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The cast of Porgy and Bess during the Boston try-out prior to the Broadway opening.

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 which 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. Gershwin chose African American Eva Jessye as the choral director for the opera. Incorporating a wealth of blues and jazz idioms into the classical art form of opera, Gershwin considered it his finest work.

The work was not widely accepted in the United States as a legitimate opera until 1976, when the Houston Grand Opera production of Gershwin's complete score established it as an artistic triumph. Nine years later the Metropolitan Opera gave their first performance of the work. This production was also broadcast as part of the ongoing Saturday afternoon live Metropolitan Opera radio broadcasts. 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 critics from the outset have considered it a racist portrayal of African Americans.

"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 second best-known number is "It Ain't Necessarily So". 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. It deals with his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her violent and possessive lover, and Sportin' Life, the drug dealer. Where the earlier novel and stage-play differ, the opera generally follows the stage-play.

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.[1] The board selects songs on an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

On July 14, 1993, the United States Postal Service recognized the opera's cultural significance by issuing a commemorative 29-cent postage stamp, and in 2001 Porgy and Bess was proclaimed the official opera of the State of South Carolina.[2]


Compositional history

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 Theatre 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.

In the fall of 1933 Gershwin and Heyward signed a contract with the Theatre Guild to write the opera. In the summer of 1934 Gershwin and Heyward went to Folly Beach, South Carolina (a small island near Charleston) where Gershwin got a feel for the locale and its music. He worked on the opera there and in New York. Ira Gershwin, in New York, wrote lyrics to some of the opera's classic songs, most notably "It Ain't Necessarily So". Most of the lyrics, including "Summertime", were written by Heyward, who also wrote the libretto.[3]

Original Broadway cast

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. He chose as his choral director Eva Jessye, who also directed her own renowned choir. 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.[4] 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. The production and direction were entrusted to Rouben Mamoulian, who had previously directed the Broadway productions of Heyward's play Porgy. The music director was Alexander Smallens.

After the Broadway run, a tour started on January 27, 1936 in Philadelphia and traveled 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 at the theater. Eventually management gave in to the demands, resulting in the first integrated audience for a performance of any show at the National Theatre.[5]

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.

Crawford's Broadway revival

The noted director and producer Cheryl Crawford produced professional stock theater in Maplewood, New Jersey for three enormously successful seasons, the last of which was meant to close with Porgy and Bess. In re-fashioning it in the style of musical theater which Americans were used to hearing from Gershwin, Crawford produced a drastically cut version of the opera compared with the first Broadway staging. The orchestra was reduced, the cast was halved, and many recitatives were reduced to spoken dialog.[6]

Having seen the performance, theater owner Lee Shubert arranged for Crawford to bring Porgy and Bess back to Broadway. The show opened at the Majestic Theater in January 1942.[7] Duncan and Brown reprised their roles as the title characters, with Alexander Smallens again conducting. In June the brilliant contralto Etta Moten, whom Gershwin had first envisioned as Bess, replaced Brown as Bess. She was such a success that this became her signature role. This production was far more successful financially than the original.

European premieres

On March 27, 1943, the opera had its European premiere at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen. This performance is notable as it was put on by an all-white cast during Nazi occupation. After 22 sold-out performances, the Nazis closed the production.[5]

Other all-white or mostly-white productions in Europe took place in Zurich in 1945 and 1950, and Copenhagen in 1946.

Leontyne Price as Bess

1952 production

Blevins Davis and Robert Breen produced a revival in 1952 which restored much of the music cut in the Crawford version, including many of the recitatives, and divided the opera into two acts, with the intermission occurring after Crown forces Bess to stay on Kittiwah Island. This version restored the work to a more operatic form, though not all of the recitatives were retained, and Porgy and Bess was warmly received through Europe.[5] The London premiere took place on October 9, 1952 at the Stoll Theatre, where it remained until February 10, 1953.[8]

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.

In this tour Porgy and Bess premiered 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 traveled with the cast and crew, and wrote an account included in his book The Muses Are Heard: An Account.

Houston Grand Opera's 1976 production

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Porgy and Bess mostly languished on the shelves, a victim of its perceived condescending racism in a racially charged time. Though new productions took place in 1961 and 1964 along with a Vienna Volksoper premiere in 1965 (again with William Warfield as Porgy), these did little to change most Americans' opinions of the work.

The Houston Grand Opera production which opened on September 25, 1976 helped to turn the tide. For the first time, an American opera company, not a Broadway production company, had tackled the opera. This production was based on Gershwin's original full score and did not incorporate the cuts and other changes which Gershwin had made before the New York premiere. 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. 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.

Subsequent productions

Another Broadway production was staged in 1983, again based on the Houston production.[9]

After toying since the 1930s with the idea of staging the opera, the Metropolitan Opera finally did so in 1985, opening on February 6, with a brilliant cast, including Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry, Bruce Hubbard, Gregg Baker and Florence Quivar. The Met production was directed by Nathaniel Merrill and designed by Robert O'Hearn. The conductor was James Levine.[10]

Trevor Nunn tackled the work in an acclaimed 1986 production at England's Glyndebourne Festival. The 1986 Trevor Nunn production 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 the New York City Opera had a revival directed by Tazewell Thompson. 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.

Porgy and Bess: the Musical

Porgy and Bess: the Musical premiered on November 9, 2006, at the Savoy Theatre (London), directed by Trevor Nunn. Nunn had previously directed the actual operatic version at the Glyndebourne Festival and as a videotaped television production, both with Willard White. For this production, he adapted the lengthy opera to fit the conventions of musical theatre. Working with the Gershwin estate, Nunn used dialogue from the original novel and subsequent Broadway stage play to replace the recitative with naturalistic scenes. He also did not use conventional operatic voices in this production relying on former television soap opera stars as leads. Gareth Valentine provided the musical adaptation. The musical was a massive failure and closed months early after poor box office.

This original cast of this version included:


Role Voice type Premiere cast
30 September 1935
(Conductor: - Alexander Smallens)
Porgy, a disabled beggar bass-baritone Todd Duncan
Bess, Crown's girl soprano Anne Brown
Crown, a tough stevedore 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
Annie mezzo-soprano Olive Ball
Strawberry woman mezzo-soprano Helen Dowdy
Jim, a cotton picker baritone Jack Carr
Undertaker baritone John Garth
Nelson tenor Ray Yeates
Crab man tenor Ray Yeates
Scipio, a small boy boy soprano
Mr. Archdale, a white lawyer spoken George Lessey
Detective spoken Alexander Campbell
Policeman spoken Burton McEvilly
Coroner spoken George Carleton
The Eva Jessye Choir, led by Eva Jessye

With the exception of the small speaking roles, all of the characters are black.


Place: Catfish Row, a fictitious black tenement (once, a mansion of the aristocracy) on the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina.
Time: The 'recent past' (c. 1930).

Act 1

Scene 1: Catfish Row, a summer evening

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, a young mother, sings a lullaby to her baby (Summertime) as the working men prepare for a game of craps (Roll them Bones). One of the players, Robbins, scorns his wife Serena's demands that he not play, retorting that on a Saturday night, a man has the right to play. 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. Peter, an elderly "honey man" returns, singing his vendor's call. Crown, a strong and brutal stevedore storms in with his woman, Bess, and buys cheap whiskey and some "Happy Dust" off the local dope peddler Sportin' Life. Bess is shunned by the women of the community, especially the pious Serena and the matriarchal cookshop owner Maria, but Porgy softly defends her. The game begins. One by one, the players get crapped out, leaving only Robbins and Crown, who has become extremely drunk. When Robbins wins, Crown attempts to prevent him from taking his winnings. A brawl ensues, which ends when Crown stabs Robbins with a cotton hook, killing him. Crown runs, telling Bess to fend for herself but that he will be back for her when the heat dies down. Sportin' Life gives her a dose of Happy Dust and offers to take her with him when he goes to New York, but she rejects him. He flees, and Bess begins to pound on doors, but is rejected by all of the residents of Catfish Row, with the exception of Porgy, who lets her in.

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). Bess enters with Porgy and attempts to donate to the burial fund, but Serena rejects her money until Bess explains that she is now living with Porgy. A white detective enters and coldly tells Serena that she must bury her husband the next day, or his body will be given to medical students. He suddenly accuses Peter of Robbins's murder. Peter denies his guilt and says Crown was the murderer. The Detective smugly orders Peter to be arrested as a material witness, whom he will force to testify against Crown. Serena laments her loss in My Man's Gone Now. The undertaker enters. The saucer only holds fifteen dollars out of the needed twenty-five, but he agrees to bury Robbins as long as Serena promises to pay him back. Bess, who has been sitting in silence slightly apart from the rest of those gathered, suddenly begins to sing a gospel, and the chorus joyfully join in, welcoming her into the community. (Oh, the Train is at de Station' )

"My Man's Gone Now" sung by Cynthia Clarey in the Glyndebourne Production

Act 2

Scene 1: Catfish Row, a month later, in the morning

Jake and the other fishermen prepare for work (It take a long pull to get there). Clara asks Jake not to go because it is time for the annual storms, but he tells her that they desperately need the money. This causes Porgy to sing from his window about his new, happy-go-lucky outlook on life. (I got plenty o' nuttin). Sportin' Life waltzes around selling Happy Dust, but soon incurs the wrath of Maria, who threatens him. (I hates yo' struttin' style). A fraudulent lawyer, Frazier, arrives and farcically divorces Bess from Crown. When he discovers Bess and Crown were not married, he raises his price from a dollar to a dollar and a half. Archdale, a white lawyer, enters and informs Porgy that Peter will soon be released. The bad omen of a buzzard flies over Catfish Row and Porgy demands that it leave now that he finally has found happiness. (Buzzard keep on flyin' over.)

As the rest of Catfish Row prepares for the church picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island, Sportin' Life again offers to take Bess to New York with him; she refuses. He attempts to give her some Happy Dust despite her claims that she's given up drugs, but Porgy grabs his arm and scares him off. Sportin' Life leaves, reminding Bess as he goes that her men friends come and go, but he will be there all along. 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 is invited to the picnic by Maria, but she demurs as Porgy cannot come (due to his disability, he can't get on the boat), but Maria insists. Bess leaves Porgy behind as they go off to the picnic. Porgy watches the boat leave (I got plenty o' nuttin reprise).

Scene 2: Kittiwah Island, that evening

The chorus enjoys themselves at the picnic (I ain't got no shame). 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!). Everyone gets ready to leave. As Bess, who has lagged behind, tries to follow them, Crown emerges from the bushes. He reminds her that Porgy is "temporary" and laughs off her claims that she has living decently now. Bess wants to leave Crown forever and attempts to make him forget about her (Oh, what you want wid Bess?) but Crown refuses to give her up. He grabs her and will not let her go to the boat, which leaves without her, and then forcefully kisses her. He laughs at his conquest as her resistance begins to fail, and commands her to get into the woods, where his intentions are only too clear.

Scene 3: Catfish Row, a week later, just before dawn

A week later. Jake leaves to go fishing with his crew, one of whom observes that it looks as if a storm is coming in. Peter, still unsure of his crime, returns from Prison. Meanwhile, Bess is lying in Porgy's room delirious with fever, which she has had ever since returning from Kittiwah Island. Serena prays to remove Bess's affliction (Oh, doctor Jesus), and promises Porgy that Bess will be well by five o'clock. As the day passes, a strawberry woman, Peter (the Honey Man) and a crab man each pass by with their wares (Vendor's Trio). As the clock chimes five, Bess recovers from her fever. Porgy tells Bess that he knows she has been with Crown, and she admits that Crown has promised to return for her. Porgy tells her she is free to go if she wants to, and she tells him that although she wants to stay, she is afraid of Crown's hold on her. Porgy asks her what would happen if there was no Crown, and Bess tells Porgy she loves him and begs him to protect her, and he promises that she will never have to be afraid again (I Loves You, Porgy).

Clara watches the water, fearful for Jake. Maria tries to allay her fears, but suddenly the hurricane bell begins to ring.

Scene 4: Serena's Room, dawn of the next day

The residents of Catfish Row are all gathered in Serena's room for shelter from the hurricane. They drown out the sound of the storm with prayers and hymns (Oh, Doctor Jesus) while Sportin' Life mocks their assumption that the storm is a signal of Judgment Day. Clara desperately sings her lullaby (Summertime [reprise]). 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, having swum from Kittiwah Island, seeking Bess. He shows no fear of God, claiming that after the long struggle from Kittiwah, God and he are friends. The chorus tries to drown out his blaspheming with more prayer, and he taunts them by singing a vulgar song. (A red-headed woman). Suddenly, Clara sees Jake's boat float past the window, upside-down, and she runs out to try and save him, handing her baby to Bess. Bess asks that one of the men go out with her, and Crown taunts Porgy, who cannot go. Crown goes himself, yelling out as he leaves "Alright, Big Friend! We're on for another Bout!" The chorus continue to pray as the storm rises.

"There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York" with Damon Evans and Cynthia Haymon in the Glyndebourne Production

Act 3

Scene 1: Catfish Row, the next night

A group of women mourn Clara and Jake, who have been killed in the storm (Clara, Clara, don't you be downhearted). When they begin to mourn for Crown as well, Sportin' Life laughs at them and is told off by Maria. He insinuates that Crown may not be dead, and observes that when a woman has a man, maybe she's got him for keeps, but if she has two men, then it's highly likely she'll end up with none. Bess is heard, singing Clara's lullaby to her baby, whom she is now taking care of. (Summertime [reprise]). Once Catfish Row is dark, Crown stealthily enters to claim Bess, but is confronted by Porgy. A fight ensues which ends when Porgy kills Crown. Porgy exclaims to Bess, You've got a man now. You've got Porgy!

Scene 2: Catfish Row, the next afternoon

The detective enters and talks with Serena and her friends about the murders of Crown and Robbins. They deny knowledge of Crown's murder, frustrating the detective. Needing a witness for the coroner's inquest, he next questions an apprehensive Porgy. Once Porgy admits to knowing Crown, he is ordered 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, but is dragged off anyway. Bess is distraught, and Sportin' Life puts his plan in action. He tells her that Porgy will be locked up for a long time, and points out that he is the only one still here. He offers her Happy Dust, and though she refuses, he forces it on her. After she takes it, he paints a seductive picture of her life with him in New York (There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York). She regains her strength and rushes inside, slamming the door on his face, but he leaves a packet of Happy Dust on her doorstep, and settles down to wait.

Scene 3 - Catfish Row, a week later

On a beautiful morning, Porgy is released from jail, where he has been arrested for contempt of court after refusing to look at Crown's body. He returns to Catfish Row much richer after playing craps with his cellmates. He gives gifts to the residents, and pulls out a beautiful red dress for Bess. He does not understand why everyone seems so uneasy at his return. He sees Clara's baby is now with Serena and realizes something is wrong. He asks where Bess is. Maria and Serena tell him that Bess has run off with Sportin' Life to New York (Oh Bess, Oh Where's my Bess?). Porgy calls for his goat cart, and resolves to leave Catfish Row to find her. He prays for strength, and begins his journey. (Oh, Lawd, I'm on my way)

Racial controversy

From the outset, the opera's depiction of African Americans attracted controversy. Problems with the racial aspects of the opera continue to this day. Virgil Thomson, a white American composer, stated that "Folk lore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935."[11] Duke Ellington stated "the times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms."[12] Several of the members of the original cast later stated that they, too, had concerns that their characters might play into a stereotype that African Americans lived in poverty, took drugs and solved their problems with their fists.

A planned production by the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle in the late 1930s, part of the Federal Theater Project, was cancelled because actors were displeased with what they viewed as a racist portrayal of aspects of African American life. The director initially envisioned that they would perform the play in a "Negro dialect." These Pacific Northwest African American actors did not speak like that and were supposed to learn from a dialect coach. Florence James attempted a compromise of dropping the use of dialect but the production was canceled.[13]

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 then at the university, 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 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.[14]

The belief that Porgy and Bess was racist gained strength with the American Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. As these movements advanced, Porgy and Bess was seen as more and more out of date. 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."[5] African-American historian 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."[5]

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 the role was offered to Sidney Poitier who regretted his choice ever after (it is said the only reason Poiter took the role is because if he didn't, they could have blocked him from doing The Defiant Ones[citation needed]) . 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.[15]

Over time, however, the opera gained acceptance from the opera community and some (though not all)[16] 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."[17] 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. George Gershwin selected the African American Eva Jessye as choral director, and some of her choir performed.

That Gershwin sought to write a true jazz opera, and that he believed that Metropolitan Opera staff singers could never master the jazz idiom, but could instead only be sung by a black cast, seems to indicate he did not intend the work to belittle African-Americans. Some black singers were overjoyed at Gershwin’s work going so far as to describe him as the “Abraham Lincoln of Negro music”.[18] The source of much of the racial controversy seems to arise from the miscegenation of Gershwin’s jazz experience. Gershwin wrote Porgy through an idiom of jazz that was influenced by Western European opera traditions, African-American music, and Russian-Jewish music.[19]

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. But in 2009, Cape Town Opera's production, set in 1970s South Africa and inspired by life in Soweto, toured Britain, opening at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff and going on to the Royal Festival Hall in London and Edinburgh Festival Theatre. Most of the cast were black South Africans; American singers involved in the production have found the "passionate identification with the opera" by the South African singers "a wake-up call".

"I think we’ve got a little jaded in the US with Porgy and Bess," says Lisa Daltirus, one of two singers who will play Bess on the UK tour. “A lot of people just think that this is a show that is lovely to listen to and happened way back when. They’re not thinking that you can still find places where this is real. And if we’re not careful we could be right back there."
The Times, London, October 16, 2009[20]

Musical elements

In the summer of 1934, George Gershwin worked on the opera in Charleston, South Carolina. He drew inspiration from the James Island Gullah community, which he felt had preserved some African musical traditions. This research added to the authenticity of his work.[21]

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 which the composer knew about; jubilees, blues, praying songs, street cries, work songs, and spirituals are blended with traditional arias and recitatives.[22]

In addition to being influenced by New York jazz and southern black music, many biographers and contemporaries have noted that for many numbers, Gershwin used 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,[23] and others have attributed it to the Torah blessing.[24] 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.[25]

The score makes use of a series of leitmotifs. Many of these represent individual characters: some of these are fragments of the opera's set numbers (Sporting Life, for example, is frequently represented by the melody which sets the title words of '[It ain't necessarily so]'). Other motifs represent objects (such as the sleazy chromatic 'Happy Dust' motif) or places, notably Catfish Row. Many of the through-composed passages of the score combine or develop these leitmotifs in order to reflect the on-stage action. Particularly sophisticated uses of this techniques can be seen after the aria "There's a boat dat's leaving soon for New York" in Act III, scene 2. The opera also frequently reprises its set numbers (these might be considered extended Leitsektionen), and always to good dramatic effect. Notable in this respect is the double reprise (of 'Bess you is my woman now' and 'I got plenty o' nuttin') which concludes Act II, scene 1. The song 'Summertime' is stated four times alone.


The cover of the Glyndebourne album.


Days after the Broadway premiere of Porgy and Bess with an all-black cast, two white opera singers, Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson, both members of the Metropolitan Opera, recorded highlights of the opera in a New York sound studio, released as Highlights from Porgy and Bess. Members of the original cast were not recorded until 1940, when Todd Duncan and Anne Brown recorded selections from the work. Two years later, when the first Broadway revival occurred, American Decca rushed other members of the cast into the recording studio to record other selections not recorded in 1940. These two albums were marketed as a two-volume 78 rpm set Selections from George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess. After LPs had begun to be manufactured in 1948, the recording was transferred to LP, and subsequently, to CD.

For years, the two albums mentioned above were the only ones available of music from Porgy and Bess.

Although members of the jazz community initially felt 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 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. 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.

Complete recordings

Both the 1976 and 1977 recordings of the opera won Grammy Awards for Best Opera Recording, making Porgy and Bess the only opera to win this award over two consecutive years.[26]

  • 1951: Columbia Masterworks: the company recorded a 3-LP album of what was then the standard performing version of "Porgy and Bess" - the most complete recording made of the opera up to that time. It was billed as a "complete" version, but was complete only insofar as that was the way the work was usually performed then. (Actually, nearly an hour was cut from the opera.) Because album producer Goddard Lieberson was eager to bring as much of Porgy and Bess as he felt was practical on records at the time, the recording featured more of Gershwin's original recitatives and orchestrations than had ever been heard before on records. The recording was conducted by Lehman Engel, and starred Lawrence Winters and Camilla Williams, both from the New York City Opera. Several singers who had been associated with the original 1935 production and the 1942 revival of "Porgy and Bess" were finally given a chance to record their roles more or less complete. The album was highly acclaimed as a giant step in recorded opera in its time. It was re-released at budget price on the Odyssey label in the early 1970s. It has subsequently appeared on CD on Sony's "Masterworks Heritage" CD series, and on the Naxos label as well. The album is not sung in as directly "operatic" a style as later versions, treading a fine line between opera and musical theatre.
  • 1976: Decca Records: The first complete recording of the opera based on Gershwin's original score, restoring the material cut by Gershwin during rehearsals for the New York premiere in 1935, was made by the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel in 1976 for Decca Records in the UK and London Records in the U.S., in time for the U.S. Bicentennial. It starred Willard White singing his first Porgy, and Leona Mitchell as Bess. The recording was praised by critics for its performance quality and racial significance, but at the same time was highly criticized by some for not bringing out the "jazzier" qualities of the score.
  • 1976 RCA Victor: Ray Charles and Cleo Laine perform all parts. Arranged and conducted by Frank DeVol. Featuring the organ of Joe Sample, the trumpet of Harry Edison and guitar work of Joe Pass, Lee Ritenour and many others. Jazz-based with full orchestration.
  • 1977: RCA Victor: A subsequent complete recording of the opera by the Houston Grand Opera based on the complete original score.
  • 2006: A recording of the opera made by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under John Mauceri is the first to observe Gershwin's cuts and thus present the opera as it was heard in New York in 1935. The musical cuts made on this album coincide almost exactly with those in the 1951 album, with the exception that The Buzzard Song, usually cut in early productions, is heard on the 1951 album, and the Occupational Humoresque, heard on the 2006 album, is not heard on the 1951 album at all.
  • 2008: Guild: A live recording of a September 21, 1952, performance of Porgy and Bess, starring Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway and the rest of the cast of the 1952 revival. This is the only known recording of an actual performance made from the historic and highly acclaimed 1952 world tour of the opera. While the opera itself is not performed truly complete, it is a complete recording of that specific performance. Alexander Smallens, who led the original 1935 production and the 1942 revival, conducts.



1959 film

Porgy and Bess 1959 poster.jpg

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.[28] Robert McFerrin dubbed the singing voice for Sidney Poitier's Porgy as did Adele Addison for Dorothy Dandridge's Bess. Ruth Attaway's Serena and Diahann Carroll's Clara were also dubbed. Although Dandridge and Carroll were singers, their voices were not considered operatic enough. Sammy Davis, Jr., Brock Peters and Pearl Bailey (who played Sportin' Life, Crown and Maria) were the only principals who provided their own singing. 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 substantially 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. Critics attacked it for not being faithful to Gershwin's opera, for over-refining the language grammatically, and for its "overblown" staging. The film was pulled from release in 1974. Prints can now only be seen in film archives or on bootleg videos.

Other films

The 1945 Warner Brothers film biography of Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, featured an extended musical scene recreating the opening of the original Broadway production of Porgy and Bess. Included was the original Bess, Anne Brown, recreating her performance. The scene includes a more elaborate arrangement for the film of the song "Summertime", sung by Miss Brown as Bess with full chorus.

The 1985 film 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 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,[29][30][31] and the three-hour production retained nearly all of Gershwin's music, heard in the original 1935 orchestrations. This included 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" production 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. The 1993 television production of "Porgy and Bess" was nominated for four Emmy Awards, and won for its art direction.[32]

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.

So far, no further productions of Porgy and Bess have been announced for television, at least from reliable sources.

Concert Adaptations

Gershwin prepared an orchestral suite containing music from the opera after Porgy and Bess closed early on Broadway. Though originally titled "Suite from Porgy and Bess", Ira later renamed it Catfish Row.

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.

Bennett's 40-minute Porgy and Bess: Concert Version for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus and orchestra was prepared in 1956. It is based very closely on Gershwin's original instrumental and vocal scoring, the principal recasting being the use of standard concert-orchestra instrumentation, eliminating the clarinet-saxophone doubling specified in Gershwin's 1935 orchestration.

Grainger’s Fantasy

In 1951, Australian-born composer Percy Grainger, who was an admirer, performer and arranger of Gershwin’s music, completed a twenty minute piece for two pianos titled Fantasy on George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess”.

Jazz versions

Miles Davis and Gil Evans recorded jazz arrangements of Porgy and Bess. Released as an LP in 1958 by Columbia Records, it was highly successful and was re-released in 1997.[33]

In 1997, saxophonist Joe Henderson recorded a jazz version of the opera with the participation of several eminent jazz musicians.


Porgy and Bess contains many songs that have become popular in their own right, becoming standards in jazz and blues in addition to their original operatic setting.

Some of the more popular songs include:

  • "Summertime", Act I Scene 1
  • "A Woman is a Sometime Thing", Act I Scene 1
  • "My Man's Gone Now", Act I Scene 2
  • "It Take a Long Pull to Get There", Act II Scene 1
  • "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'", Act II Scene 1
  • "Buzzard Keep on Flyin'", Act II Scene 1
  • "Bess, You Is My Woman Now", Act II Scene 1
  • "Oh, I Can't Sit Down," Act II Scene 1
  • "It Ain't Necessarily So", Act II Scene 2
  • "What you want wid Bess", Act II Scene 2
  • "Oh, Doctor Jesus", Act II Scene 3
  • "I Loves You, Porgy", Act II Scene 3
  • "A Red-Haired Woman", Act II Scene 4
  • "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York", Act III Scene 2
  • "Bess, O Where's My Bess?", Act III Scene 3
  • "O Lawd, I'm On My Way", Act III Scene 3

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, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Jascha Heifetz in his own transcriptions for violin and piano. 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.[34] 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".

The violnist Isaac Stern and the cellist Julian Lloyd Webber both recorded instrumental versions of Bess, You is My Woman Now.

Christina Aguilera performed "I Loves You, Porgy" in a critically praised tribute to the Nina Simone version at the 2008 Grammy Nominations Concert.

"Summertime" is the most popular cover song in popular music, with more than 17,500 different versions recorded.[35] 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.[citation needed]


  1. ^ "2003 National Recording Registry choices". Library of Congress. Retrieved February 4, 2010. 
  2. ^ Edger, Walter. The South Carolina Encyclopedia, Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006.
  3. ^ Jane Erb (1994, 1996). "The Internet's Premier Classical Music Source. Porgy and Bess (1934)". Retrieved July 30, 20080. 
  4. ^ Jablonski & Stewart, 227–229.
  5. ^ a b c d e Porgy and Bess, the Library of Congress American Memory project, Today in History, September 2.
  6. ^ Standifer, James: "The Complicated Life of Porgy and Bess" Humanities November/December 1997 (Also accessible on NEH website)
  7. ^ Victor Book of the Opera New York: Simon and Schuster, 1968, pp. 326–328
  8. ^ Martin, George: The Opera Companion to Twentieth Century Opera New York: Dodd, Meade & Company, 1979. pp. 389–396.
  9. ^ The Broadway League. "Porgy and Bess | IBDB: The official source for Broadway Information". IBDB. Retrieved February 4, 2010. 
  10. ^ "Met History". The Metropolitan Opera. Retrieved February 4, 2010. 
  11. ^ Thomson, Virgil in Modern Music, November-December 1935. pp. 16–17.
  12. ^ Greenberg, Rodney. George Gershwin, Phaidon Press (1998), ISBN 0-7148-3504-8 p. 196.
  13. ^ Becker, Paula. ""Negro Repertory Company" on, November 10, 2002.
  14. ^ "The Way Spaces Were Allocated: African Americans on Campus, Part II" by Tim Brady, Minnesota, November-December 2002, University of Minnesota Alumni Association.
  15. ^ "The Complicated Life of Porgy and Bess". National Endowment for the Humanities. Retrieved February 4, 2010. 
  16. ^ Reverend Phyllis L. Hubbell, "I Got Plenty O Nuttin", sermon at the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore, August 20, 2000.
  17. ^ Press, Maurice. "George Gershwin and African American Music. New MusicBox, 8 July 2005
  18. ^ Pollack, George Gershwin pp.597-98
  19. ^ Ross, The Rest is Noise pp. 147-150
  20. ^ "Cape Town Opera brings Porgy and Bess to Europe—The only opera company in South Africa is on the road to Britain with a Porgy and Bess set in the depths of apartheid", The Times, London, October 16, 2009, Retrieved on October 21, 2009
  21. ^ Ewen, David, The Home Book of 20th Century Music, Arco, 1956, p. 138
  22. ^ Standifer, James (1997)
  23. ^ Jablonski, Edward, Gershwin, New York:Doubleday, (1987): Cited in Benaroya, Adam (May 2000) "The Jewish Roots in George Gershwin’s Music" I.L. Peretz Community Jewish School; Retrieved January 2, 2005
  24. ^ Pareles, Jon (January 29, 1997) History of a Nation in Its Song to Itself New York Times; Retrieved February 21, 2006
  25. ^ Whitfield, Stephen J. (September 1999)
  26. ^ "". Grammys. January 31, 2010. Retrieved February 4, 2010. 
  27. ^ Music was played by The London Philarmonic and conducted by Simon Rattle. Producer: David R. Murray; Balance Engineer: Mark Vigars; Assistant Producer: Tony Harrison; Production Assistant: Alison Fox. Recorded at No.1 Studio, Abbey Road, London. Recorded using B&W loudspeakers. Box cover, booklet cover & photos: Guy Gravett. Original sound recording made By EMI Records Ltd. 1989
  28. ^ Marx, Arthur: Goldwyn - The Man Behind the Myth
  29. ^ Porterfield, Christopher (October 4, 1993). "Conjuring Up Catfish Row". TIME.,9171,979313,00.html. Retrieved February 4, 2010. 
  30. ^ "Review/Television; Two Law Series Return, With Some Revisions - Review -". New York Times. October 6, 1993. Retrieved February 4, 2010. 
  31. ^ "Porgy & Bess Movie DVD Review -". Retrieved February 4, 2010. 
  32. ^ Porgy and Bess (1993) (TV) - Awards
  33. ^ Crouch, Stanley, Considering Genius: Writings on Jazz, Basic Books, 2007, p. 54. ISBN 0465015123
  34. ^ "I Loves You, Porgy", Nina Simone version, on Billboard Chart
  35. ^ List of covers of "Summertime"


  • Brady, Tim: "The Way Spaces Were Allocated: African Americans on Campus, Part II" Minnesota, November-December 2002, University of Minnesota Alumni Association
  • Jablonski, Edward: Gershwin: A Biography Garden City, New Jersey: Doubleday & Company, 1987, ISBN 0-7924-2164-7
  • Jablonski, Edward and Lawrence D. Stewart: The Gershwin Years, Garden City, New Jersey: Doubleday & Company, 1973, Second edition, ISBN 0-306-80739-4
  • Kimball, Robert and Alfred Simon: The Gershwins, New York: Atheneum, 1973, ISBN 0-689-10569-X
  • Marx, Arthur. Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man Behind the Myth, W.W. Norton, 1976, ISBN 0393074978
  • Schwartz, Charles: Gershwin: His Life and Music New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1973, ISBN 0-306-80096-9
  • Standifer, James: "The Complicated Life of Porgy and Bess" Humanities November/December 1997 (Also accessible on NEH website)
  • Southern Eileen: The Music of Black Americans: A History, New York: W. W. Norton & Company; 3rd edition, ISBN 0-393-97141-4

Further reading

  • Alpert, Hollis: The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess: The Story of an American Classic Publisher: Nick Hern Books, 1991 ISBN 1854590545
  • Fisher, Burton D. Porgy and Bess (Opera Journeys Mini Guide Series) Coral Gables, Florida: Opera Journeys Publishing, 2000, ISBN 1-930841-19-1 Overview of the opera
  • Capote, Truman: The Muses Are Heard: An Account New York: Random House, 1956, ISBN 0-394-43732-2 Story of the 1955 Porgy and Bess production in Moscow
  • Hamm, Charles: "The Theatre Guild Production of Porgy and Bess" Journal of the American Musicological Society, Fall 1987, pp. 495–532.
  • Weaver, David E: "The Birth of Porgy and Bess", pp. 80–98, Black Diva of the Thirties - The Life of Ruby Elzy, University Press of Mississippi, 2004

External links

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