Preview | GP at the Met: The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess - About the Opera

Synopsis

Season 14 of Great Performances at the Met continues Friday, July 17 at 9 p.m. on PBS (check local listings) with Gershwin’s folk opera The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. Eric Owens and Angel Blue star as the sympathetic duo Porgy and Bess in this primetime production. The all-star ensemble features Alfred Walker as Crown, Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life, Latonia Moore as Serena, Golda Schultz as Clara and Donovan Singletary as Jake. David Robertson conducts.

James Robinson’s production takes place in the 1920s inside Catfish Row, a tenement neighborhood of Charleston, South Carolina, beginning with its inhabitants relaxing after a day’s work. Drug-dealer Sportin’ Life, Jake and some of the other men gather to play craps under the disapproving eye of the religious Serena. Disabled beggar Porgy arrives and is about to join the game when Crown and his partner Bess appear. Drunk and high on drugs, Crown loses, starts a fight and kills Robbins, Serena’s husband. Before the police arrive, Crown runs off to hide, telling Bess that he’ll be back for her. Sportin’ Life offers to take Bess to New York with him, but she refuses. Only Porgy is sympathetic to Bess; he offers her shelter and his protection, which she accepts. A collection is being taken to meet the cost of the burial, and Bess offers Serena a contribution which she refuses, thinking it must be Crown’s money. Serena finally accepts when she realizes the money is from Porgy.

A month later, Sportin’ Life enters, but before he has an opportunity to peddle any of his “happy dust,” Maria, the matriarch of Catfish Row, chases him away. Sportin’ Life asks Bess to come to New York with him again and tries to give her more drugs, which she refuses. Porgy threatens Sportin’ Life and chases him away; he and Bess reflect on their happiness. That evening, Crown, who has been hiding on the island since Robbins’ murder, calls out to Bess. He wants Bess to come with him, but she explains that she now has a new life with Porgy. Crown forces her to stay with him. A week later, the fishermen leave for a day’s work at sea despite a storm warning, and Bess is heard talking deliriously from Porgy’s room. Serena prays for Bess’ recovery, and her prayers are answered when Bess emerges into the courtyard, free of the fever. She explains to Porgy that she wants to stay with him, but when Crown returns she’ll be forced to go back to him.

As a hurricane rolls in, everyone cowers together in Serena’s room to pray for deliverance from the storm. At the storm’s height, Clara sees Jake’s boat overturn and rushes out to save her husband. Bess calls for one of the men to go after her, and Crown responds. The women grieve for those who have been lost, including Jake, Clara and possibly Crown. Under the cover of darkness, Crown appears and approaches Porgy’s door. Porgy is ready for him and kills him instantly. Detectives, accompanied by the coroner, return to Catfish Row to investigate Crown’s murder. They go to Porgy’s room and tell him he must come with them and identify Crown’s body. Horrified to look at Crown’s face, Porgy refuses to go but is dragged away. Taking advantage of Porgy’s absence, Sportin’ Life tries to convince Bess that Porgy will go to prison for the crime, and he attempts to lure her away to a new life. A week later, Porgy returns from jail in a jubilant mood and distributes gifts he bought with money won by playing craps in jail. He calls out for Bess and learns that while he was in jail, Bess took off to New York with Sportin’ Life. Now, Porgy must make a decision. Audra McDonald hosts.

Historical Context and Production Approach:

  • “Porgy and Bess” is a 1935 opera by American composer George Gershwin, with a libretto written by author DuBose Heyward and lyricist Ira Gershwin. It was adapted from Dorothy Heyward and DuBose Heyward’s play “Porgy,” itself an adaptation of DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel of the same name.
  • This Met Opera production takes a fresh approach to a complicated masterpiece, which has been criticized for its African American stereotypes since its 1935 debut. The setting — Catfish Row, a Charleston, South Carolina neighborhood – is now a close-knit, aspirational working-class community in which everyone is doing his or her best to get by, instead of an abandoned slum. 
  • Great Performances at The Met: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess features the original 1935 libretto, lyrics and music with new staging from director James Robinson, who says: “The inhabitants of Catfish Row are integral to everything that’s going on with every other character. You get to know how this community functions. It’s a very religious community—they’re bound by their faith. Every individual in that community of Catfish Row, every member of the chorus, has a story.”    
  • Regarding the characters, Great Performances at The Met: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess director James Robinson said, “We have to treat these people with great dignity, and take them seriously. When they become caricatures, it just seems to ring false,” in an interview with The New York Times.
  • For more information about the history and context of the Met Opera production of The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess, please refer to these resources:

Short Listing
Enjoy the American folk opera set in 1920s Charleston with a classic score by George Gershwin.

Long Listing
Enjoy this classic American folk opera that brings 1920s Charleston to life with a beloved score from George Gershwin in a new production directed by James Robinson. Eric Owens and Angel Blue star in the title roles and David Robertson conducts.

Notable Talent

  • Eric Owens – Porgy
  • Angel Blue – Bess
  • Alfred Walker – Crown
  • Frederick Ballentine – Sportin’ Life
  • Latonia Moore – Serena
  • Golda Schultz – Clara
  • Denyce Graves – Maria
  • Donovan Singletary – Jake
  • Audra McDonald – Host

Run time: 3 hours

Production Credits

  • David Robertson – Conductor
  • Gary Halvorson – Director
  • James Robinson – Production
  • Camille A. Brown – Choreographer
  • Catherine Zuber – Costume Designer
  • Donald Holder – Lighting Designer
  • Luke Halls – Projection Designer
  • David Leong – Fight Director
  • David Horn – Executive Producer, Great Performances

For the Met, Gary Halvorson directs the telecast. David Frost is Music Producer. Mia Bongiovanni and Elena Park are Supervising Producers, and Louisa Briccetti and Victoria Warivonchik are Producers. Peter Gelb is Executive Producer. For Great Performances, Bill O’Donnell is Series Producer; David Horn is Executive Producer.

Underwriters

Corporate support for Great Performances at the Met is provided by provided by Toll Brothers, America’s luxury home builder®. Major funding is provided by The Sybil B. Harrington Endowment Fund and M. Beverly and Robert G Bartner.  This Great Performances at the Met presentation is funded by The Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Arts Fund, Ellen and James S. Marcus, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, Jody and John Arnhold and public television viewers.

Series Overview

Great Performances at the Met is a presentation of THIRTEEN Productions LLC for WNET, bringing the best of the Metropolitan Opera into the homes of classical music fans across the United States.

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About the Met Print

Under the leadership of General Manager Peter Gelb and Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin, The Metropolitan Opera is one of America’s leading performing arts organizations and a vibrant home for the world’s most creative and talented artists, including singers, conductors, composers, orchestra musicians, stage directors, designers, visual artists, choreographers, and dancers. The company presents more than 200 performances each season of a wide variety of operas, ranging from early masterpieces to contemporary works. In recent years, the Met has launched many initiatives designed to make opera more accessible, most prominently the Live in HD series of cinema transmissions, which dramatically expands the Met audience by allowing select performances to be seen in more than 2,200 theaters in more than 70 countries around the world.

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