An Opera for the Ages
Porgy and Bess, a ‘folk opera’ that tells the passionate story of a disabled beggar and his love for a woman of uncertain background in a small black community in Charleston, South Carolina, celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. Those years include sold-out crowds and rave reviews, but also periodic critical revulsion. Some have argued that its portrayal of African Americans devolves into stereotype—and yet the opera also broke color barriers. As such, Porgy and Bess occupies a unique place in theater history, in black history, and in world history.
Porgy and Bess opened in September in 1935 with a tryout in Boston before moving to Broadway, where it ran for 124 performances. A tour followed, as did Broadway revivals in 1937 and 1942. But according to author James Standifer, “Porgy fell into eclipse, as the Civil Rights movement grew, with the Montgomery bus boycott and school desegregation. There was a quickly forgotten film version [in 1959] with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, and Sammy Davis Jr. The sixties passed Porgy by as well, as the decade moved from Martin Luther King to Malcolm X…”
Standifer writes that when blacks became more outspoken and image-conscious in the 1960s, Porgy and Bess was out of vogue. “When Porgy and Bess was revived, (one critic) was outraged, calling it ‘the most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World.’”
Scholar John Hope Franklin saw more to it. In his introduction to Three Negro Classics, he wrote that the character "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."
In 1976, Porgy was revived again, this time by the Houston Grand Opera. While generally well received, it drew a review from Harold C. Schonberg, music critic of the New York Times—and white—which curiously echoed some black critics of the past. "The libretto is fake," he wrote, "and the music is fake. The libretto invents a never-never land with crap-shooting, watermelon-toting black stereotypes who in moments of stress fall on their knees and start shouting spirituals. It is true that by now Porgy and Bess can be regarded as a period piece; still, there is something distasteful about the condescension of librettist and composer—two white men slumming in Charleston."
But tastes change and today’s audiences are more accepting of this piece. When it was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City in 1985, conductor James Levine called it "a great American opera that should be in the repertory of the great American opera house.
Naomi André, Ph.D., recently wrote about Porgy and Bess in the Lyric Opera of Chicago program book, “The opera touches on intensely human emotions that lead to both great passion and heart-wrenching devastation. Yet it is the music that touches listeners and gets under our skin in such a way that it feels like part of us. And this is what makes Gershwin’s opera so easy to love, and so difficult to stay mad at.”
In celebration of the opera’s 75th anniversary, it will be staged in 2010 at the National Opera House and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C., the Virginia Opera House, and other sites.
The first person to play Porgy was Todd Duncan. His road was a long and difficult one, but his career was a triumph of spirit and talent. Part 2 of this article, coming February 8, will tell his story, while part 3 coming February 15 discusses Porgy and Bess’s place in theater and world history.
Your local library will have many books about Porgy and Bess, as well as CDs and DVDs to help you explore the life and times of this historic opera. See the bibliography below.
Porgy and Bess Bibliography prepared by Robbie Green
Selections from George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess (Decca 1940 & 1942), members of original cast and the 1942 Broadway revival cast including Anne Brown, Todd Duncan and Avon Long
Porgy and Bess (Decca/London 1976), Leona Mitchell and the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by Lorin Maazel
Porgy and Bess (RCA 1977), original cast from the Houston Opera Revival
Porgy and Bess (EMI 1989), studio recording of the Glyndebourne Festival Opera production under the direction of Simon Rattle
Porgy and Bess (Decca 2006)v, Alvy Powell, Marquita Lister, Nicole Cabell and Robert Mack, with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra conducted by John Mauceri
Porgy and Bess (1952), a live recording, released in 2008, of a 1952 Hamburg Germany performance by the famous Davis/Breen touring company, starring Leontyne Price, William Warfield, and Cab Calloway
The Complete Porgy and Bess (Bethlehem 1956), Mel Tormé and Frances Faye
Porgy and Bess (Verve 1957), a collaboration between Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald
Porgy and Bess (Columbia/Legacy 1958), Miles Davis and Gil Evans
Porgy and Bess (Decca 1959), Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen McRae
Oscar Peterson Plays Porgy & Bess (Verve 1959), Oscar Peterson
Porgy and Bess (RCA 1959), Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne
The Modern Jazz Quartet Plays George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (Atlantic 1965), The Modern Jazz Quartet
Porgy and Bess (Pablo 1976), Oscar Peterson and Joe Pass
Porgy and Bess (RCA 1976), Ray Charles and Cleo Laine
Porgy and Bess (Verve 1997), Joe Henderson
Films and Television
Porgy and Bess (1959), directed by Otto Preminger, screenplay by N. Richard Nash
Porgy and Bess (1993), Glyndenbourne Festival stage production shown on television and later released on VHS and DVD, directed by Trevor Nunn
The Muses Are Heard: An Account
by Truman Capote
by DuBose Heyward
Photo credit: William Warfield and Leotyne Price, stars of the 1952 revival by Roger-Viollet.