By George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin
How Porgy Came to Be
by Evans Mirageas
George Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess is our greatest American opera. Make no mistake, it is an opera. Even if the recent Broadway production wins new friends for Porgy and Bess, Gershwin set out to write a grand opera in the style of Bizet’s Carmen and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, works he greatly admired. Like those masterworks, his vision was to create a music drama that would bring a particular population and story to life on stage in recitatives, arias, duets, and choruses with a full symphony orchestra in the pit.
For the story, George Gershwin worked with the author DuBose Heyward who had written the novel Porgy. George’s brother Ira also contributed to the creation of the libretto.
DuBose Heyward was born in 1885 in Charleston, South Carolina. He was a descendant of Thomas Heyward, Jr., a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Heyward found inspiration for his book, Porgy, in Charleston. The setting for the novel, Catfish Row, was inspired by a real location. The character who would become Porgy was a disabled beggar whose name was Samuel Smalls. When published in 1925, Porgy was an instant hit. Literary critics cast Heyward as an authority on Southern literature, later writing, “Heyward’s attention to the detail and reality of the Southern black’s lifestyle was not only sympathetic, but something that no one had ever seen done before.”
George Gershwin became acquainted with the novel Porgy soon after it was published in 1925. Within two years, Heyward and his wife Dorothy had turned the novel into a play. Like the novel, the play was successful, and from the opening night in 1927 until about the middle of 1933, Gershwin could not stop talking about “the Porgy project.” He was going to take this landmark in literature and theater and turn it into an opera. The process had many fits and starts, owing mostly to Gershwin’s hectic career of writing musicals and touring as a virtuoso pianist, but by 1934, he felt he was ready to tackle the mammoth prospect of writing a full-length opera.
In writing Porgy and Bess, Gershwin was at pains to capture the speech patterns of the characters DuBose Heyward created. He spent time in Charleston and in the surrounding countryside with Heyward absorbing the culture. The characters in the story speak the Gullah dialect of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. This presented particular challenges to readers of the novel, but to regularize their speech robs these men and women of their individuality. Scholars today praise Heyward for faithfully capturing the sound of this historic speech and Gershwin for bringing much of it into the opera.
The Gullah language is based on English, with strong influences from West and Central African languages. For generations, outsiders stigmatized Gullah speakers, regarding their language as a mark of ignorance and low social status. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was raised as a Gullah speaker in coastal Georgia. When asked why he has little to say during hearings of the court, he explained that the ridicule he received for his Gullah speech as a young man caused him to develop the habit of listening rather than speaking in public.
While he was in the Carolinas researching Gullah culture, George Gershwin attended many Gullah church services. Heyward often told a story that Gershwin got so caught up in one of the services that he outshouted the congregation. What a journey for a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.
By the summer of 1935, Gershwin was working at a feverish pace to complete the opera in time for an early fall tryout run in Boston and then on to New York. The previews at the Colonial Theater in Boston in September 1935 got generally favorable reviews. Gershwin’s music was lauded and the story was revolutionary for the opera stage. While it was not the very first opera to have an African American cast, it was the first truly grand opera to do so. The performances were praised and nearly everyone agreed it was too long, by about an hour! While disappointed, Gershwin and his creative team were also practical men of the theater, veterans of countless Broadway tryouts. They got to work.
By opening night at the Alvin Theater in New York on October 10, 1935, Porgy and Bess was a typical three-hour evening with intermission—just right for the Broadway attention span and just right for the average opera evening as well. Were reviewers divided? Yes. Most of the major dailies sent both their theatrical and music reviewers. Generally, the theater reviewers liked the show, and even the highbrow music critics praised the best in the music. But confusion reigned from the beginning. Was it really an opera? Was it instead a very high-minded (and expensive) Broadway show?
One person was absolutely certain, George Gershwin. He called it an opera—a folk-opera to be exact-—and he never wavered from that position. That it was produced on Broadway was for him an economic necessity born of the time. The Metropolitan Opera of that day wouldn’t touch an all African American opera by a Brooklyn-born Jewish boy. It is wonderfully ironic that when Porgy and Bess finally did reach the Met in 1985, its ardent champion and conductor was a Jewish boy from Cincinnati, James Levine.
Porgy and Bess ran for a respectable three-and-one-half months on Broadway, and a short tour followed, including a stop in Washington D.C. There, the original Porgy, Todd Duncan, succeeded in getting the segregated National Theater to let black and white patrons sit side by side anywhere in the house for the first time in the history of that theater. Gershwin died just 18 months later, in the summer of 1937. Heyward lived only until 1940, and then the subsequent life of Porgy and Bess began.
In 1942, the Ohio-born producer Cheryl Crawford brought it back to Broadway with a new production that Gershwin and Heyward would not have recognized. Feeling that the original operatic style would not suit wartime audiences, Crawford and her team replaced the recitatives with spoken dialogue and shortened the show even further. It was a big success.
After the war, starting in 1952, Porgy and Bess would become a political and artistic weapon in the Cold War. An enterprising producing team of Blevins Davis and Robert Breen assembled a touring Porgy and Bess that barnstormed the world. For more than five years, in countless opera houses and theaters, Porgy and Bess was seen and heard, breaking many barriers. It was the first American opera produced at La Scala in Milan, the first American opera performed in the Soviet Union, and everywhere it went, its all-black cast made friends for American art. It also introduced the young Mississippi-born soprano Leontyne Price as Bess. Ms. Price would go on to an opera-superstar career. That international tour came to Cincinnati during the week of February 1, 1954.
After the Breen tour ended in 1956, Porgy and Bess went into something of a theatrical limbo until 1976. To understand what happened, we need to go back to 1935 and the original score of the opera.
In 1935, George Gershwin was a supremely confident young man. In this spirit he published the score of Porgy and Bess with every note he wrote—before a single rehearsal had taken place. But, during the tryout process, Gershwin did what Verdi did, what Puccini, Rossini, and Bizet did. He cut the bits that slowed the action, eliminated the stretches of music that would impede the overall success of the opera.
As such, the original score is a precious document, especially for the scholarly-minded. It is wonderful to know just how much of his genius George Gershwin poured into his only mature opera. But he never intended the score to become sacrosanct from which a faithful recreation of his every thought would be put on stage. Nevertheless, that’s basically what happened in the 1970s.
In 1976, starting with a terrific production that originated at the Houston Grand Opera, producers started mounting what they called the complete Porgy and Bess. But, once again, we had a nearly four-hour evening, in which there are long stretches of music that slow down the headlong and vital impact of this opera. On the positive side, the Houston tour won many new friends for Porgy and Bess. It led to several opera houses finally taking it into their repertoire.
As our conductor David Charles Abell elucidates in his notes, we know the version of Porgy and Bess that Gershwin produced. Enough documentation survives to easily recreate the tight and compelling opera the composer saw many times. Would he have tinkered with the opera had he lived longer? Would he have been eager to restore some of the music he cut? Maybe, but enough proselytizing for our version. Having said all that, we will restore a few measures here and there that Gershwin cut in order to let scenes flow smoothly from one to the next. Like Gershwin’s producing team from New York’s Theater Guild in 1935, we’ve created what we hope will allow you to have the most beautiful, magical, and thrilling evening in the theater when we present Porgy and Bess for you this season.
Evans Mirageas is The Harry T. Wilks Artistic Director of Cincinnati Opera.