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The Great "Porgy" Debate
By John Ardoin

Porgy may boast of having "plenty o' nuthin'," but George Gershwin's "Porgy and Bess" can claim lots of everything. As conductor Lorin Maazel observed when he made the first uncut recording of this magnificent work in 1976, "Gershwin's compassion for individuals is Verdian, his comprehension of them, Mozartean. His grasp of the folk-spirit is as firm and subtle as Mussorgsky's, his melodic inventiveness rivals Bellini's...."

Happily, the great "Porgy" debate -- is it a folk opera? a musical comedy? a jazz drama? an operetta? -- is now history. "Porgy" is an opera, and a grand opera at that. As a theater piece, it easily meets the criteria for opera once established by Richard Strauss and his librettist, playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal: It has pathos, comedy, and high drama, and each of these elements is expressed through a wide variety of music.

Todd Duncan and Anne Brown

Todd Duncan is Porgy and Anne Brown is Bess in the original 1935 production.

It took a long time for us as a nation to realize this, however. It was not until 1985, the fiftieth anniversary of "Porgy"'s premiere, that it at last reached the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. If further authentication of its operatic credentials were needed, it came when "Porgy" became the hit of the European summer music festival circuit in 1986, in a landmark production by the Glyndebourne Festival Opera in England, followed a few years later by a production at London's Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

 Although it was premiered in 1935, the opera's roots extend to 1924 and a slim novel, "Porgy," by the Southern writer Edwin DuBose Heyward. The idea for the book came from a newspaper clipping about a crippled black man who was indicted in Charleston, S.C. -- Heyward's home town -- for a crime of passion. Heyward took the news item and added to it his memories of the teeming life on Charleston's waterfront and in Catfish Row, the city's black quarter. From these different elements came first a book, then a play, and finally an opera.

Todd Duncan and cast

Todd Duncan as Porgy.

In their biography of the Gershwin brothers (Ira, who wrote "Porgy"'s lyrics, and George), authors Robert Kimball and Alfred Simon note, "It is astonishing today how innovative the treatment of black life in 'Porgy' was. Heyward wrote not out of pity for an exploited race, nor with any desire to propagandize; rather it was his intention to dramatize a way of life which he found strange and admirable and worthy of serious artistic expression."

Those qualities would be the basis of the opera as well. After reading "Porgy" in 1924, Gershwin was determined to make an opera out of it. Intensely ambitious, he longed to be regarded as more than a supremely gifted songwriter. After his acceptance on Broadway, he sought and gained acceptance in the concert hall with the Concerto in F, his first "serious" piece. Soon to come was another, "An American in Paris." Gershwin saw "Porgy" as a way of winning final acceptance by the serious music community.

But a decade passed before his only opera became a reality. In the meanwhile, there were a string of musical comedy successes on Broadway that included "Oh, Kay," "Funny Face," "Girl Crazy" and "Strike Up the Band." The music for "Porgy" was finally finished in 1934. It had taken Gershwin eleven months to write and nine months to orchestrate. The Theater Guild, which had staged the play Heyward and his wife fashioned from his book, agreed to produce the opera as well. Rouben Mamoulian was engaged to produce it, Alexander Smallens to conduct it, and baritone Todd Duncan (described by Gershwin as "a colored Lawrence Tibbett") was discovered and signed to create Porgy. His Bess was another newcomer, soprano Anne Brown.

There were tryouts in Boston before proceeding to New York, and here the first of a number of unfortunate cuts were made to trim "Porgy" down to Broadway size, including the opening "Jazzbo Brown" sequence, the "Buzzard Song" and the wrenching lament in the finale, "Oh Bess, Oh Where's My Bess?" The pared-down opera opened in Boston on September 30, 1935, to audience and critical acclaim. "Gershwin's most important contribution to music," said the Christian Science Monitor. "Gershwin must now be accepted as a serious composer," noted the Boston Transcript. The New York opening followed on Oct. 10. The Manhattan audience was just as enthusiastic, but the New York press was not. Thus began the great "Porgy" debate. The critics were unable to accept the piece as an opera. They were upset by what they perceived as a disturbing and unconventional blend of musical comedy and opera. "Porgy," however, lasted 124 performances.

Although the best tunes from "Porgy and Bess," such as "Summertime" and "Ain't Necessarily So," continued to be loved and sung, the opera as a whole went into an eclipse. When it was revived in the 1940s on Broadway, it was in a two-act version with spoken dialogue and further cuts. The world was still not ready to accept "Porgy" for what it was -- grand opera. Beyond this, further acceptance was delayed because many blacks in their struggle for equal rights during the 1950s and 1960s were offended by the portrayal of their race presented in "Porgy."

The road back to "Porgy" as Gershwin conceived it began with the Maazel recording and a production in Houston, Texas, that was mounted for the Bicentennial. At long last, the score was heard in toto, in all its strength and beauty. It was a revelation. "Porgy"'s rightful acclaim came too late for George Gershwin to appreciate, however, for he had died in Hollywood on July 11, 1937, at the age of 38. But one hopes he realized that "Porgy" was a major moment in the history of opera, one where "the livin' is easy, fish are jumpin' an' the cotton is high."

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Photo Credits:
Top Banner: Courtesy of the Vandamm Collection, Museum of the City of New York.
Top photo: Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York, Theater Collection.
Bottom photo: Courtesy of the James A. Standifer Collection.