Online opera guide and synopsis to Gershwin’s PORGY AND BESS
With “Porgy and Bess” Gershwin reached the peak of his career. With this composition he has succeeded in creating a work of international standing, one of the great folk operas in history. The performance of this opera involves great difficulties, which is why the work is seldom heard. The power and authenticity of this opera has prompted all the jazz greats of the last century to cover many songs.
♪ Act I
♪ Act II
♪ Act III
1935, Boston (Pre-premiere) and New York (Premiere)
Du Bose Heyward and Ira Gershwin based on Heyward’s Porgy
The main roles
Porgy, crippled beggar (bass) - Bess, a young woman and friend of Crown, later of Porgy (soprano) - Crown, violent lover of Bess (baritone) - Serena, devout wife of fisherman Robbins (soprano) - Clara, wife of fisherman Jake (soprano) - Sportin' Life, drug dealer from New York (tenor).
EMI, Willard White, Cynthia Haymon, Harolyn Blackwell, Damon Evans and Gregg Baker, conducted by Simon Rattle and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne Chorus.
An opera that provokes many questions
Hardly any other opera provokes so many questions and discussions in a matter of seconds as “Porgy and Bess”:
- Is the music composed by the white Gershwin authentic “black music”?
- Is it an opera or “only” a musical?
- Should the opera be sung only by blacks?
- Does the opera perpetuate prejudices about blacks?
Of course this opera portrait will answer these questions. But the most important aspect remains undisputed: with “Porgy and Bess” one has to speak of a great work with the highest artistic standards. The questions asked above should be discussed in this light.
The story of the creation of the opera and the libretto
Already in the 20s Gershwin dreamed of a “black opera”. As the reason for his wish he wrote: “I chose the form I have used for “porgy and Bess” because I believe that music lives only when it is in its serious form. When I wrote the “Rhapsody in blue” I took “blues” and took it in a larger and more serious form. That was twelve years ago and the “Rhapsody in blue” is much more alive whereas I would have taken the same themes and put them in songs they would have been gone years ago.” (Wikipedia)
For many years the busy composer did not find the time or material to realize his dream.
In 1927 he came across a Broadway play called “Porgy”. He immediately caught fire and contacted the authors, the married couple Du Bose and Dorothy Heyward. They were interested, but for legal reasons a cooperation was not possible at that time. When this opportunity arose 5 years later, Gershwin complemented the two lyricists and authors with his brother Ira, with whom he had already written countless works. Ira wrote the lyrics for a handful of the pieces, 3 were joint works (“Bess, You Is My Woman,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'” and “I Loves You Porgy”), and the rest (the lion’s share) was written by Heyward.
Du Bose Heyward had written the novel “Porgy” in 1925, which is about colored shipyard workers in a port district of Charleston South Carolina. Heyward got his inspiration for the material from a real-life incident he had read in a newspaper: a small-time criminal named Sammy Small (“Goat Sammy”) is said to have attacked a woman in the open street and escaped with a cart pulled by goats.
The “Catfish Row” is a fictional place, but has a real role model. The name is a variation of a row of apartment buildings called “Cabbage Row” near the home of DuBose Heyward.
As the Gershwins got to work with the Heywards and developed the material, the role of Bess became more and more important. To reflect this, they changed the name of the work to “Porgy and Bess”. Gershwin was happy about this, it gave the title an “operatic” touch and brought it closer to operas like “Pelléas et Mélisande”, “Tristan und Isolde”, or “Samson et Delilah.”
Is “Porgy and Bess” authentic “black music”?
Gershwin was born in 1898 in New York as Jacob Gerhsovitz, son of Russian immigrants of Jewish origin. He and his brother Ira came into contact with black immigrants from the Southern States at an early age, but just like the Heywards living in South Carolina, they were not “one of them”.
Gershwin (born 1898) had been a jazz musician for 20 years and in 1934 he took the time to study the life of the ethnic minority of the Gullahs in South Carolina. This was an ethnic group living on an island, whose origins could be traced directly to imported slaves and who cultivated their culture in an original form.
Gershwin studied the musical idiom of the blacks carefully, but he did not want to take over folk music, but wrote his own music (see also the section below on “Summertime”).
Musically, Gershwin’s New York roots cannot be denied, but he based his composition on many Southern forms such as blues, gospels, working songs and spirituals.
After the premiere the work was partly reservedly received by the black musicians, for example Duke Ellington titled the work “artificial music” and denied the music its originality, “every black person would recognize the deception” he even said. He spoke of “lampblack music”. It must be noted that Ellington retracted this statement ten years later and spoke with respect of Gershwin’s opera and also arranged some of Porgy & Bess’ songs for himself. Many pieces from Porgy and Bess such as I Loves You, I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ or Summertime have become jazz standards and all the great jazz musicians of the 20th century from Louis Armstrong to Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis covered them and thus completely rehabilitated Gershwin.
Opera or musical?
Gershwin himself called his work an “American folk opera”. He used elements from the opera, such as arias and composed-through recitatives, but he also composed folk songs and elements of the musical. The latter was called Tin-Pan-Alley style (after the Broadway side street where the music publishers were based), whose catchy melodies were written by the dozen. Gershwin was prolific in writing musicals with 22 musicals in 15 years, the most famous was “Lady, Be Good!” from 1924.
Prior to composing Porgy and Bess, Gershwin studied for four years with the renowned music teacher Schellinger in order to master the classical forms with confidence. You can read more about this below in the section “Death Fugue Number 2: Porgy Kills Crown”.
At the time of composition, the New York Metropolitan Opera was aware of the importance of this work and made every effort to give it its world premiere. Gershwin, however, decided to go to a Broadway theater to allow more performances of the original version.
Of course the mixing of genres provoked critics, but the work was subsequently and to this day performed in both musical and opera houses and is accepted in both genres.
The performance practice
The work is not performed with the frequency that it deserves and with the demand it would allow. The reason lies in the complexity of the production. On the one hand, Gershwin’s heirs decreed that the work may only be performed by black artists (the concert version is exempt from this rule) and on the other hand, the casting is extremely complex and expensive, requiring 22 soloists and a considerable choir. A fate which the opera shares with another famous folk opera, the Russian opera Boris Godunov.
Racism is an obvious subject, it is personified in the opera by the detective. As the opera became more and more popular, many blacks were afraid that the plot of the opera would cement prejudices, such as that blacks are violent, that they live in poverty or take drugs. Some black singers and actors, even celebrities like Harry Belafonte or Sidney Poitier, refused to embody roles like Crown or Sportin’ Life in order not to fall into a cliché trap and jeopardize their career. Thus, in the years of the “Civil Right” and “Black Power” movements, the opera came under criticism for alleged cultural stigmatization. Fortunately, this crisis was overcome in the seventies, and “Porgy and Bess” was able to cast off the stigma.
Even the cast of the famous 1952 world tour was confronted with racism. While the singers were celebrated abroad, racial segregation forced them on concert tours in the United States to enter hotels in various southern cities through the back entrances and eat in restaurants in their basements, because black people were forbidden to enter these public spaces.
Music and leitmotifs
For the opera Gershwin uses exotic instruments such as banjo, marimba, tubular bells to enhance the colourfulness of the orchestra. He used common jazz forms such as ragtime, foxtrot, blackbottom (literally “black bottom”, a dance with powerful cymbal movements) as well as religious form as spirituals or gospels. The music is, as usual in jazz, characterized by frequent changes of time, the blues harmony and syncopation.
Gershwin made extensive use of the technique of the leitmotif for this opera. He has assigned leitmotifs to various people and objects. In this opera portrait you have the opportunity to get to know a handful of leitmotifs (for example those of Porgy and Sportin life).
Premiere and review
A pre-premiere took place in Boston in September 1935. The premiere followed a little later at the Alvin Theater in New York. While the Boston performance was highly acclaimed, the Broadway production was over after 124 performances, which was below expectation and didn’t cover the costs completely.
But single musical numbers became popular very fast so that Gershwin put them together in a suite in 1936 to make the work popular.
The European premiere took place in Copenhagen in 1943 with Danish singers. Despite the fierce resistance of the National Socialist occupying power and Gestapo actions against the “Jewish Negro Opera with Jungle Screams”, Porgy and Bess was performed a total of 22 times (all sold out) until it was forced to be cancelled. (Wikipedia)
After the war, black ensembles toured Europe and made it popular (including the most famous production of 1952 with Leontyne Price). In 1959 a film adaptation presented the opera to an audience of millions.
PORGY AND BESS ACT I
Synopsis: Charleston in the 1920s. Catfish Row was abandoned by the whites. Now poor black people live in the run-down houses. In one house, couples are dancing and Jasbo Brown sits at the piano.
After a minute, a sparkling orchestral introduction leads into a blues that Jasbo Brown plays on an out-of-tune piano. Jasbo Brown was a blues legend and outsider from New Orleans, who actually has nothing to do with the story. He starts with a “laid-down” blues, whose rhythms gradually become more accentuated and drive the couples onto the dance floor. The rhythms have a similarity with the Crown leitmotif. Gershwin thus refers to the kinship of these two outsiders.
Introduction, Jasbo Brown Solo – Rattle
Summertime, Clara‘s famous lullaby
Synopsis: Next to the dance floor is Clara, the wife of the fisherman Jake. She sings a lullaby to her little son.
Summertime is one of the most beautiful songs Gershwin ever composed. It comes from his opera “Porgy and Bess” and he used it in 3 different scenes of this opera. It appears for the first time prominently at the beginning of the opera.
In order to catch the authenticity of the music of “Porgy & Bess”, Gershwin spent some time in the south, but composed all the pieces himself. According to his own statements, he did not use any folk songs. Occasionally “Summertime” is associated to a spiritual called “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child”. The relation between the two remains speculation (see below the playlist with Mahalia Jackson’s interpretation).
Gershwin composed a “classical” lullaby in swaying 2/4 time and tonal basis. Chromatisms, jazz harmonies, an accompanying buzzing choir and a colorful orchestration give the song, besides the beautiful melody, an unmistakable and beautiful character.
The famous melody begins, accompanied by jazzy harmonies of the orchestra. When the introductory melody reappears, a solo violin and a women’s humming choir appear. The chorus is notated in p (piano) and takes over the harmonies of the orchestra and thus is only faintly audible. The solo violin is even notated in pp (pianissimo) and therefore almost not audible.
The orchestral colours become richer and richer, soon the English horn, oboe and flute stand out from the orchestra.
Gershwin finishes this piece with a beautiful final effect. While the singing voice holds the final B, the buzzing choir goes up in the air. The singing voice often uses this long lasting B with further effects like octave jumps and glissandi.
It is estimated that there are over 25,000 recordings of this piece, most of them by jazz and pop greats. Naturally it is difficult to make a selection.
We hear Summertime in 2 different versions:
Leontyne Price is probably the operatic blueprint of the interpretation. She was part of the 1952 world tour cast that produced the opera’s worldwide breakthrough and later one of the greatest soprano of the after war period. The recording is from the 1963 RCA recording.
Summertime – Price
Ella Fitzgerald recorded the song with various greats of jazz music, as in the following example with Louis Armstrong. We hear the first verse with Armstrong’s trumpet. Then the two sing alternately, Armstrong with his sandpaper voice and Fitzgerald with her clear pure voice – the contrast could not be bigger.
Summertime – Fitzgerald
The crap scene
Synopsis: The men are in the street playing craps. Clara’s kid is still restless, and Jake is trying to calm the kid down. That’s when Porgy arrives. He’s a cripple, missing both his lower legs, and he’s moving with the help of a little cart. He has some money and is taking part in the crap game. Somebody announces that Crown’s coming soon. When Porgy inquires if Bess is with Crown, he’s teased as to whether he loves her.
In this scene Porgy enters the stage for the first time and his leitmotif is heard (in the sound document it is played by the strings right at the beginning). It is a noble motif that describes the generous character of Porgy. In this scene you can hear the leitmotif of the crap game, it appears at 1:37 and is related to Porgy’s motif, because Porgy describes himself as a “crap shooting idiot”.
Here is he old crap shark … No, no brudder
Death fugue number one: Crown kills Robbins
Synopsis: The brutal Crown appears, accompanied by Bess. People do not like her; they think she’s a whore. Porgy is rolling the dice and conjuring his fortune. Crown interferes with the dice game. He is drunk and provokes the players. When he accuses Robbins of cheating, the two of them get into a scuffle, in which he stabs Robbins with a cotton hook. Crown flees, leaving Bess behind.
With Porgy’s “oh little stars” we find a nice short piece with an almost religious character, where Porgy conjures up his lucky dice. Afterwards the murder scene unfolds, which Gershwin accompanies with an incredibly dramatic and talking music. He chose the form of a fugue for this. You will find an interesting anecdote about this aspect further down in the section on the murder of Crown.
Oh little stars – White
Bess finds the way to Porgy
Synopsis: Soon the police will turn up, so everyone disappears into their homes, only Bess finds no shelter. No one will take her in. The drug dealer Sporting shows Bess some “happy dust” and offers to take her to New York, but Bess refuses. A door opens and Porgy waves at her. Gratefully, Bess enters his miserable apartment.
Gershwin wrote beautiful symphonic music for the scene where Bess is looking for a place to stay (in the music sample from 3:00).
Jesu, he’s killed him!… That you, Sportin’ Life?
Synopsis: The next morning. Robbins’ body is on the bed at his wife’s house. There’s a plate on his chest. The mourners are gathered around the deathbed and donate for the funeral. When Porgy and Bess appear, people react hostile to the murderer’s girlfriend.
A beautiful spiritual with choir and soloists.
He’s a-gone … Overflow – Rattle
Susanna’s touching grief for her husband
Synopsis: A white detective bursts into the group. He looks for witnesses and approaches the mourners roughly. Since everyone claims to have seen nothing, he takes Peter into custody at random. After they leave, Susanna mourns the loss of her husband Robbins.
This funeral scene is one of the highlights of the opera. Gershwin used a motif with the sequence minor-major-minor chord, whose technique has often been “copied” since then. The number ends with a magnificent expression of despair.
We hear this passage in a beautiful film adaptation by Trevor Nunn with Cynthia Clarey. Not least impressive is the ending (from 4:00).
My man’s gone now – Clarey
This song was also sung by many famous singers, including Ella Fitzgerald and Leontyne Price. We hear Leontyne Price’s great voice with an interpretation that goes through marrow and leg.
My man’s gone now – Price
Synopsis: The undertakers appear, the money is barely enough for the funeral. When the body is gone, Bess pitches a consoling spiritual.
The gospel song flowerily describes the train to the promised land. You can literally hear the train rattling and whistling.
Oh, the train is at the station… Oh we’re leavin’ for the promise Lan’!! – Haymon
PORGY AND BESS ACT II
Synopsis: Catfish Row. The fishermen are repairing their nets. Jake wants to take the boat into the fish banks despite the rough weather. He wants to earn enough money to enable his son to attend a good school later.
Jake sings a beautiful fishing song with the fishermen, in the style of a work song with call and response,
Oh, I am getting to the Blackfish banks – Hubbard
The light-hearted “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin“
Synopsis: Porgy’s happy. He lives with Bess and praises his free life as a beggar.
Gershwin wrote this well-known song before he had the lyrics. He just wanted to create a light-hearted moment. His brother Ira then had the brilliant idea for the title “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'” .
The light-heartedness of the song of the disabled beggar is created by a simple major melody and an accompaniment by the banjo. With the first repetition of the melody, Gershwin enhances the atmosphere, as in Summertime, by means of the accompaniment of a summing choir.
We hear the piece from the Glyndebourne production by Simon Rattle, sung by the British Jamaican baritone Willard White.
Oh, I got plenty o’nuttin – White
The famous American baritone Lawrence Tibbett sang the role of Porgy on a recording that was personally accompanied by Gershwin. In this sense, his interpretation can be attested a high degree of authenticity. Surprisingly, he was chosen even though he (then the first baritone of the Metropolitan Opera) was a white man. The tempo is significantly slower than usual.
Oh, I got plenty o’nuttin – Tibbett
The piece is one of Gershwin’s most famous pieces and has been covered countless times. We are raising a version of Frank Sinatra.
Oh, I got plenty o’nuttin – Sinatra
Synopsis: A shyster lawyer appears. He asks Bess to divorce her for a dollar. Porgy’s willing to pay for it, though Bess was never married. As a buzzard flies by, Porgy’s mood darkens briefly because he takes the bird as a bad omen.
Buzzard keep on flyin (White)
The Love Duet – Bess, You Is My Woman No
Synopsis: Sporting Life has come back to get Bess, but she sends him away. People decide to go to the island for a picnic. Porgy cannot go because of his handicap. Bess wants to stay with him, but Porgy persuades her to go along to find some diversion. The two confess their love for each other and Bess joins the excursion company.
Gershwin wrote a rapturous melody for the love duet.
Bess, You Is My Woman Now (1) – White / Haymon
A beautiful version with Leontyne Price and William Warfield
Bess, You Is My Woman Now (2) – Warfield / Price
The archaic Kittiwash Island scene
Synopsis: On Kittiwash Island. Everybody is having a good time.
Instead of strengthening themselves on Sunday with pious songs, the temperament of the people breaks through with a wild dance. Drums in 5/4 time evoke the feeling of African tribal dances.
I ain’t got no shame doin’ what I like to do!
Gershwin has also given Sportin’ Life, the Mefisto of the opera, a leitmotif. It corresponds exactly to the tone sequence of “It ain’t necessarily so”. It is kept very chromatic and thus refers to its sinister character. His commodity, the “happy dust” (cocaine), also has a leitmotif, which, together with the chromatisms, is related to his motif.
It is a classic call & response song with vulgar lyrics, in which Sportin’ life makes fun of the biblical chants of the church.
See and hear a cool version with Sammy Davis Jr.
It ain’t necessarily so – Davis
Bess surprisingly meets Crown
Synopsis: When they return to the ship in the evening, Bess surprisingly meets Crown, who is hiding on the island. With a mixture of violence and persuasion, he pulls her into the bush. The boat leaves the island without Bess.
Right at the beginning of the scene, when Bess notices Crown’s presence, we hear Crown’s leitmotif repeatedly in the low strings. Later in this scene we come to an interesting point. When Crown tries to dominate her, she holds up with the words “what you want wid Bess”. This passage (in the sound sample from 4:30) appears with the music of Porgy’s leitmotiv. Because Bess has no stable personality due to her drug addiction, she does not get her own leitmotiv throughout the opera, but her strength is related to her relationship with Porgy. Bess is desperate, her drug addiction, the brutal Crown, the murder of Robbins and her growing love for Porgy have brought her into a state of extreme fragility, which Gershwin documents with a bluesy song, one of the emotional highlights of this work. From this beautiful motif by Bess, an almost romantic duet of the two (until 6.50) develops.
Oh, what you want wid Bess
Two genre pictures: the necromancy and the traders
In the next 2 scenes Gershwin paints lovingly beautiful everyday scenes of the Catfish Row.
Synopsis: The next day Jake goes to sea again, the weather is better. Peter has been released from prison in the meantime. From Porgy’s house you can hear feverish cries of Bess. She returned sick after two days. Susanna goes to her to pray for her health, which is cheaper than calling the doctor.
A sextet with “necromancy.”
Oh, doctor Jesus, who done trouble water – Rattle
Synopsis: A strawberry trader praises her fruit. The honey man and the crab man join in.
Oh, dey’s so fresh an’ fine – Rattle
Synopsis: Bess is getting better. Porgy knows she saw Crown. She tells him Crown’s coming for her after the summer. Bess wants to stay with Porgy and asks him to protect her from Crown.
In the second half the piece changes into a beautiful love duet.
I wants to stay here – Haimon
The hurricane scene
Synopsis: Clara is nervous. The sea is choppy, and she is scared. A storm is coming, and hurricane bells are ringing. Everyone is gathered at Serena’s house and praying for the fishermen to return home safely. There is a knock at the door. The superstitious fishermen believe it’s death.
O dere’s somebody knocking at the door
Crown’s big appearance
Synopsis: But it’s not Death, it’s Crown who’s coming for Bess. He mocks the fishermen gathered in fear. He scornfully rejects Porgy, who has come to protect Bess.
Crown’s cool song is in Tin-Pan-Alley style, whose charm you cannot escape.
A red headed woman make a choo-choo jump its track – Baker
Synopsis: Suddenly Clara sees in the distance how Jake’s boat capsizes in the storm. She pushes her child into Bess’ arms and runs for the boats. No one has the courage to take her back in a boat. Only Crown is heading out in a boat to rescue her.
PORGY AND BESS ACT III
Synopsis: The storm has now passed. The fishermen have gathered in Catfish Row. They mourn Clara, Jake and others who lost their lives in the storm. Crown hasn’t shown up, but Sportin Life is certain he is still alive.
Death fugue number two: Porgy kills Crown
Synopsis: Night falls and Bess has Clara’s child in her arms. Crown sneaks into her house. Porgy has ambushed him and stabs him. He triumphantly shows Bess Crown’s dead body and throws it in the square.
The scene begins with Bess’ lullaby. When Crown appears, we hear the hectic dice motif, reminiscent of the murder scene in the dice game (2:12 in the audio document). This is followed by the murder scene. It is a scene without words and remains instrumental. Interestingly, Gershwin wrote a fugue for this. There is an exciting reason for this: as a mature musician, Gershwin studied with Joseph Schillinger, a respected music teacher of Russian descent, before composing Porgy and Bess. Schillinger had developed a mathematically-based teaching approach in which forms such as the fugue played an important role, which he let his students practice. Gershwin enjoyed the fugue exercises so much that he transferred them to opera with childlike joy. When Schillinger realized that Gershwin used the exercises for his new opera, he insisted at times on co-authoring them, which was of course ridiculous. The fugue of the murder scene begins in the musical example with the motif of the dice game (2:12)
Summertime an’ the living is easy
Sporting life seduces Bess
Synopsis: The detective shows up with the coroner. They go to Porgy and ask him to identify the body. Porgy’s upset. He cannot face Crown. He refuses and is taken away. Bess is desperate and Sporting Life offers her to escort him to New York. When she refuses, he urges her to take drugs. Bess, who has been addicted once before, falls back into drugs and leaves the place with him without a will.
Sporting Life tries to convince Bess with sweet music to go to New York with him. When Bess rejects him brusquely, the dealer takes the cocaine out of his pocket. Gershwin has given this moment an incredibly dramatic musical accompaniment, his leitmotif appears in the strings in a hurried tempo (in the music example 2:47).
There is a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York – Evans / Haymon
John W. Bubbles, the first Sporting Life
“Though unable to read music, Bubbles was chosen by George Gershwin to create the role of Sportin’ Life in his opera Porgy and Bess in 1935. Since he didn’t understand the music score, Gershwin spent the time to teach it to him as a tap rhythm. Bubbles caused some problems because he often made up rhythms which caused confusion with other members of the cast. Bubbles performed the role occasionally for the next two decades. In 1963, in a studio recording of Porgy and Bess featuring Leontyne Price and William Warfield, he performed Sportin’ Life’s two main arias from the opera, “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “There’s A Boat Dat’s Leavin’ Soon For New York”. (Wikipedia)
There is a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York – Bubbles / Price
Porgy comes back and cannot find Bess
Synopsis: When Porgy returns from remand a week later, the fishermen welcome the happy beggar.
Good mornin’, sistuh
Synopsis: He brought presents for everyone and told them that he had refused to look Crown in the face. When he asks for Bess, everyone is anxious. Maria advises him to forget about Bess. Porgy’s desperation grows.
A trio by Porgy, Maria and Serena
Where’s Bess … My Bess! I want her now
Synopsis: They tell him about her fate. Porgy does not give up. He’s packing his few belongings and heading for New York.
Oh Lawd, I’m on my way
Porgy and Bess is an opera of unfulfilled dreams. Of the 8 main characters four die (Robbins, Jake, Clara and Crown) and three leave Catfish Row (Sportin’ life, Bess and Porgy). Only Serena stays behind. Nevertheless, the residents have not lost their confidence in God and the work closes with a great chorale.
EMI with Willard White, Cynthia Haymon, Harolyn Blackwell, Damon Evans and Gregg Baker, under the direction of Simon Rattle and the London Philharmonic Orchestra and the Glyndebourne Chorus.
Peter Lutz, opera-inside, the online opera guide on PORGY AND BESS by George Gershwin.