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."