Porgy and Bess

Missing image
The cast of Porgy and Bess during the Boston try-out prior to the Broadway opening. [1] (http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9809/gershwin.html)

Porgy and Bess is an opera with music by George Gershwin and libretto by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. It was based on Heyward's novel Porgy about African American life in the ficticious locale Catfish Row. "Summertime" is by far the most popular and recognised song in the opera. The opera was originally advertised as "An American folk Opera". Though it was tested in September of 1935 in Boston, its official first performance was on October 10, 1935 at the Alvin Theater in New York City.



The notable emotional and narrative elements are in the crafted details of the work as a whole, however the main plot points provide important context.

Act I

  • Scene 1 - Catfish Row, a summer evening.

The opera opens with an orchestral introduction which segues into evening in Catfish Row. Clara sings a lullaby to her baby ("Summertime") as the men prepare for a game of craps. Clara's husband, Jake, tries his own lullaby ("A woman is a sometime thing") with little effect. Porgy, a cripple and a beggar, enters on a goat cart and the crap game begins. Crown, a lowlife, and his woman Bess enter to join the game. Sporting Life, the local supplier of "happy dust" (cocaine) and alcohol also joins in. When Robbins wins, Crown, who is extremely intoxicated, fights with him and stabs him with a cotton hook. Crown runs, leaving Bess to fend for herself. The door is shut on her by most of the residents, except Porgy, who lets her in.

  • Scene 2 - Serena's Room, the following night

The mourners sing a spiritual to Robbins ("Where is brudder Robbins?"), before a detective enters, telling Serena (Robbins' wife) that she must bury her husband soon, or his body will be given to medical students. He arrests Peter (a bystander), whom he will force to testify against Crown. Bess is now living with Porgy, and she is gradually accepted by the community. To raise money for Robbins' burial, a saucer is placed on his chest for the mourners' donations ("Overflow"). Serena laments her loss ("My man's gone now"). The undertaker enters, and agrees to bury Robbins as long as Serena promises to pay him back . Bess and the Chorus finish the act with "Leavin' for the Promise' Lan'".

Act II

  • Scene 1 - Catfish Row, a month later, in the morning

Jake and the other fishermen prepare for work ("It take a long pull to get there"). Porgy sings from the window about his outlook on life ("I got plenty o' nuttin'"). Sporting Life goes around trying to sell cocaine, but incurs the wrath of Maria ("I hates yo' struttin' style"). A fraudulent lawyer, Frazier, arrives and divorces Bess from Crown. Archdale enters, and informs Porgy that Peter will be released soon. A buzzard, a bad omen, flies over Catfish Row, and Porgy sings "Buzzard keep on flyin' over".

As the rest of Catfish Row prepares for a picnic, Sporting Life asks Bess to follow him to New York before Porgy drives him off. Bess and Porgy are now left alone, and express their love ("Bess, you is my woman now"). The chorus re-enters in high spirits, as they prepare to leave for the picnic ("Oh, I can't sit down."). Bess leaves Porgy behind as she goes off to the picnic.

  • Scene 2 - Kittiwah Island, that evening.

The chorus enjoys themselves at the picnic ("I ain't got not shame doin' what I like to do!"). Sporting Life presents the chorus his strange views on the Bible ("It ain't necessarily so"), causing Serena to chastise them ("Shame on all you sinners!"). Crown enters to talk to Bess, and he reminds her that Porgy is "temporary". Bess wants to leave Crown forever ("Oh, what you want wid Bess?") but Crown makes her follow him into the jungle to hide.

  • Scene 3 - Catfish Row, a week later, just before dawn.

Jake leaves to go fishing with his crew, and Peter returns from prison. Bess is lying in Porgy's room, delirious. Serena prays to remove Bess's afflication ("Oh, doctor Jesus"). The Strawberry Woman and the Crab Man ply their trade on the streets, and Bess soon recovers from her fever. Bess talks with Porgy about her sins ("I wants to stay here") before exclaiming "I loves you Porgy". The scene ends with the hurricane bell signaling an approaching storm

  • Scene 4 - Serena's Room, dawn of the next day.

The residents of Catfish Row drown out the sound of the storm with prayer indoors. A knock is heard at the door, and the chorus believes it to be Death ("Oh there's somebody knocking at the door"). Crown enters dramatically, seeking Bess. The chorus tries praying to make Crown leave, causing him to goad them with the un-Christian "A red-headed woman make a choo-choo jump its track". Bess sees Jake's boat turn over in the river, and Clara runs out to try and save him. Crown says that Porgy is no real man, as he cannot go out to rescue Clara from the storm. Crown goes himself, and the Chorus finish their prayer.


  • Scene 1 - Catfish Row, the next night.

The chorus consoles Clara ("Clara, don't you be downhearted"). Crown enters to settle his differences with Porgy. A fight ensures, and Porgy stabs Crown and exclaims to Bess "You've got a man now. You've got Porgy!".

  • Scene 2 - Catfish Row, the next afternoon.

A detective enters and talks with Serena and Maria about the murders of Crown and Robbins. She says that she knows nothing, and the detective realises he will never break their story. He asks Porgy to come and identify the body, but Porgy is apprehensive. Sporting Life tells Porgy that corpses bleed in the presence of their murderers, and the detective will use this to hang Porgy. Porgy refuses, and is arrested for comtempt of court. Sportin' Life forces Bess to take cocaine, and then tells her that Porgy will be locked up for a long time. He tells her that she should start a new life in New York with the dazzling "There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York". She shuts the door on his face, but he knows that doubt at Porgy's return will make her follow him.

  • Scene 3 - Catfish Row, a week later.

Porgy returns to Catfish Row from prison richer, after playing craps on the street with his loaded dice. He gives gifts to the residents, and does not understand why they all seem so downhearted. He sees Serena with Bess's baby and inquires where Bess has gone. Maria and Serena tell him that Bess has run off with Sporting Life to New York ("Bess is gone"). Porgy vows to go to New York and find Bess in the closing song "I'm on my way".


In September 1935, the opera premiered in Boston, then on October 10, 1935 at the Alvin Theater in New York City. The first production was not financially successful, but highly critically and publically acclaimed. The original production included:

In about 1938, the original cast reunited for a West Coast revival; the exception being that Avon Long took on the role of Sportin Life. Long continued to reprise his role in several of the following productions. A condensed version was performed in 1942 with a reduced cast and a number of musical pieces were removed. This version was a financial success—having died in 1937, Gershwin did not live to see this success—and touring commenced for months followed by a 1943 Broadway run. During this period, the original cast began to leave their roles making room for new singers. In March 1943, the opera debuted for the first time in Europe at Copenhagen. Another revival in 1952 had a notable new cast of principle characters: Leontyne Price as Bess, William Warfield as Porgy, and Cab Calloway as Sportin' Life; this ensemble commenced touring for four years. This prominent cast toured Europe making Porgy and Bess the first American opera appearance in Italy's La Scala; another groundbreaking performance took place in the then Soviet Union.

Other historically relevant revivals occurred in 1961 as well as in 1964, but more important was the Broadway bicentennial production that began September 25, 1976. This performance was by the Houston Grand Opera company. As even the first production had excised and adapted some material to be financially feasible, this was the historical first performance which included the original uncut full score by Gershwin. The spoken dialogue was, as originally intended, done recitatively. Edward Matthews, famous for creating the role of "St. Ignatius" in Virgil Thompson's Four Saints in Three Acts played Porgy in this run.

Helen Dowdy performed as the Strawberry Woman in the productions 1935, 1942, 1952 and 1964. Another Broadway production was staged in 1983. Other important productions were the 1985 Metropolitan Opera and 1987 Houston revivals. A full recording of the opera was undertaken by Simon Rattle and the London Philharmonic Orchestra with Willard White as Porgy and Damon Evans as Sportin' Life. The centennial celebration of the Gershwin brothers from 19961998 included a new production as well. The constant revival of the opera and inclusion of old and new cast members allowed for the forming of traditions that were passed down from the experience cast members.


The play's portrayal of African Americans was attended by some controversy. A planned production by the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle, part of the Federal Theater Project, was cancelled because actors were displeased with what they viewed as a racist portrayal of aspects of African American life. The initial plan was that they would perform the play in a "Negro dialect", which these Pacific Northwest African American actors did not speak, and were supposed to learn from a dialect coach. Florence James attempted a compromise of dropping the use of dialect pronunciations, but ultimately the production was canceled outright. (Becker 2002)

During the era of apartheid in South Africa, several South African theatre companies planned to put on all-white productions of Porgy and Bess. Ira Gershwin, as heir to his brother, consistently refused to permit these productions to be staged.

Musical elements

In the summer of 1934, George Gershwin worked on the opera in Charleston, South Carolina. His inspiration drew from the James Island Gullahs who he felt had traditions that were reminiscent of Africa. This research added to the authenticity of his work.

The music itself reflects his New York jazz roots, but are portrayals of the southern black traditions. Gershwin modeled the pieces after each type of folk song that the composer knew about; jubilees, blues, praying songs, street cries, work songs, and spirituals are blended with traditional arias and recitatives. The themes themselves are not folk melodies, but draw inspiration from them in such a way that genuine folk music is recalled successfully.

The Opera includes many famous songs, many of which became standards in jazz, blues and traditional opera singers:

  • Summertime, Clara's famed opening lullaby
  • My Man's Gone Now, Serena's lamenting aria after Robbins' murder by Crown
  • I Got Plenty of Nuttin, Porgy's song
  • Oh, I Can't Sit Down, ensemble
  • Bess, You Is My Woman Now, a duet by the title characters
  • It Ain't Neccessarily So, Sportin' Life's comedic tune
  • Oh, Doctor Jesus, ensemble


  • Porgy, 1925 novel by DuBose Heyward
  • Porgy, 1927 Theater Guild dramatization by DuBose Heyward & Dorothy Heyward
  • Porgy and Bess, 1935 opera by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward
  • Porgy and Bess, 1958-59 Miles Davis and Gil Evans recorded their interpretation of the George Gershwin/DuBose Heyward/Ira Gershwin opera. The CD was reissued in 1997 by Columbia (CK 65141) with 2 bonus tracks
  • Porgy and Bess, 1959 musical film directed by Otto Preminger, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge in the title roles.


In 1959, a film version was produced starring Robert McFerrin and Adele Addison as the singing voices for Porgy and Bess as portrayed by Poitier and Dandridge. Sammy Davis Jr. takes on the role of Sportin' Life, and Pearl Bailey is Maria. Loulie Jean Norman does the singing voice for Diahann Carroll's Clara, while Inez Matthews—sister of the original production's Jake, Edward Matthews—sings for Ruth Attaway's Serena.

The Gershwin estate was dissapointed with the film, as the score was edited to make it more like a musical theatre. It was pulled from release in 1974, and prints can now only be seen in film archives.


Many of the individual songs from the opera have been recorded, including Sarah Vaughn's rendition of "It Ain't Nesscarily So" and Billie Holiday's version of "Summertime". Frank Sinatra also had recorded "Summertime". Janis Joplin recorded a Blues rock version of "Summertime" with Big Brother & The Holding Company. Billy Stewart's version became a Top 10 Pop and R&B hit in 1966 for Chess Records.

"Summertime" is one of the most popular cover songs (along with the Beatles "Yesterday"), with an estimated 2,500 different versions recorded. Even seemingly unlikely performers such as the Zombies have recorded the song.

External links


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