Spotlight on: PORGY AND BESS

The Gershwins'®
Porgy And Bess®

At Seattle Opera August 2018

Music by George Gershwin
Libretto by DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Based on the play by DuBose and Dorothy Heyward

The Story

Long Story Short

Porgy and Bess, The Glimmerglass Festival, 2017 © Karli Cadel

Two marginalized people find a beautiful, fragile connection.

Who’s Who?

Porgy is an impoverished, physically disabled man who lives in Catfish Row.

Bess begins the story in a relationship with Crown.

Crown's actions get him ostracized from the community.

Sportin’ Life is a charming, sleazy purveyor of “happy dust” (cocaine).

Maria, who runs the cookhouse, is Catfish Row’s unofficial matriarch.

Jake, a fisherman, is a proud parent with high hopes for his son.

Clara, his wife, sings a most haunting lullaby.

Robbins, Serena’s husband, is killed by Crown.

Serena, his widow, has a strong Christian faith.

The Other Characters are friends, neighbors, vendors of strawberries and honey, and police.

Where & When?

Charleston, South Carolina, in the early years of the twentieth century.

What's Going On?

In Catfish Row, a dilapidated mansion inhabited by an African-American community, a hot summer evening finds the residents relaxing, dancing, and playing craps. The game provokes an argument, which becomes a fight, and Crown kills Robbins with a cotton hook. Before Crown goes into hiding, he warns Bess that he’ll be coming back for her. No one in Catfish Row will even so much as look at Bess—except Porgy, who takes her in.

The chorus in Porgy and Bess plays a big role in portraying the characters of the Catfish Row community.
Porgy and Bess, The Glimmerglass Festival, 2017 © Karli Cadel

Life in Catfish Row goes on. Serena becomes indebted to the undertaker who buried Robbins, Porgy and Bess fall in love, and Maria senses that Sportin’ Life is up to no good. A few weeks later, at a community picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island, Bess encounters Crown, who has been hiding out nearby. He forces her to miss the boat back to Charleston, and when she finally makes her way home to Porgy, she is ill and delirious.

Meanwhile, a hurricane batters the city; Jake, his boat, the crew, and even Clara (in her attempt to rescue them) are all lost, and others must care for Clara’s baby. When Crown comes to claim Bess, Porgy kills him. Given Porgy’s disability, no one believes he could be responsible. But when the police haul him away to identify the corpse, Sportin’ Life seizes the opportunity and convinces Bess that Porgy won’t be coming back. Instead, he says, Bess should come with him to New York City to live the high life. When Porgy returns from prison, Bess has left Catfish Row. In pursuit of her, Porgy sets out for the north.

Listen For

An American Sound

A child of immigrants fleeing pogroms, George Gershwin grew up in New York City at the turn of the last century. He grew up with his ears full of popular American songs; the imported European classical music tradition; gospel, jazz, and other African-American traditions; and the sounds of his own family’s Russian Jewish musical heritage. All this music flowed through Gershwin and into Porgy and Bess.

Big Chorus, Big Orchestra, Big Voices

Porgy and Bess calls for a vast orchestra, including special instruments such as saxophone, African drums, and piano; an enormous chorus, plus about a dozen characters who occasionally emerge out of the chorus to become bit characters; and big dramatic voices for the leads. It wasn’t financially successful at first; Gershwin himself lost money on the world premiere. Seven years after Gershwin’s early death, Porgy and Bess was reconceived as a musical—much cheaper to produce!—and first conquered the world in that form. Nowadays the original opera version is produced regularly by opera companies who can muster the forces it demands.

So That’s Where That’s From!

Pretty much every number in this opera has become a popular standard. American musicians such as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, and Nina Simone—among many, many other artists—recorded their own versions of these tunes. You may recognize familiar songs like “I got plenty o’ nuttin’,” with its banjo accompaniment, or the swinging “A woman is a sometime thing,” or the scat-styles of “It ain’t necessarily so” (used by Danish freedom fighters to mock Nazi propaganda during World War II radio broadcasts!). Songs such as “It takes a long pull to get there,” Serena’s lament “My man’s gone now,” and Porgy’s rousing “O Lawd, I’m on my way” draw great power from their gospel origins. And the jazzy harmonies and soaring, Hebraic melodies of “Summertime,” “Bess, you is my woman now,” and “I loves you, Porgy,” give the opera its instantly recognizable musical character.

Where, When, & Why Was this Opera Written?

George Gershwin was an ambitious young man. He wanted to be a famous composer, and took to heart the advice American musicians were given by the great Czech composer Antonìn Dvořák. After traveling around America in the 1890s, Dvořák concluded that in order for our nation to find its own musical voice its composers should look to African-American musical traditions instead of imitating European models. Gershwin was well acquainted with the European opera tradition. He wanted Porgy and Bess to stand beside Carmen in terms of unbridled passion, and he wanted to depict an entire community musically, as the composers of Boris Godunov and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg had done. But his subject would be American.

Charleston native DuBose Heyward published the novel Porgy, inspired by a news story about a real-life Charlestonian of his acquaintance. Heyward’s attempt to write dialogue in the Gullah dialect spoken in South Carolina’s Barrier Islands likely would not be made today.

George Gershwin spent a summer living on an island near Charleston, South Carolina to get a sense of Porgy’s world. According to his librettist, he was never happier or more alive. What Gershwin heard at Gullah church services and celebrations worked its way into the music of Porgy and Bess.

Black Artists Respond to Porgy And Bess

Porgy and Bess means so many different things to so many different people. It is a source of pride. It is a source of stereotypes. It has made some singers’ careers. It has perhaps pigeonholed others. In the essay “From Cultural Uplift and Double-Consciousness: African American Responses to the 1935 Opera Porgy and Bess,” authors Ray Allen and George P. Cunningham went back through the press during Porgy and Bess’s premiere to detail what black artists and musicians and writers were saying about the work back then. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes below are from this work.

On Its Position in the Work for Civil Rights

When the first production of Porgy and Bess traveled to Washington, D.C., in 1936, it played at the National Theatre, which had traditionally only allowed entrance to white patrons. Todd Duncan, who was singing the role of Porgy, refused to perform. The theater came back to him with compromises—offering a couple matinees to black audiences, offering the second balcony to black patrons. Duncan and Anne Brown, who was performing the role of Bess, would not compromise. The National Theatre ultimately honored their demands and desegregated for the first time in its history.

Porgy and Bess, The Glimmerglass Festival, 2017 © Karli Cadel

On Black Singers Singing Black Roles

Journalist and host of the first black radio broadcast during the Harlem Renaissance “Floyd Calvin concluded, with an eye toward white perceptions of blacks on Broadway, that the blackface stereotype was broken and that ‘white people now pay to see Negroes [sic] be themselves and rate them on the faithful interpretation of character rather than on the faithful portrayal of preconceived prejudiced notions.’”

On the Music

Poet Maya Angelou was a dancer in Porgy and Bess during its first run in Europe at La Scala (this was the first American opera to go to Europe). In an interview with NPR, she said:

“I was very grateful to be with Porgy and Bess, and to know that Martha Flowers sang the ‘Strawberry Song,’ that whatever the Gershwins had learned they had taken that directly out of the mouths of people in the South. This was exactly what was sung.

So I was proud to be an African American. I knew that there was art from the poets and from the Gershwins. I knew there was great art. I also knew that they had been inspired by great art, the great art of the African American.”

On Writing about a Culture Other thank your Own

Musician Hall Johnson admired Porgy and Bess for it’s entertainment but felt Gershwin didn’t get the spirituals right:

“Johnson described the approach of white creative artists and audiences to African American culture as follows: ‘So that our (African-American) folk-culture is like the growth of some hardy, yet exotic, shrub, whose fragrance never fails to delight discriminating nostrils even when there is no interest in the depths of its roots. But when the leaves are gathered by strange hands they soon wither, and when cuttings are transplanted into strange soil, they have but a short and sickly life. Only those who sowed the seed may know the secret at the root.’”

Jazz great Duke Ellington’s response:

“He sensed a disconnect between the music and story. As a result, he argued, the opera was not ‘true to and of the life of the people it depicted….’ Ellington had his own vision of African American music as social memory, having previously argued that the essence of black music was rooted in ‘our reaction in the plantation days to the tyranny we endured’ and that he looked forward to ‘an authentic [musical] record of my race written by a member of it.’”

On Stereotypes

“For Ralph Matthews, Gershwin was unable to elevate the character of Bess above a stereotype. Porgy and Bess reproduced, rather than challenged, the predispositions of white audiences and producers. In an editorial titled ‘Every Broadway Play to Date Has Shown Our Women as Prostitutes,’ Matthews extended his criticism of Porgy and Bess to Broadway in general, arguing that in representing African American women, ‘good looks and bad morals go together.’”

Sidney Poitier turned down his initial offer to play the role of Porgy in the 1959 film version. He found the portrayals of African Americans to be offensive. After pressure from the producer, Poitier played the role. In an interview with Oprah, he said that it was the only role in his career that he regretted.

To Learn More

For more on this discussion please join us at “Breaking Glass,” a July 28 event co-hosted by Glimmerglass Festival. The forum opens a door to frank discussion about racial diversity and equity in opera; how art is produced in an increasingly diversified America and who has the right to tell whose story; the role of art in stimulating public discussion about racism and discrimination in America; and what roles social justice plays within the artistic mission of an opera company. The event begins at 10:30 a.m. at McCaw Hall.

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