One Score 2015

Porgy and Bess


The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess Has Had A Long Journey to The Promised Land

By Dennis Polkow

One of the most popular properties of the 20th century, Porgy and Bess is known by everyone at least for its songs. Indeed, “Summertime” remains the single most recognizable operatic aria on the planet. Standards such as “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” “Bess, You is My Woman Now” and “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” among others, are known and loved around the world. Nonetheless, 80 years after the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess first premiered, it remains a work in search of a genre despite such familiarity.

Some of the confusion stems from Gershwin himself, who settled on the use of the term “folk opera” in describing Porgy and Bess. As a stand-alone label, “opera” suggested a milieu and an audience that was narrow for what Gershwin had in mind—that is, the incorporation of various African-American styles of music such as jazz, blues, gospel, spirituals, et al., within a contemporary Eurocentric through-composed narrative of recitatives, arias, choruses, ensembles and instrumental pieces. There really was no terminology that could fully encompass the eclectic vision Gershwin had in mind, even if what he set out to write had in part been instigated by the Metropolitan Opera having approached him to write an opera on a subject of his own choosing.

That Porgy and Bess did not end up being premiered at the Met says less about what genre Gershwin had in mind in composing it than his being practical enough to recognize that, despite the greater legitimacy and the more vast resources of the Met over Broadway (his original full orchestration, which took nine months to complete, was greatly reduced and simplified for Broadway), the piece would have more performances for a wider audience on the Great White Way. He also became convinced that having a black cast perform the roles would greatly enhance the work’s “authenticity,” something unlikely to happen in 1935 at the Met, where African Americans would not sing on its stage until some 20 years later in the mid-1950s. (The first African American male to sing at the Met was baritone Robert McFerrin, Bobby McFerrin’s father.) That tradition of a black cast, even for choristers, remains mandated by the Gershwin estate in English-speaking countries to this day.

This was a game-changing decision with far-reaching implications. It is worth remembering that vaudeville stalwart Al Jolson, who had given Gershwin his greatest hit in 1920 with “Swanee,” originally wanted to play Porgy and that Gershwin himself seriously considered opera star Lawrence Tibbitt to play the role (Tibbett would go on to appear on the very first recording of songs from Porgy and Bess, with Gershwin himself supervising the recording sessions). Both would have tastelessly done the role in blackface, a common practice in the mid-1930s, when segregation in theaters was still commonplace.

Although Gershwin’s decision to use black performers would dramatically alter opportunities for African Americans in the theater forever after, and he was widely praised in the African-American community for doing so, there was also the view that as a work about black life by white authors spotlighting fornication, drug and alcohol addiction, gambling, prostitution, rape, violence and murder, Porgy and Bess served to reinforce white stereotypes about blacks, a notion that would particularly gain steam during the civil rights era.

In its uncut form, as Gershwin heard it in a private concert performance at Carnegie Hall, Porgy and Bess was over four hours long, complete with two intermissions, about the length of Wagner’s Tannhäuser. Gershwin was pressured to make cuts prior to its Boston tryout and still more before its Broadway opening. But even that version, which ran 124 performances, was considered long—though by Broadway musical standards, not by opera standards.

By the time Porgy and Bess was revived on Broadway with its original cast seven years later (and five years after Gershwin’s sudden death at the age of 38), the work and its performing forces had been drastically cut and rethought along the conventions of Gershwin’s own musical theater pieces: the main arias remained as songs but most through-composed and recitative sections were reduced to spoken dialogue. That version became far more successful than the original had been and remained the template for all subsequent versions for nearly 35 years.

A 1952 version produced by Robert Breen restored some of Gershwin’s original music and was notable for launching the operatic careers of William Warfield and Leontyne Price, who met and were married while performing the lead roles, and for featuring Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life, the performer Gershwin had in mind when he conceived the role. A young Maya Angelou played the small role of Ruby.

That version would tour internationally, including a stint at Chicago’s Civic Opera House and a four-month run on London’s West End, and became the first American opera ever presented at La Scala. At the height of the Cold War, the cast became the first group of Americans to perform in Moscow since the 1917 Russian Revolution; a young Truman Capote accompanied them for the New Yorker and wrote a book, The Muses Are Heard, about the experience.

While productions of Porgy and Bess continued to reinforce the notion that it was a musical theater piece, despite the fact that classically trained voices were employed for its major roles (with the exception of Sportin’ Life), many of its songs became hits and standards across an astonishing variety of genres.

“Summertime” became a hit for Billie Holliday in 1936, less than a year after the original Porgy and Bess opened. Billy Stewart also had a hit with a blues version in 1966. There have been nearly 34,000 different vocal and instrumental cover versions of “Summertime” across all genres and styles since, including those by the Zombies and the ska-punk band Sublime. Janis Joplin even recorded it and sang it at Woodstock.

The duet “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” has had a number of famous covers as well, most notably Louis Armstrong with Ella Fitzgerald and Harry Belafonte with Lena Horne, both on popular albums devoted to songs from Porgy and Bess. What is particularly ironic about Belafonte recording an entire album devoted to Porgy and Bess is that he fervently objected to the role of Porgy, saying he would “never play a role on my knees” and, for a time, successfully persuading Sidney Poitier to turn down doing a film version until producer Samuel Goldwyn managed to change Poitier’s mind.

“I Loves You, Porgy” became a hit for Nina Simone at the start of her career and has also been recorded by Billie Holliday, Bill Evans and Barbra Streisand, and covered by Whitney Houston and Christina Aguilera, among others. “It Ain’t Necessarily So” was recorded by artists as diverse as Sarah Vaughan, the Moody Blues, John Coltrane and Aretha Franklin, while such singers as Frank Sinatra and Brian Wilson have traversed “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’.”

Instrumental jazz versions of Porgy and Bess have included numerous big-band incarnations of the score over the years, as well as the Miles Davis–Gil Evans collaboration that many rank on par with or as a superior follow-up to their The Birth of the Cool. Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass and Joe Henderson also released albums exclusively devoted to music from Porgy and Bess.

For the concert hall, Gershwin himself had prepared an orchestral suite he originally called Suite for Porgy and Bess, which was performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at Ravinia on July 25, 1936, just a few months after Porgy and Bess had premiered. Gershwin himself conducted and played the piano part, and he also performed as piano soloist for the Concerto in F and Rhapsody in Blue on an all-Gershwin program. “A more beautiful place for a concert I cannot imagine,” was Gershwin’s response to the experience.

After Gershwin’s death the following year, the suite remained unperformed and forgotten for some 20 years before it was rediscovered and renamed Catfish Row by Ira Gershwin; James Levine recorded the piece with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1990 during his tenure as music director of Ravinia.

Meanwhile both Robert Russell Bennett and Morton Gould prepared their own orchestral versions of music from Porgy and Bess, and Bennett also prepared a concert version of selections for soprano, baritone, chorus and orchestra.

Bobby McFerrin put together an expanded performing concert version in advance of the Gershwin centennial that he conducted around the country, including at Ravinia in 1997. That version, which will be performed July 8, remains a fluid work in progress and a salute to his father.

Jascha Heifetz, who had attended the 1935 premiere, prepared a transcription of selections from Porgy and Bess for solo violin and piano, sections of which are still frequently heard as encores at violin recitals. Percy Grainger prepared a 20-minute two-piano version of Porgy and Bess music, and Earl Wild arranged a Liszt-style paraphrase called Fantasy on Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Film offers for Porgy and Bess had been persistent since the work’s premiere, but Ira Gershwin kept them steadfastly at bay for over 20 years before finally selling the rights to Samuel Goldwyn in the late 1950s.

By then the great period of movie musicals had ended, and with racial attitudes shifting, many blacks and whites had come to think of Porgy and Bess as a race relic. Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge reluctantly joined the cast as the leads, dubbed by Robert McFerrin and Adele Addison, respectively. Sammy Davis Jr. did his own singing as Sportin’ Life.

The production was plagued with problems. Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the 1935 original, was originally signed to direct but was let go by Goldwyn when the two failed to see eye to eye; Otto Preminger stepped in. At one point, the entire two-million-dollar Catfish Row set had even been destroyed by fire (with arson widely suspected).

The film was a box office disappointment and sparked controversy in some cities before being pulled from release. It had one network-television showing in 1967 before Goldwyn’s 15-year lease on the rights expired in the early 1970s, after which the film could not be shown without the Gershwin estate’s permission, which has rarely been given.

Apart from rare special festival screenings, the film has by and large not been seen since and, aside from bootleg copies, has never had an official home-video release of any kind. Despite his follow-up stardom, Poitier has since expressed regret over having played Porgy.

Like most of the stage productions of Porgy and Bess, the film had reduced the recitative sections of the work to spoken dialogue. Thus it was a bold and unexpected move in 1975 when Lorin Maazel, then music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, led concert performances of what he called the “full score.”

The Maazel/Cleveland performances were the first time virtually all of Gershwin’s music for Porgy and Bess had been heard at one time and place since the private Carnegie Hall concert performance that Gershwin had organized before the Boston and New York premieres, by which time more than a quarter of the music he wrote had been excised from the score. (Subsequent versions that omitted the recitatives had whittled the music down in some cases to less than half of what Gershwin had composed.) Decca/London Records recorded that version and released it for the American Bicentennial—billed as a “World Premiere Complete Performance”—and it became a bestseller.

At the same time, producer Sherwin M. Goldman had been attempting to get a staged production of the complete Porgy and Bess off the ground, hoping for a collaboration with the Met, which never materialized.

After Goldman had secured the reluctant but necessary permissions from the Gershwin estate (Ira had originally discouraged him, saying, Why mess with it?), Houston Opera became the company willing to risk staging its first complete Porgy and Bess, first at its home venue before touring the country and even triumphantly landing back on Broadway, where it played to rave reviews and packed houses. The recording of that production, which many still consider to be the definitive recording of the complete work, is reported to have made Ira Gershwin weep.

The year 1985 marked the 50th anniversary of Porgy and Bess and saw the work come, at long last, to the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by its music director, James Levine (while he was still music director at Ravinia). It became the fastest-selling production in the Met’s history. Ira had passed away two years earlier, but his widow attended and thought the operatic trimmings were so over-the-top that the Gershwin estate would not approve a television broadcast.

Nonetheless, the point had been made: half a century after its premiere, Porgy and Bess had finally managed to break free of controversy; it had achieved the upper end of legitimacy and was, like Porgy himself, on its way. Opera companies across the country and around the world began traversing Porgy and Bess with its epic score and its recitatives restored intact, finally presenting the work in the manner of the “folk opera” that had been Gershwin’s intention all along.

To be sure, there are still non-operatic musical theater–style productions of Porgy and Bess that cut through-composed sections and reduce its recitatives to spoken word; the latest Broadway production even gutted the original libretto for a new book, drawing immense fire from no less of a Gershwin admirer than Stephen Sondheim, among others. But at least now the work can be heard, by those interested, as its composer conceived it.

Award-winning arts and music critic Dennis Polkow is a columnist at Newcity Chicago and a Chicago correspondent for the London-based Seen and Heard International.