately convey the plight of blacks in a 1930s Charleston ghetto, jazz musicians warmed up to the opera after twenty years. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald recorded an album in 1957 in which they sang and scatted Gershwin's tunes. The next year, Miles Davis recorded what some consider a a seminal interpretation of the opera arranged for big band.
In 1959, Columbia Masterworks Records released a soundtrack album of Samuel Goldwyn's film version of Porgy and Bess, which had been made that year. It was not a complete version of the opera, nor was it even a complete version of the film soundtrack, which featured more music than could be contained on a single LP. The album remained in print until the early 1970s, when it was withdrawn from stores at the request of the Gershwin estate. It is the first stereo album of music from Porgy and Bess with an all-black cast. However, according to the album liner notes, Sammy Davis, Jr. was under contract to another recording company, and his vocal tracks for the film could not be used on the album, so Cab Calloway substituted his own vocals of Sportin' Life's songs. Robert McFerrin was the singing voice of Porgy, and Adele Addison the singing voice of Bess. The white singer Loulie Jean Norman was the singing voice of Clara (portrayed onscreen by Diahann Carroll), and Inez Matthews the singing voice of Serena (portrayed onscreen by Ruth Attaway).
In 1963, Leontyne Price and William Warfield, who had starred in the 1952 world tour of Porgy and Bess, recorded their own album of excerpts from the opera for RCA Victor. None of the other singers from that production appeared on that album, but John W. Bubbles, the original Sportin' Life, substituted for Cab Calloway (who had played Sportin' Life onstage in the 1952 production). The 1963 recording of Porgy and Bess excerpts remains the only official recording of the score on which Bubbles sings Sportin' Life's two big numbers.
Porgy and Bess was proclaimed the official opera of the State of South Carolina in 2001.
A 1959 film version was produced in 70 mm Todd-AO by Samuel Goldwyn, but plagued with problems. Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the 1935 Broadway premiere, was hired to direct the film, but was subsequently fired in favor of director Otto Preminger for daring to suggest that the film be made on location in South Carolina after a fire on the sound stage destroyed the film's sets. Goldwyn, who never liked making films on location, considered Mamoulian's request a sign of disloyalty.Robert McFerrin dubbed the songs for Sidney Poitier's Porgy and Adele Addison for Dorothy Dandridge's Bess. Ruth Attaway's Serena and Diahann Carroll's Clara were also overdubbed. Although Dandridge, Davis and Carroll were all singers, the women's voices were not considered operatic enough. Davis and Pearl Bailey (who played Maria in the movie) were the only principals who sang their own songs. Andre Previn's adaptation of the score won him an Academy Award, the film's only Oscar.
The Gershwin estate was disappointed with the film, as the score was edited to make it more like a musical. Much of the music was omitted from the film, and many of Gershwin's orchestrations were either changed or completely scrapped. It was shown on network television in the U.S. only once, in 1967. It was pulled from release in 1974, and prints can now only be seen in film archives or on bootleg videos.
In 1993, the Glyndebourne Festival stage production of "Porgy and Bess" was greatly expanded scenically and videotaped in a television studio. It was telecast by the BBC in England and by PBS in the United States. It was directed by Trevor Nunn and featured a cast of American singers, with the exception of Willard White, who is Jamaican but sounded American, as Porgy. Cynthia Haymon sang the role of Bess. Nunn's "opening up" of the stage production was considered highly imaginative, his cast received much critical praise, and the three hour production retained nearly all of Gershwin's music, heard in the original 1935 orchestrations - including the opera's sung recitatives, which had occasionally been turned into spoken dialogue in earlier productions. No new dialogue was written for this production, as had been done in the 1959 film; every word in this 1993 staging came from the original opera libretto. This "Porgy and Bess" was subsequently released on VHS and DVD, and is, so far, the only version of the opera to appear in those formats. It has won far greater acclaim than the 1959 film, which was widely panned by most critics for allegedly not being entirely faithful to Gershwin's opera, for refining the language grammatically, and for being staged in what they called an "overblown" manner.
In 2002, the New York City Opera telecast its new version of the Houston Opera production, from the stage of Lincoln Center. This version featured far more cuts than the previous telecast, but, like all stage versions produced since 1976, used the sung recitatives and Gershwin's orchestrations. The telecast also included interviews with director Tazewell Thompson and was hosted by Beverly Sills.
In 2006 the opera was presented as a musical in an adaptation by Trevor Nunn, who also directed. Gareth Valentine was musical supervisor. Like the 1993 production, this version was publicized as "The Gershwins' 'Porgy And Bess' ". It was staged at the Savoy Theatre, London to critical acclaim, but disappointing box office.
The 1985 movie White Nights featured a scene in which Gregory Hines performed There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York as Sportin' Life. Hines' rendition, before a Siberian audience, included a tap dancing sequence. Director Taylor Hackford pointed out in a special edition DVD release of the film that it was necessary to locate a Russian "woman of color" (Helene Denbey) to portray Bess, as per Gershwin's stipulations.
In 1942 Robert Russell Bennett arranged a medley (rather than a suite) for orchestra which has often been heard in the concert hall, known as Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. It is based on Gershwin's original scoring, though for a slightly different instrumentation (the piano was removed from the orchestral texture at the request of the conductor Fritz Reiner, for whom the arrangement was made). Morton Gould also arranged an orchestral suite in the 1950s.
Some of the more popular songs include:
Some of the more celebrated renditions of these songs include Sarah Vaughan's "It Ain't Necessarily So" and the versions of "Summertime" recorded by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Numerous other musicians have recorded "Summertime" in varying styles, including both instrumental and vocal recordings. Janis Joplin recorded a Blues rock version of "Summertime" with Big Brother & The Holding Company. Sublime recorded a (radically reworked) version, as well. Billy Stewart's version became a Top 10 Pop and R&B hit in 1966 for Chess Records.
Nina Simone recorded several Porgy & Bess songs. She made her debut in 1959 with a version of "I Loves You, Porgy", which became a Billboard top 20 hit. Other songs she recorded included "Porgy, I's Your Woman Now" [i.e. "Bess, You Is My Woman Now"], "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now".
"Summertime" is the most popular cover song in popular music, with more than 17,500 different versions recorded. Even seemingly unlikely performers such as the Zombies have made recordings of it. An international group of collectors of recordings of Summertime by the name The Summertime Connection has more than 11,900 different recordings in their collection.