Porgy and Bess
All materials courtesy of New York City Opera
In Catfish Row, Crown and Robbins scuffle during a crap game. Crown kills Robbins and flees, leaving his girlfriend Bess prey to Sportin' Life, a drug pusher, who tries to convince Bess to run away with him to New York. Alone and shunned by all, Bess finds solace in the arms of Porgy, a kind handicapped man.
Porgy, Bess, and the neighbors gather in Serena's home to pray over Robbins' casket. Serena mourns her loss. After being bullied by white policemen, the people collect money for Robbins' burial.
When a buzzard flies over Catfish Row, the superstitious Porgy fears for his new-found happiness with Bess. Sportin' Life pressures Bess again, but Porgy frightens him away. The people make preparations for a picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island. Bess wants to stay behind with Porgy, but he urges her to go and have a good time.
At the picnic, Crown, who has been hiding on the island, approaches Bess when she is alone and urges her to stay with him.
A week later, Bess returns to Porgy, sick and terrified that Crown will come after her. Porgy forgives Bess and promises his protection.
A storm rages. While the women gather in Serena's home to pray for their men, who are out fishing, Crown returns. When Clara discovers that her husband Jake's boat has capsized, she and Crown set out to rescue him.
Clara and Jake have both perished in the storm, but Crown has survived. Injured, he returns for Bess, but Porgy kills him. The police take Porgy away to jail, leaving Bess alone. With empty promises and drugs, Sportin' Life finally convinces Bess to run away with him to New York.
Released for lack of evidence, Porgy returns home. He calls for Bess, in vain. When neighbors report that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin' Life, Porgy sets off for New York to look for her.
George Gershwin (1898 - 1937)
George Gershwin was born on September 26, 1898, the second of four children born to Morris and Rose Gershovitz. His parents emigrated from Russia to New York, where they married. George's older brother Ira was expected to be the musician in the family, but George, who at six years of age listened to a piano roll of Rubinstein's "Melodie in F," was convinced that music was for him. He began playing on the piano his mother had purchased when he was twelve, and in 1912 he began studying with Charles Hambitzer, who was one of the strongest influences on Gershwin. Hambitzer introduced him to the music of Debussy and Ravel, along with the early works of Arnold Schoenberg, and a vast array of other classical piano literature. Gershwin most admired Irving Berlin, among others such as Liszt, Josef Lhevinne, Josef Hoffmann, and composer-pianist Ferrucio Busoni.
Gershwin was more interested in music than intellectual pursuits, and eventually left school at fifteen to join a music publisher for $15.00 a week. While working at the publishing company, Gershwin also kept up with his composing. In 1916, his first published song "When You Want 'Em You Can't Get 'Em" met with little success but in that same year, Sigmund Romberg used another Gershwin song in one of his shows. Gershwin then began publishing music under a pseudonym and eventually left publishing in 1917 to travel the vaudeville circuit as a pianist. He was then hired to write songs for Max Dreyfus, who was the head of the publishing house T.B. Harms. That year, he also toured as an accompanist for Nora Bayes.
Gershwin's first Broadway show La, La, Lucille, ran for one hundred performances in 1919. Al Jolson heard "Swanee", which he added to his touring show. "Swanee" was a huge hit, sold over two million records its first year, and put Gerswin well on his way to fame and fortune. For the next five years he wrote the music for George White's "Scandals," and, in the 1922 "Scandals," he included a one-act opera called Blue Monday. This opera lasted only a single performance, but it was the first serious music by Gershwin.
Joined by his brother Ira (who was known as a lyricist under the pseudonym, Arthur Francis), Gershwin wrote musicals during the 1920's for such performers as Gertrude Lawrence, W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, Jeanette MacDonald, Ruby Keeler, Jimmy Durante, Fannie Brice, Fred and Adele Astaire, and many other notable figures in the entertainment business. Foolish plots, which served as vehicles for spectacular singing and dancing, characterized most of these musicals, but by 1930 both George and Ira had become interested in using satire instead of spectacle. In 1930 both Strike Up the Band and Girl Crazy were marked successes, the latter in which Ethel Merman introduced, "I Got Rhythm." Also in 1930, Gershwin wrote his first Hollywood film score and made his conducting debut in a Lewisholn Stadium concert of his own work. Of Thee I Sing, which was a political satire by the Gershwin brothers, George S. Kaufman, and Morrie Ryskind, became in 1932 the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. This was Gershwin's last big success, despite the fact that he had two musicals premiered in 1933; each ran for less than a hundred performances each. However, by this time Gershwin's interest in serious music had increased and he wanted to write the full-length opera he had been planning for years. Gershwin had also written several serious compositions before 1935, including his opera, Porgy and Bess, which had received mix reviews.
In 1937 he began to experience headaches, dizzy spells, and blackouts. Examinations revealed that there was no apparent cause, but his headaches increased in frequency and severity until July 9. He then collapsed into a coma, and a brain tumor was diagnosed. The White House sent two destroyers to bring one of the country's most prominent brain specialists from his yacht on Chesapeake Bay. By the time the doctor reached Newark Airport on his way to Hollywood, local surgeons had found it necessary to operate and discovered the situation was hopeless. George Gershwin never woke from his coma and died on July 11, 1937, just two months short of his 39th birthday.
Adapted from the biography of George Gershwin by Jane Erb.
The Operatic Gershwin
By Wayne Shirley
George Gershwin had his eyes on opera as early as 1922, two years before the premiere of his Rhapsody in Blue. His first operatic venture, a twenty-five-minute mini-opera entitled "Blue Monday", appeared as the first-act finale of the [Broadway pastiche] George White's Scandals of 1922. It survived for only one performance, for it was "too serious". In fact, "Blue Monday" is a skit about opera rather than an opera proper; its plot is deliberately absurd. Yet in its twenty-five minutes, sung throughout, it creates both an atmosphere and characters we're interested in. Gershwin was clearly on his way. "Blue Monday" reappeared, revised and retitled 135th Street, in December 1925, a year and a half after Rhapsody in Blue was unveiled, as the featured work of Paul Whiteman's follow-up concert to the "Experiment in Modern Music", which had included the premiere of the Rhapsody. This time it was understood that the miniature opera would receive a single performance. Gershwin's Concerto in F, the first work for which he provided the orchestration as well as the basic musical material, had been premiered earlier that month. An American in Paris was three years off, and Porgy and Bess was a decade in the future.
In the intervening years, Gershwin kept an eye on opera. In 1929, he went so far as to sign a contract to write an opera based on Solomon Ansky's Yiddish play, The Dybbuk. The opera was to be ready for performance at the Metropolitan Opera by April 1931, and the librettist was chosen. Gershwin began sketching themes for this opera; his friend and first biographer, Isaac Goldberg, wrote in 1931 of hearing Gershwin play him some music he'd written for The Dybbuk
"An upward scratch in the notebook suddenly came to life as a Hassidic dance. And those who know what Hassidic tunes can be like in their wild, ecstatic abandon know that the Hassid, like his brother under the skin, can grow wings and walk all over God's heaven."
But when the musical rights for The Dybbuk were ultimately found to be unavailable. (Years later, in 1951, New York City Opera was able to present David Tamkin's operatic version of The Dybbuk.)
In 1926, Gershwin made yet another stab at opera. The Act I finale of his musical Oh, Kay! (the show featuring the songs "Someone to Watch over Me" and "Do Do Do") contains a scene with close parallels to the Act II finale of The Marriage of Figaro. The onstage characters rage at a closet door, demanding that the person hiding inside emerge, and when the door opens, the person behind it is not the one they expected to see, which causes general consternation. The parallel seems unmistakable; P.G. Wodehouse, the librettist, was no cultural slouch. And production photos make it clear that this scene was entirely sung rather than spoken. Unfortunately, this finale is the only portion of Oh, Kay! which does not survive. Gershwin may have felt it unworthy of its great model.
Oh, Kay! is not the only Gershwin musical to have an opera-style extended act finale with a long arch of continuous music in varying moods. The finale of Act I of Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing, as Leonard Bernstein pointed out, is parallel in structure to the Act I finale of The Mikado. To equate the flower-of-the-Southland Diana Devereaux in Of Thee I Sing with the battle-axe Katisha in Mikado is, perhaps, ungallant. But this finale does show Gershwin's mastery of the long scene with uninterrupted music in diverse moods.
It was during tryouts for Oh, Kay! that Gershwin read DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy. When Gershwin suggested Porgy to Heyward as a subject for an opera, Heyward agreed, though he postponed working on the libretto until the play version of Porgy, written in collaboration with his wife Dorothy, had successfully run on Broadway. (It is, in fact, the play Porgy rather than the novel which is the basis of the opera Porgy and Bess.) Gershwin signed the contract for the opera with the Theatre Guild in October 1933. In September 1935, Porgy and Bess - its title expanded in homage to Anne Brown's brilliant performance as Bess, as well as the operatic tradition of boy-meets-girl titles (Tristan und Isolde; Pelléas et Mélisande) - opened for its Boston tryout.
Gershwin had high hopes for Porgy and Bess. "If I am successful," he declared, "it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger, if you can imagine that."
Gershwin's evocation of "the beauty of Meistersinger" should caution us against seeing him as an operatic naïf unaware of the grand tradition. Gershwin had, in fact, both a wide knowledge of opera and a catholic taste in operatic works. When he returned from the European trip which inspired An American in Paris, he entertained shipside reporters with his enthusiasm for Wozzeck. Wozzeck may not have actually influenced Gershwin's work much, but Meistersinger did: Like the brawl at the end of Act II of Meistersinger, the Act I fight between Porgy and Crown is composed as an orchestral fugue over which soloists and chorus sing a babel of individual vocal lines. (Gershwin, unlike Wagner, ran out of words for his vocal lines before the end of the fugue: in Porgy, the last section of the fight is accompanied by ad lib cries from the ensemble as the orchestra continues the fugue.)
There are other sections of Porgy and Bess which were modeled on specific spots from other operas. But these spots, like the fight fugue, were recast until they were pure Gershwin. Take, for example, the trio "Bess, Oh, Where's My Bess?" in the final scene of the opera. Gershwin's structure is borrowed from the Rosenkavalier trio - orchestral texture sequencing a two-measure motive, with vocal parts superimposed - but the resulting trio is completely different from the Rosenkavalier trio in mood and melody. At the climax of "My Man's Gone Now", as at the climax of "Un bel dì", the opening melody returns in thundering orchestral fortissimo, but by this we are drawn deeper into Serena's grief rather than being reminded of Butterfly.
We know that George Gershwin spent a summer at Folly Beach, South Carolina, listening to the music of the African-Americans of the Charleston area in preparation for composing Porgy and Bess. He also spent an apprenticeship listening to and studying opera in preparation for the day when he would write his own opera. Perhaps this is why Porgy and Bess fits so comfortably into a season of classic operatic repertory.
Wayne D. Shirley, a music specialist at the Library of Congress, has written on American composers including George Antheil, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Charles Ives, and William Grant Still, as well as the spiritual "Deep River".
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