No other opera has been turned into a Hollywood film, interpreted on jazz musicians, shown in various TV versions, turned into a musical on Broadway and in Las Vegas casinos, and performed at the famous Metropolitan Opera in New York – and other opera houses around the world.
'If I am successful, it will resemble a combination of the drama in Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger.' No, George Gershwin was not a man who hid his light under a bushel. In 1934 he was already a successful songwriter in the Tin Pan Alley tradition in New York, but he had higher ambitions. With Porgy & Bess he aimed to create an American opera modelled on the European ones, but incorporating a distinct musical fingerprint that featured gospel, blues and jazz from his native country.
An African American setting
Gershwin found the story in DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy, which he had already read in 1926, a year after its publication. This was a suitably moving story about the poor, crippled Porgy and his girlfriend Bess, and their struggle for love among the weakest in society, in an Afro-American environment in South Carolina.
Gershwin travelled to South Carolina for inspiration and to experience the atmosphere and music in the area, but all the songs in the opera are actually original material by Gershwin himself. The opera's greatest hits, Summertime, It Ain't Necessarily So and Bess, You Is My Woman Now have become real evergreens sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Few people now stop to consider these songs' origin in an opera, as another new interpretation flows from the radio.
Gershwin had originally hoped for a premiere at The Met in New York, but instead the Broadway theatre The Alvin Theatre was given the honour of presenting the first performance – after a sneak preview in Boston – in October 1935. Classically trained opera singers were cast in the main roles, and even though the critics were not effusively positive, the performance was played 124 times on Broadway – an astounding number for an opera.
George Gershwin was certainly not lazy – on the contrary, he was known for almost always writing too much, rather than too little. Many of his most important works are the result of significant editing of the original ideas. If you play through Porgy & Bess in the version that was published in the score before the first rehearsal, you have a very long evening at the opera to look forward to – probably not less than three and a half hours.
A substantial part of the music was cut during rehearsals, either because they needed to reduce the total duration of the performance, because it did not work the way Gershwin had imagined musically, or because he tried to adapt it to director Rouben Mamoulians ideas for the stage.
Gershwin insisted on only using African-American singers, and it is still impossible to get permission to stage the opera if the singers are of another ethnic origin. For Gershwin, Porgy & Bess was and would be the African Americans' story, and they would tell it themselves in a credible manner – without white singers smeared in shoe polish.
George Gershwin lived to see his dream of creating a great, American opera realised on stage. He died two years after the premiere from a brain tumour, only 38 years old. But Porgy & Bess lives on in many guises – such as tonight, in Andrew Litton's staging of the highlights of the opera.
More about Porgy & Bess.
Text: Henrik Engelbrecht