Porgy and Bess

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Poetry & Opera

Porgy and Bess is an opera, first performed in 1935, with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. It was based on DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy and the play of the same name that he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy Heyward. All three works deal with African American life in the fictitious Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s.

Originally conceived by Gershwin as an "American folk opera," Porgy and Bess premiered in New York in the fall of 1935 and featured an entire cast of classically trained African-American singers—a daring and visionary artistic choice at the time. Incorporating a wealth of blues and jazz idioms into the classical art form of opera, Gershwin considered it his finest work, but it was not widely accepted in the United States as a legitimate opera until 1976 when the Houston Grand Opera production of his complete score (followed nine years later by its Metropolitan Opera premiere) established it as an artistic triumph. The work is now considered part of the standard operatic repertoire and is regularly performed internationally. Despite this success, the opera has been controversial; some, from the outset, have considered it racist.

" Summertime" is by far the best-known piece from the work, and countless interpretations of this and other individual numbers have also been recorded and performed. The opera is admired for Gershwin's innovative synthesis of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music idioms. Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a crippled black man living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina, and his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her pimp, and Sportin' Life, the drug dealer.

The Porgy and Bess original cast recording was included by the National Recording Preservation Board in the Library of Congress, National Recording Registry in 2003. The board selects songs on an annual basis that are "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."


Role Voice type Premiere cast
30 September 1935
(Conductor: - Alexander Smallens)
Porgy, a crippled beggar bass-baritone Todd Duncan
Bess, Crown's girl soprano Anne Brown
Crown, a tough stevedore baritone Warren Coleman
Sportin' Life, a dope peddler tenor John W. Bubbles
Robbins, an inhabitant of Catfish Row tenor Henry Davis
Serena, Robbins' wife soprano Ruby Elzy
Jake, a fisherman baritone Edward Matthews
Clara, Jake's wife soprano Abbie Mitchell
Maria, keeper of the cook-shop contralto Georgette Harvey
Mingo tenor Ford L. Buck
Peter, the honeyman tenor Gus Simons
Lily, Peter's wife soprano Helen Dowdy
Frazier, a black 'lawyer' baritone J. Rosamond Johnson
Annie mezzo-soprano Olive Ball
Strawberry woman mezzo-soprano Helen Dowdy
Jim, a cotton picker baritone Jack Carr
Undertaker baritone John Garth
Nelson tenor Ray Yeates
Crab man tenor Ray Yeates
Scipio, a small boy boy soprano
Mr. Archdale, a white lawyer spoken George Lessey
Detective spoken Alexander Campbell
Policeman spoken Burton McEvilly
Coroner spoken George Carleton
The Eva Jessye Choir, led by Eva Jessye

With the exception of the small speaking roles, all of the characters are black.


Place: Catfish Row, a fictitious black tenement (once, a mansion of the aristocracy) on the waterfront of Charleston, South Carolina.
Time: The 'recent past' (c.1930)

Act 1

Scene 1: Catfish Row, a summer evening

The opera begins with a short introduction which segues into an evening in Catfish Row. Jasbo Brown entertains the community with his piano playing. Clara sings a lullaby to her baby ("Summertime") as the working 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 his goat cart to organize the game. Crown, a lowlife, and his woman Bess enter, and the game begins. Sportin' Life, the local supplier of "happy dust" ( cocaine) and bootleg alcohol, also joins in. One by one, the players get crapped out, leaving only Robbins and Crown, who have become extremely drunk. When Robbins wins, Crown starts a fight, and eventually kills Robbins. Crown runs, telling Bess to fend for herself. The door is shut on her by most of the residents, except Porgy, who shelters her.

Scene 2: Serena's Room, the following night

The mourners sing a spiritual to Robbins ("Gone, Gone, Gone"). To raise money for his burial, a saucer is placed on his chest for the mourners' donations ("Overflow"). A white detective enters, in a speaking voice 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. Serena laments her loss in " 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 2

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"). Clara asks Jake not to go, and to come to a picnic, but he tells her that they desperately need the money. This causes Porgy to sing from his window about his outlook on life ("I got plenty o' nuttin'"). Sportin' Life waltzes around, selling cocaine, but soon incurs the wrath of Maria ("I hates yo' struttin' style"). A fraudulent lawyer, Frazier, arrives and farcically divorces Bess from Crown. Archdale, a white lawman, enters and informs Porgy that Peter will soon be released. The bad omen of a buzzard flies over Catfish Row, causing Porgy to sing "Buzzard keep on flyin' over".

As the rest of Catfish Row prepares for the picnic, Sportin' Life asks Bess to start a new life with him in New York; she refuses. Bess and Porgy are now left alone, and express their love for each other ("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 they go off to the picnic. Porgy reprises "I got plenty o' nuttin'" in high spirits.

Scene 2: Kittiwah Island, that evening

The chorus enjoys themselves at the picnic ("I ain't got no shame doin' what I like to do!"). Sportin' Life presents the chorus his cynical 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 hiding in the woods.

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 affliction ("Oh, doctor Jesus"). The Strawberry Woman and the Crab Man sing their calls on the street, 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." Porgy promises to protect her from Crown. 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. 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." Clara sees Jake's boat turn over in the river, and she runs out to try and save him. Crown says that Porgy is not a real man, as he cannot go out to rescue her from the storm. Crown goes himself, and the chorus finish their prayer. Clara dies in the storm, and Bess will now care for her baby.

Act 3

Scene 1: Catfish Row, the next night

The chorus mourns Clara and Jake ("Clara, Clara, don't you be downhearted"). Crown enters to claim Bess, and a fight ensues, which ends with Porgy killing Crown. Porgy 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. They deny knowledge of Crown's murder, causing the detective to question an apprehensive Porgy. He asks Porgy to come and identify Crown's body. Sportin' Life tells Porgy that corpses bleed in the presence of their murderers, and the detective will use this to hang Porgy. Porgy refuses to identify the body, and is arrested for contempt 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 with him 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 is released from jail and returns to Catfish Row richer, after playing craps with his cellmates with his "lucky bones", as he calls his dice. He gives gifts to the residents, and does not understand why they all seem so downhearted. He sees Clara's baby is now with Serena and madly asks where Bess is. Maria and Serena tell him that Bess has run off with Sportin' Life to New York. All three sing the trio "O Bess, oh where's my Bess" . Porgy calls for his goat cart, and leaves for New York to find Bess in the closing song "Oh Lawd, I'm on my way".

Compositional history

In 1926 George Gershwin read Porgy by DuBose Heyward, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, and immediately wrote to the author suggesting that they collaborate on a folk opera based on the novel. Heyward was enthusiastic, but it was 1934 before Gershwin's composing and performing schedules permitted him to begin actual work on the project. Meanwhile, Heyward and his wife Dorothy dramatized Porgy for a 1927 production which incorporated spirituals into the action. This Theatre Guild presentation of Porgy ran for 367 performances and elicited interest from others, among them Al Jolson, in using it as a basis for some sort of musical production. However, nothing came of these ideas and in 1934, after years of correspondence, George and Ira Gershwin joined DuBose Heyward in Charleston to write the opera which had been germinating in George's imagination for several years.


Original Broadway cast

The first page of George Gershwin's autographed orchestral score to Porgy and Bess.
The first page of George Gershwin's autographed orchestral score to Porgy and Bess.

Gershwin's first version of the opera, running four hours (counting the two intermissions), was performed privately in a concert version in Carnegie Hall, in the fall of 1935. The world premiere performance took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston on September 30, 1935 - the try-out for a work intended initially for Broadway where the opening took place at the Alvin Theatre in New York City on October 10, 1935. During rehearsals and in Boston, Gershwin made many cuts and refinements to shorten the running time and tighten the dramatic action. The run on Broadway lasted 124 performances. Rouben Mamoulian produced and directed and Alexander Smallens conducted.

After the Broadway run, a tour started on January 27, 1936 in Philadelphia and travelled to Pittsburgh and Chicago before ending in Washington, D.C. on March 21, 1936. During the Washington run, the cast—as led by Todd Duncan—protested segregation among the audience. Eventually management gave in to the demands, resulting in the first integrated performance of any show at National Theatre.

Around 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.

On July 14, 1993, the U.S. Post Office issues a Porgy and Bess 29 cent postage stamp for the Gershwin's African-American folk opera.

Crawford's Broadway revival

The noted director and producer Cheryl Crawford brought Porgy and Bess back to Broadway in 1942 with an even more drastically cut version of the opera than the first Broadway staging, making it much more like the musical theatre that Americans were used to hearing from Gershwin. The orchestra was reduced, the cast was halved, and many recitatives were reduced to spoken dialog.

After trying out her concepts at a professional stock theatre in Maplewood, New Jersey in September 1941, the show opened at the Majestic Theatre on Broadway in January 1942. Duncan and Brown reprised their roles as the title characters, with Alexander Smallens again conducting. Etta Moten replaced Brown as Bess in June. This production was far more successful financially.

European premieres

On March 27, 1943, the opera had its European premiere at the Royal Opera House in Copenhagen. This performance is also notable for the fact that it was put on by an all-white cast under the nose of the Nazi occupiers, who put an end to its run after 22 sold-out performances.

Other all-white or mostly-white productions in Europe took place in Zurich in 1945 and 1950, and Copenhagen in 1946.

Leontyne Price as Bess
Leontyne Price as Bess

1952 production

Blevins Davis and Robert Breen produced a revival in 1952 which restored much of the music cut in the Crawford version, including many of the recitatives, and divided the opera into two acts, with the intermission occurring after Crown forces Bess to stay on Kittiwah Island. This version restored the work to a more operatic form, and Porgy and Bess was warmly received through Europe. The London premiere took place on October 9, 1952 at the Stoll Theatre, where it remained until February 10, 1953.

Notable also was this production's original cast, with Leontyne Price as Bess, William Warfield as Porgy, and Cab Calloway as Sportin' Life, a role that was conceived with him in mind. The small role of Ruby was played by a young Maya Angelou. Price and Warfield met and wed while on the tour.

After a small tour of Europe financed by the United States Department of State, the production came to Broadway's Ziegfeld Theatre. It went on the road again in the fall of 1954 to Latin America, the Middle East and Europe, though Price and Warfield had since left the production. This tour saw Porgy and Bess premiere at La Scala in Milan, in February of 1955. A historic yet tense premiere took place in Moscow in December 1955, the first time an American theatre group had been to the Soviet capital since the Bolshevik Revolution. Author Truman Capote travelled with the cast and crew, writing an account of this event in his book The Muses Are Heard: An Account.

Houston Grand Opera's 1976 production

During the 1960s and early 1970s, Porgy and Bess mostly languished on the shelves, a victim of its perceived condescending racism in a racially-charged time. Though new productions took place in 1961 and 1964 along with a Vienna Volksoper premiere in 1965, these did little to change most Americans' opinions of the work.

The Houston Grand Opera production which opened on September 25, 1976 helped to turn the tide. For the first time, an American opera company had tackled the opera, not a Broadway production company. This production was based on Gershwin's original full score and did not incorporate the cuts and other changes that Gershwin himself had made before the New York premiere, but it allowed the public to take in the operatic whole as first envisioned by the composer. In this light, it became clear that Porgy and Bess was indeed an opera, not a serious piece of musical theatre. Donnie Ray Albert, Clamma Dale and Larry Marshall starred, respectively as Porgy, Bess and Sportin' Life. This production won the Houston Grand Opera a Tony Award—the only opera ever to receive one—and a Grammy Award.

Subsequent productions

Another Broadway production was staged in 1983. After toying with the idea of staging the opera since the 1930s, the Metropolitan Opera finally did so for the first time in 1985, opening on February 6, with a starry cast including Simon Estes, Grace Bumbry, Bruce Hubbard, Gregg Baker and Florence Quivar. England's Glyndebourne Festival tackled the work in an acclaimed 1986 production directed by Trevor Nunn, which was scenically expanded and videotaped for television in 1993 (see below in "Film and television"). These productions were also based on the "complete score," without incorporating Gershwin's revisions. A semi-staged version of this production was performed at the Proms in 1998. The centennial celebration of the Gershwin brothers from 1996–1998 included a new production as well. On February 24–25, 2006, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of John Mauceri, gave a concert performance at the Tennessee Performing Arts Centre that incorporated the cuts made by Gershwin himself for the New York premiere, thus giving the audience an idea of what the opera sounded like on its Broadway opening. In 2000 and 2002 there was a revival directed by Tazewell Thompson at New York City Opera. In 2007, Los Angeles Opera staged a revival directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by John DeMain, who led the history-making Houston Opera revival of Porgy and Bess in 1976.

Porgy and Bess: the Musical

Porgy and Bess: the Musical premiered November 9, 2006 at the Savoy Theatre (London), directed by Trevor Nunn. Nunn had previously directed the show as an opera at the Glyndebourne Festival and as a videotaped television production with Willard White; for this production, he adapted the lengthy opera to fit the conventions of musical theatre. Working with the Gershwin estate, Nunn used dialogue from the original novel and subsequent Broadway stage play to replace the recitative with naturalistic scenes. He also did not use conventional operatic voices in this production. Gareth Valentine provided the musical adaptation.

This original cast of this version included:

  • Clarke Peters as Porgy
  • Nicola Hughes as Bess
  • O-T Fagbenle as Sportin' Life
  • Cornel S. John as Crown

Racial controversy

From the outset, the opera's depiction of African Americans attracted controversy. Problems with the racial aspects of the opera continue to this day. Virgil Thomson, a white American composer, stated that "Folk lore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935." Duke Ellington stated "the times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms." Several of the members of the original cast later stated that they, too, had concerns that their characters might play into a stereotype that African Americans lived in poverty, took drugs and solved their problems with their fists.

A planned production by the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle in the late 1930s, part of the Federal Theatre Project, had been 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.

Another production of Porgy and Bess, this time at the University of Minnesota in 1939, ran into similar troubles. According to Barbara Cyrus, one of the few black students at the university at the time, members of the local African American community saw the play as "detrimental to the race" and as a vehicle that promoted racist stereotypes. The play was eventually cancelled due to pressure from the African American community, which saw their success as proof of the increasing political power of blacks in the Twin Cities.

This belief that Porgy and Bess was racist gained strength with the American Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. In fact, as these movements advanced, Porgy and Bess was seen as more and more out of place. When the play was revived in the 1960s, social critic and African American educator Harold Cruse called it, "The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World." African-American Author John Hope Franklin did not totally agree with this view, stating in his introduction to Three Negro Classics "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."

Gershwin’s all-black opera was also unpopular with some celebrated black artists. Harry Belafonte declined to play Porgy in the late 1950s film version, so it was offered to Sidney Poitier who regretted his choice ever after. Betty Allen, president of the Harlem School of the Arts, admittedly loathed the piece and Grace Bumbry, who excelled in the 1985 Metropolitan Opera production as Bess, made the often cited statement: "I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there."

Over time, however, the opera gained acceptance from the opera community and some (though not all) in the African American community. Maurice Press stated in 2004 that "Porgy and Bess belongs as much to the black singer-actors who bring it to life as it does to the Heywards and the Gershwins." Indeed, Ira Gershwin stipulated that only blacks be allowed to play the lead roles when the opera was performed in the United States, launching the careers of several prominent opera singers.

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. He drew inspiration from the James Island Gullah community, which he felt had preserved some African musical traditions. This research added to the authenticity of his work.

The music itself reflects his New York jazz roots, but also draws on 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.

In addition to being influenced by New York jazz and southern black music, many biographers and contemporaries have noted that for many numbers Gershwin borrowed melodies from Jewish liturgical music. Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonski has claimed that the melody to "It Ain't Necessarily So" was taken from the Haftarah blessing, and others have attributed it to the Torah blessing. Allusions to Jewish music have been detected by other observers as well. One musicologist detected 'an uncanny resemblance' between the folk tune Havenu Shalom Aleichem and the spiritual It Take a Long Pull to Get There.

Use of leitmotif

The score makes use of leitmotifs, which are introduced to establish each character with a unique musical theme. The score then intertwines these themes to show conflict between characters. The best example of this is after the aria "There's a boat dat's leaving soon for New York" in Act III Scene ii.

Bess' idea of Porgy is expressed by snippets their duet "Bess, you is my woman now," in which they pledge their fidelity to one another:
( Listen)

Her idea of Sportin' Life is shown through snippets of his aria "There's a boat that's leavin' soon for New York" in which the drug peddler tries to persuade Bess to leave Catfish Row with him:

Bess's difficult decision to follow him is represented by a conflict of these two melodies. The first is heard in a sparse and distant orchestration:

Sportin' Life is sure that Bess will follow him, and the quiet cocaine motif is heard. Then his own song is heard in a dazzling, overblown orchestration, complete with swaggering rhythms:

This contrast represents Sportin' Life's successful corruption of Bess's love for Porgy.

Selected recordings


Days after the Broadway premiere of Porgy and Bess with an all-black cast, two white opera singers, Lawrence Tibbett and Helen Jepson, both members of the Metropolitan Opera, recorded highlights of the opera in a New York sound studio, released as Highlights from Porgy and Bess. Members of the original cast were not recorded until 1940, when Todd Duncan and Anne Brown recorded selections of the work. Two years later, when the first Broadway revival occurred, American Decca rushed other members of the cast into the recording studio to record other selections not recorded in 1940. These two albums were marketed as a two volume 78 rpm set Selections from George Gershwin's folk opera Porgy and Bess. After LP's had begun to be manufactured in 1948, the recording was transferred to LP, and subsequently, to CD.

For years, the two albums mentioned above were the only ones available of music from Porgy and Bess.

Although there was an initial feeling by members of the jazz community that a Jewish piano player and a white novelist could not adequately convey the plight of blacks in a 1930s Charleston ghetto, jazz musicians warmed up to the opera after twenty years. Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald recorded an album in 1957 in which they sang and scatted Gershwin's tunes. The next year, Miles Davis recorded what some consider a a seminal interpretation of the opera arranged for big band.

In 1959, Columbia Masterworks Records released a soundtrack album of Samuel Goldwyn's film version of Porgy and Bess, which had been made that year. It was not a complete version of the opera, nor was it even a complete version of the film soundtrack, which featured more music than could be contained on a single LP. The album remained in print until the early 1970s, when it was withdrawn from stores at the request of the Gershwin estate. It is the first stereo album of music from Porgy and Bess with an all-black cast. However, according to the album liner notes, Sammy Davis, Jr. was under contract to another recording company, and his vocal tracks for the film could not be used on the album, so Cab Calloway substituted his own vocals of Sportin' Life's songs. Robert McFerrin was the singing voice of Porgy, and Adele Addison the singing voice of Bess. The white singer Loulie Jean Norman was the singing voice of Clara (portrayed onscreen by Diahann Carroll), and Inez Matthews the singing voice of Serena (portrayed onscreen by Ruth Attaway).

In 1963, Leontyne Price and William Warfield, who had starred in the 1952 world tour of Porgy and Bess, recorded their own album of excerpts from the opera for RCA Victor. None of the other singers from that production appeared on that album, but John W. Bubbles, the original Sportin' Life, substituted for Cab Calloway (who had played Sportin' Life onstage in the 1952 production). The 1963 recording of Porgy and Bess excerpts remains the only official recording of the score on which Bubbles sings Sportin' Life's two big numbers.

Complete recordings

  • 1951: Columbia Masterworks: the company recorded a 3-LP album of what was then the standard performing version of "Porgy and Bess" - the most complete recording made of the opera up to that time. It was billed as a "complete" version, but was complete only insofar as that was the way the work was usually performed then. (Actually, nearly an hour was cut from the opera.) Because album producer Goddard Lieberson was eager to bring as much of Porgy and Bess as he felt was practical on records at the time, the recording featured more of Gershwin's original recitatives and orchestrations than had ever been heard before on records. The recording was conducted by Lehman Engel, and starred Lawrence Winters and Camilla Williams, both from the New York City Opera. Several singers who had been associated with the original 1935 production and the 1942 revival of "Porgy and Bess" were finally given a chance to record their roles more or less complete. The album was highly acclaimed as a giant step in recorded opera in its time. The album was re-released at budget price on the Odyssey label in the early 1970s. It has subsequently appeared on CD on Sony's "Masterworks Heritage" CD series, and on the Naxos label as well. The album is not sung in as directly "operatic" a style as later versions, treading a fine line between opera and musical theatre.
  • 1976: Decca Records: The first complete recording of the opera based on Gershwin's original score, restoring the material cut by Gershwin during rehearsals for the New York premiere in 1935, was made by the Cleveland Orchestra under Lorin Maazel in 1976 for Decca Records in the UK and London Records in the U.S., in time for the U.S. Bicentennial. It starred Willard White singing his first Porgy, and Leona Mitchell as Bess. The recording was praised by critics for its performance quality and racial significance, but at the same time was highly criticized by some for not bringing out the "jazzier" qualities of the score.
  • 1977: RCA Victor: A subsequent complete recording of the opera by the Houston Grand Opera based on the complete original score.
Both the 1976 and 1977 recordings of the opera won Grammy Awards for Best Opera Recording, making Porgy and Bess one of the few operas (if not the only one) to win this award over two consecutive years.
  • 1989: EMI: The Glyndebourne album also based on the complete original score, without Gershwin's cuts.
  • 2006: The latest recording of the opera made by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra under John Mauceri is the first to observe Gershwin's cuts and thus present the opera as it was heard in New York in 1935.

Porgy and Bess was proclaimed the official opera of the State of South Carolina in 2001.


Film and television

A 1959 film version was produced in 70 mm Todd-AO by Samuel Goldwyn, but plagued with problems. Rouben Mamoulian, who had directed the 1935 Broadway premiere, was hired to direct the film, but was subsequently fired in favour of director Otto Preminger for daring to suggest that the film be made on location in South Carolina after a fire on the sound stage destroyed the film's sets. Goldwyn, who never liked making films on location, considered Mamoulian's request a sign of disloyalty. Robert McFerrin dubbed the songs for Sidney Poitier's Porgy and Adele Addison for Dorothy Dandridge's Bess. Ruth Attaway's Serena and Diahann Carroll's Clara were also overdubbed. Although Dandridge, Davis and Carroll were all singers, the women's voices were not considered operatic enough. Davis and Pearl Bailey (who played Maria in the movie) were the only principals who sang their own songs. Andre Previn's adaptation of the score won him an Academy Award, the film's only Oscar.

The Gershwin estate was disappointed with the film, as the score was edited to make it more like a musical. Much of the music was omitted from the film, and many of Gershwin's orchestrations were either changed or completely scrapped. It was shown on network television in the U.S. only once, in 1967. It was pulled from release in 1974, and prints can now only be seen in film archives or on bootleg videos.

In 1993, the Glyndebourne Festival stage production of "Porgy and Bess" was greatly expanded scenically and videotaped in a television studio. It was telecast by the BBC in England and by PBS in the United States. It was directed by Trevor Nunn and featured a cast of American singers, with the exception of Willard White, who is Jamaican but sounded American, as Porgy. Cynthia Haymon sang the role of Bess. Nunn's "opening up" of the stage production was considered highly imaginative, his cast both sang and acted well, and the three hour production retained nearly all of Gershwin's music, heard in the original 1935 orchestrations - including the opera's sung recitatives, which had occasionally been turned into spoken dialogue in earlier productions. The 1993 "Porgy and Bess" was subsequently released on VHS and DVD, and is, so far, the only version of the opera to appear in those formats. It has won far greater acclaim than the 1959 film, which was widely panned by most critics for allegedly not being entirely faithful to Gershwin's opera, for refining the language grammatically, and for being staged in what they called an "overblown" manner. It was nominated for four Emmy Awards, and won for its art direction.

In 2002, the New York City Opera telecast its new version of the Houston Opera production, from the stage of Lincoln Centre. This version featured far more cuts than the previous telecast, but, like all stage versions produced since 1976, used the sung recitatives and Gershwin's orchestrations. The telecast also included interviews with director Tazewell Thompson and was hosted by Beverly Sills.

In 2006 the opera was presented as a musical in an adaptation by Trevor Nunn, who also directed and Gareth Valentine (Musical Supervisor). Called "The Gershwin's Porgy And Bess", it was staged at the Savoy Theatre, London to critical acclaim, but disappointing box office.

While not an adaptation, Sesame Street parodied the song "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" in season 36 of the show. Hoots the Owl sang to Cookie Monster about how "A Cookie is a Sometimes Food".

The 1985 movie White Nights featured a scene in which Gregory Hines performed There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York as Sportin' Life. Hines' rendition, before a Siberian audience, included a tap dancing sequence. Director Taylor Hackford pointed out in a special edition DVD release of the film that it was necessary to locate a Russian "woman of colour" (Helene Denbey) to portray Bess, as per Gershwin's stipulations.


Gershwin prepared an orchestral suite containing music from the opera after Porgy and Bess closed early on Broadway. Though originally titled "Suite from Porgy and Bess", Ira later renamed it " Catfish Row".

In 1942 Robert Russell Bennett arranged a medley (rather than a suite) for orchestra which has often been heard in the concert hall, known as Porgy and Bess: A Symphonic Picture. It is based on Gershwin's original scoring, though for a slightly different instrumentation (the piano was removed from the orchestral texture at the request of the conductor Fritz Reiner, for whom the arrangement was made). Morton Gould also arranged an orchestral suite in the 1950s.


Porgy and Bess contains many songs that have become popular in their own right, becoming standards in jazz and blues in addition to their original operatic setting.

Some of the more popular songs include:

  • " Summertime", Act I Scene 1
  • "A Woman is a Sometime Thing", Act I Scene 1
  • " My Man's Gone Now", Act I Scene 2
  • "It Take a Long Pull to Get There", Act II Scene 1
  • "I Got Plenty o' Nuttin'", Act II Scene 1
  • "Buzzard Keep on Flyin'", Act II Scene 1
  • "Bess, You Is My Woman Now", Act II Scene 1
  • "Oh, I Can't Sit Down," Act II Scene 1
  • " It Ain't Necessarily So", Act II Scene 2
  • "What you want wid Bess", Act II Scene 2
  • "Oh, Doctor Jesus", Act II Scene 3
  • " I Loves You, Porgy", Act II Scene 3
  • "A Red-Haired Woman", Act II Scene 4
  • "There's a Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York", Act III Scene 2
  • "Bess, O Where's My Bess?", Act III Scene 3
  • "O Lawd, I'm On My Way", Act III Scene 3

Some of the more celebrated renditions of these songs include Sarah Vaughan's "It Ain't Necessarily So" and the versions of "Summertime" recorded by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong and Miles Davis. Numerous other musicians have recorded "Summertime" in varying styles, including both instrumental and vocal recordings. Janis Joplin recorded a Blues rock version of "Summertime" with Big Brother & The Holding Company. Sublime recorded a (radically reworked) version, as well. Billy Stewart's version became a Top 10 Pop and R&B hit in 1966 for Chess Records.

Nina Simone recorded several Porgy & Bess songs. She made her debut in 1959 with a version of "I Loves You, Porgy", which became a Billboard top 20 hit. Other songs she recorded included "Porgy, I's Your Woman Now" [i.e. "Bess, You Is My Woman Now"], "Summertime" and "My Man's Gone Now".

"Summertime" vies with the Beatles " Yesterday" as one of the most popular cover songs in popular music, with an estimated 2,500 different versions recorded. Even seemingly unlikely performers such as the Zombies have made recordings of it.

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