Music: George Gershwin Libretto: DuBose Heyward
Lyrics: DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Concert version: Andrew Litton
The action is set in the ‘Recent past’, i.e. the 1920s, in Charleston, South Carolina, USA
By the early 1930s, George Gerswhin had written a succession of songs and musicals in collaboration with his elder brother Ira (including of course Girl Crazy), and had Broadway at his feet. Gershwin now felt ready to compose an opera – but why an opera, why not simply write another musical?
From an early age, Gerswhin’s musical tastes had embraced music of all kinds. His musical talent developed rapidly from the age of twelve, when his piano teacher, observing the boy’s passion for jazz and popular music, insisted on laying a firm classical foundation with the music of composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Debussy and Ravel; George also became familiar with the work of contemporary composers such as Stravinsky and Schönberg, who later became a friend.
In 1924 he had realised an early ambition to compose symphonic music with the celebrated jazz concerto Rhapsody in Blue – an instantaneous success which compelled musicians of all traditions to start taking Gershwin seriously. This was followed by the Piano Concerto in F and the tone poem An American in Paris.
The idea for an opera had been at the back of Gershwin’s mind since 1926, when his imagination had been captured by DuBose Heyward’s best-selling novel Porgy. Heyward, an aristocratic white businessman living in Charleston, South Carolina, had been immersed as a young man in the black culture of that city. His novel was set in the black community living on the Charleston waterfront, and the character of the book’s hero Porgy was loosely based on a man popularly known as ‘Goat Sammy’, who had lost the use of his legs and travelled round Charleston in a goatcart. When the novel was published in September 1925 it delighted the critics, who hailed it as the first realistic depiction of black life in America.
On reading the book, Gershwin immediately wrote to the author to say that he was interested in turning it into an opera. However, he discovered that Heyward’s wife Dorothy had dramatised it as a stage play, and meanwhile Gershwin was pre-occupied with other commitments and also felt not yet technically equipped to compose an opera. Thus Gershwin’s most ambitious work, his ‘American Folk Opera’ Porgy and Bess, was not begun until late 1933.
In the summer of 1934, George and Ira escaped from the pressures of New York to rent a beach house on Folly Island near Charleston with Heyward, and immersed themselves in the melodies, rhythms and dialect of the local black Gullah people, who still retained much of their West African heritage. DuBose Heyward recalled one night when Gershwin joined in a local meeting of ‘shouting’, a complex combination of dance rhythms beaten out by hand and foot. Gershwin is said to have been the only white person who had ever accomplished it correctly.
Heyward wrote the libretto for the opera and collaborated with Ira on the lyrics. Gershwin gave himself the task of setting all the words – there are hardly any spoken words in the whole opera – and creating not simply a vehicle for the individual songs but a continuous drama with nine scenes over nearly three hours, employing a huge variety of musical idoms, most obviously folk music, popular song, spirituals and jazz, as well as operatic arias. The solos and choruses in Porgy and Bess which sound like folk music or spirituals are all original compositions by Gershwin.
The opera previewed in Boston with an all-black cast before opening in October 1935 at New York’s Alvin Theatre. The critics, however, had difficulty in deciding whether Porgy and Bess was really an opera or a musical and it had an initial run of only 124 performances – a success for an opera, but a commercial flop by Broadway standards. The songs themselves quickly won great popularity, but full recognition of Gerswhin’s total achievement – his masterly control of the elements of song, orchestral colour and dramatic mood – came only after his death. The first London performance was in 1952.
Ever since its premiere, the opera has provoked debate about racial stereotyping and cultural appropriation and under the terms of George Gershwin’s will and the Gershwin estate, English-speaking countries may only produce the opera with black casts. However, this does not apply to concert performances of shortened versions.
Andrew Litton has condensed the opera into a concert suite, reducing it to about three-fifths of its original length by eliminating the minor characters and simplifying the action. His version focuses on the story of Porgy’s devoted love for Bess – protecting her from the bullying Crown, only for her to run away to New York with the dope peddler Sportin’ Life – and on the tragic impact of the hurricane. The arrangement retains all the best-known solos and choruses, indeed every note you will hear is by George Gershwin and will be performed in its original setting.
Catfish Row - Evening
Catfish Row is a waterfront version of the actual Cabbage Row in Charleston, South Carolina: a group of old mansions converted into multiple dwellings, historically inhabited by the descendants of freed slaves.
A short orchestral introduction leads into singing and dancing. A lazy lullaby ‘Summertime’ is sung by Clara to her baby son. Clara’s husband Jake takes the baby and says he will sing him to sleep, with ‘A woman is a sometime thing’. The chorus join in, singing more and more loudly until they realise that they are waking the baby.
Serena’s Room - The Following Morning
Serena’s husband Robbins has been killed by Bess’s partner Crown in the course of a crap game. Robbins’s body lies on the bed, a saucer on his chest to receive contributions towards the expense of his burial. Meanwhile Crown has gone into hiding and Bess has taken temporary refuge with Porgy.
Serena and the chorus are mourning Robbins’s death, singing ‘Gone, gone, gone’. Porgy and Bess enter and put money in the saucer, while the mourners exhort each other to follow their example. Porgy leads a rhythmic spiritual, ‘Overflow, overflow’, in which the chorus sees Robbins rising to Heaven. The wake goes on, and Serena begins a grandiose lament, ‘My man’s gone now’, supported by the chorus. Bess then leads the spiritual, ‘Oh, the train is at the station … we’re leavin’ for the Promise’ Lan’’, in which the chorus and orchestra imitate the sound of a train. This develops into a ‘round’: one section of the chorus sings the tune, another group takes over at twice the speed, then the third group joins in at a solemn half speed. An unaccompanied passage follows in which all three versions of the tune are sung at once, and a joyful climax ends the opera’s first Act.
Catfish Row - One Month Later
It is the day of the organised picnic to Kittiwah Island. Porgy appears at his window, singing his Banjo song, ‘Oh, I got plenty o’ nuttin’’, which causes the chorus to comment on the change in Porgy since Bess has been living with him. Porgy and Bess sing the extended love duet, ‘Bess, you is my woman now’, at the end of which a military band strikes up a joyful march, and the picnickers excitedly start on their way, singing ‘Oh, I can’t sit down’.
Kittiwah Island - Same Day, Evening
Kittiwah Island is a version of the real Kiawah Island 25 miles south of Charleston.
The picnickers sing with abandon ‘I ain’t got no shame’ and Sportin’ Life treats them to a sermon casting doubt on Bible stories: ‘It ain’t necessarily so’. Serena comes on the scene and denounces the whole pack of them for sinners, also reminding them that the boat is leaving soon and that they must hurry to get on board.
Catfish Row - Before Dawn, a Week Later
Bess, who was accosted by Crown and forced to stay behind with him on the island after the picnic, has been ill with a fever, but Porgy has cared for her.
Starting to feel better, Bess calls out to Porgy, who says that he knows she has been with Crown, but that it makes no difference to his love for her. She admits that she has told Crown she will go with him if he comes for her, but pleads with Porgy to keep her for himself; she wants to stay but is afraid of the effect Crown’s presence may have on her. Bess sings ‘I loves you, Porgy’ and Porgy tells her he will take good care of Crown if he returns.
Clara is anxiously watching the sea, fearing for Jake’s safety, and warns Maria that a hurricane is coming. The wind rises, the hurricane builds up in the orchestra and the sound of the hurricane bell is heard.
Catfish Row - Afternoon, Two Days Later
The storm has abated, but Clara and her husband Jake the fisherman have been drowned. Meanwhile Crown did return for Bess, but was killed by Porgy, who has been taken away by the police for questioning.
Sportin’ Life gloats to Bess that Porgy will be locked up and seizes the opportunity to offer her some ‘happy dust’ to tide over her nerves at the prospect of losing Porgy. She tries to refuse but cannot resist it, and Sportin’ Life sings a persuasive Blues, ‘There’s a boat dat’s leavin’ soon for New York’, tempting her to come away with him. He goes out, leaving a second packet of dope, to Bess’s fury.
Catfish Row - One Week Later
Life is returning to normal: after the orchestral introduction everyone says ‘Good morning’ to everyone else; the children dance and sing. Porgy comes out of jail to discover that Bess has gone off to New York with Sportin’ Life. He sings the final spiritual ‘Oh, Lawd, I’m on my way’ with the whole chorus, as he drives out of Catfish Row in his goat-cart with his mind made up that, wherever she is, he will find Bess and bring her back.