Opera Profile: Gershwin’s ‘Porgy and Bess’

George Gershwin’s folk opera “Porgy and Bess” has proven itself a piece of American history, having withstood the controversy it garnered for its portrayal of the African American community in Charlestown, South Carolina.

Premiering on September 30th 1935, “Porgy and Bess” was noted for its casting of classically-trained African-American singers rather than having actors in blackface. While many felt the opera was racially-insensitive, the care that was put into the composition by George and Ira Gershwin, and their insistence on using African American actors, shows a sincere effort in creating an original, all-American story.

Short Plot Summary

The opera opens in Catfish Row, where the community gathers and the men ready for a game of Craps arranged by the disabled Porgy. The game is joined by Crown, a powerful but cruel dockworker, who brings along his woman Bess and buys liquor and cocaine from the peddler, Sportin’ Life. The last two players remaining are Robbins and Crown, who is now drunk. When Crown loses, he gets into a fight with Robbins and ends up killing him with a cotton hook before fleeing the scene and leaving Bess to fend for herself, telling her that he will return later. A delirious Bess is taken in by Porgy after she refuses Sportin’ Life’s offer to take her to New York.

Porgy defends Bess from Sportin’ Life’s advances one again, shortly before a church picnic on a nearby island; while two affirm their love for one another, Bess leaves Porgy behind since he is unable to board the boat to Kittiwah Island. After falling behind the others at the picnic, Bess is surprised by the sudden return of Crown, who mocks her attempts to live a reformed life before taking her into the woods, where he forces herself on her. Bess lies in a fever for the next week as a result of Crown’s actions; Porgy resolves to protect her from Crown and anyone else shortly before everyone hears the sounding of a hurricane warning bell.

As the gathered men and women pray through the storm, Crown returns once more for Bess. When Bess begs for someone to help her friend Clara save her husband Jake, Crown brashly enters the storm after mocking Porgy for being lame. The storm claims the lives of many before subsiding, but Crown returns yet again for Bess, only to be confronted by Porgy. The two fight, and Porgy manages to kill Crown finally. When a detective comes to investigate the death of Crown, Porgy denies his involvement but offers to identify the body. Sportin’ Life lies to Porgy, convincing him that a corpse will bleed when its murderer is close; Porgy now resists cooperating with the detective, which places him in jail for contempt of court.

When Porgy is released, he emerges with a sizable amount of money won from playing Craps with other inmates; he brings gifts for the others before asking where Bess is. They tell Porgy that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’ Life. While shocked, Porgy quickly sets off after her, praying for the strength needed to make things right.

Famous Musical Numbers:

“Summertime” has gone on to be one of the most recorded and covered pieces ever, not only for its deeply evocative mixture of jazz and spiritual sound, but for its poignant, informal lyrics. Stephen Sondheim lauded the lyrics, drawing attention to the impact of the words “Summertime and…”  has in establishing tone and gravity for the rest of the song. “Summertime” has been covered by figures such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, Sam Cooke, and Billie Holiday.

“It Ain’t Necessarily So” has also enjoyed much popularity over the years. It’s sung by Sportin’ Life as he provides a harsh counterpoint to the religiously-minded attitudes of the community at the picnic. Gershwin created the role of Sportin’ Life with singer Cab Calloway in mind; Calloway would later take up the role for the 1952 touring production. Other greats who have performed this number include Aretha Franklin and Sammy Davis Jr.

Listen

The opera has quite the recorded legacy. But here we present excerpts with the original cast.

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About the Author

Logan Martell
Logan Martell is a senior at Fordham University pursuing a degree in Medieval Studies. His passion for storytelling has led to opportunities studying under Broadway luminaries as he strives to take his work to ever-higher levels.

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