Operapedia: Porgy and Bess
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Operapedia: Porgy and Bess

by Henry Stewart

Operapedia Audra MacDonald lg 116
© Michael J. Lutch 

First Performances  

Porgy and Bess was first publicly performed on September 30, 1935, in Boston, a tryout for its Broadway debut ten days later—just a few months before the Metropolitan Opera Guild published its first bulletin, which soon became opera news. Porgy didn’t make it to the Met until 1985. This millennium, a major production has traveled to Chicago, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., but until the ’70s, when its status in opera circles improved, you had a better chance of seeing the show on Broadway, where it was revived in 1942, 1943, 1944, 1953, etc., and as recently as 2012, when Diane Paulus’s controversial but generally well-received production starred a revelatory Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, half-speaking Porgy’s songs as if still playing Javert.

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© akg-images 


The Basics  

The title’s disabled man and drug-addicted woman fall in love. He kills her abusive boyfriend, and while he’s briefly in police custody, she goes to New York with her dealer.



“Neutrality about Porgy and Bess is impossible,” Foster Hirsch once wrote in opera news. “Did a quartet of white artists … create a true work about black characters? Or … a pageant of demeaning racial stereotypes?” (Real dialogue from the source novel, by DuBose Heyward: “Ef I wuz yo’ age, an’ er man, I’d sabe my sof’ wo’d fer de Gawd-farin’ ladies.”) Frank Durham writes diplomatically in his 1954 Heyward biography, “To [Heyward] and the reader, this Negro is a human being … worthy of serious consideration. But the Negro is to Heyward still an exotic, a picturesque representative of an alien culture, interesting for his humanity, yes, but distinctive mainly as superb material for art.

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© Underwood & Underwood/Corbis 

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© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo 

◀︎ Something  Completely  Different  

The work’s African–American musical idioms helped boost its popularity in the jazz world, where many of its songs became a part of the American songbook. Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong recorded many of them for their third and final LP collaboration; both Billie Holiday and Nina Simone counted “I Loves You, Porgy” among their signature tunes. But the most far-out interpretation was Miles Davis’s 1959 instrumental album, which rearranged the music (with Gil Evans) in the style of Davis’s signature cool; the result sounds as if it could have no place in a mid-twentieth-century Broadway theater—and definitely not an opera house!

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© Stock Connection Blue / Alamy Stock Photo  


Heyward set his 1925 novel Porgy on Catfish Row in an African–American slum in his hometown, Charleston. It was based on Cabbage Row, which you can still visit—a pair of Revolutionary War-era houses on Church Street with an arcade between. (Residents sold vegetables from the windowsills.) Heyward and his wife, Dorothy, adapted Porgy into a play, which became the basis for the libretto. Theatrical agent Audrey Wood advised DuBose Heyward to sell the musical rights to George Gershwin rather than to Al Jolson, observing, “Jolson had the dough, but Gershwin had the dream.” 

Hit Tune  

Among Porgy and Bess’s numbers is one of the greatest American songs ever—“Summer- time,” the opening lullaby, sung by a supporting character to her baby. It’s been performed by everybody from the Zombies to Sublime, sort of; the latter references it in “Doin’ Time,” from the group’s self-titled breakthrough album. Many versions fail to recall the song’s origins as a berceuse; they’re more likely to startle a baby awake than put it down. 

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© Columbia Pictures/Photofest 

◀︎ The Performance  We Wish We Could See  

Otto Preminger’s 1959 film version starred Sidney Poitier, uncharacteristically playing a weak character, relying on his goat cart to get around. (Harry Belafonte had turned the role down.) Dorothy Dandridge was Poitier’s Bess, though her singing, like his, was dubbed. The movie was shown on television in the ’60s and ’70s but not since, and it was never released on video, because no one can agree on who owns the rights, and some of the stakeholders don’t particularly like the movie anyway. But even if it’s no good, we’d still like to judge for ourselves, please.

In Pop Culture  ► 

In the 1985 quasipropaganda film White Nights, Mikhail Baryshnikov plays a Soviet dancer who has defected to the U.S. but winds up back in the U.S.S.R., where he befriends an American dancer, played by Gregory Hines, who has defected the other way. Hines is introduced performing, for a polite communist audience, “There’s a Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon for New York,” foreshadowing the character’s later desire to repatriate to the West. The song belongs to Porgy and Bess’s slithering drug dealer, Sportin’ Life. Hines, despite his powerful voice and agile body, lacks the unctuous sleaze with which song-and-dance men from Sammy Davis Jr. to David Alan Grier have defined the role.

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© Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo 

◀︎  Time and Place  

George Gershwin’s 1920s orchestral compositions, such as Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris, established his place in the concert hall. But the Tin Pan Alley tunesmith had a harder time breaking into the opera house. “Porgy and Bess is a full-fledged grand opera,” critic Wayne Lee Gay has written. But it “was relegated to the category of a Broadway show for forty years,” until Houston Grand Opera restored most of the score for a landmark 1976 production. (A touring production in the ’50s offered steady work to Leontyne Price and other African–American singers.)

Surprise Showstopper   

The show sports several standards, such as “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin.” But if I could keep only one, it would be “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” one of the great love duets in all music. No offense to lyricists Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, but it loses little of its tear-tugging power if it’s performed by Jascha Heifetz or Harry James. The bare melody traces the characters’ emotional arc; it begins as hesitant but hopeful, blooming into something strikingly honest, suffused with trust and real affection—no words necessary.



Where It Is This Season   

A new production will open Spoleto’s 2016 season in May, bringing the work home to Charleston at a fraught moment in the city’s history. Others are scheduled for November at La Scala and
next month in Toledo.


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