On Friday night, August 26, the Boston Symphony opened the final weekend of the 2011 Tanglewood season with a concert performance of a major American work that it had never played before: Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, arguably the Great American Opera. Of course excerpts of the work have appeared on Pops concerts many times. But for this event the BSO went all out with an excellent cast of singers, a knowledgeable conductor, and an enthusiastic chorus. Bramwell Tovey, making his first appearance with the orchestra, had the full measure of Gershwin’s score both technically and expressively. He put together Gershwin’s long, rich, challenging score in the always-limited rehearsal time available at a summer music festival and offered a satisfying and occasionally thrilling evening.
For what seem to be rather bizarre legal reasons imposed by the Gershwin Estate, the program book is required to inform the audience that they are going to hear “THE GERSHWINS’ ® [registered trademark] PORGY AND BESS SM [service mark],” as if the product being offered was a brand of laundry soap. Later the audience is also notified in further legalese that “GERSHWIN is a registered trademark and service mark of Gershwin Enterprises” (heaven help us if future years should produce another composer — say, an Oscar or a Genevieve Gershwin — whose very name violates a trademark). Even the program book essay begins with the trademark notices, though fortunately it did not have to be repeated every time the title of the work was mentioned in the notes.
It is unlikely that Ira Gershwin (1896-1983), who outlived his brother by four and a half decades, would have demanded such a billing. He was an exceptionally modest man. Ira would certainly never have so undercut the vital role played by DuBose Heyward, who wrote the great majority of the words in the text — the entire prose libretto and many of the lyrics. But that’s how modern trademark legalisms go — more concerned for potential financial issues than for accurate representation of the history of an event.
The program book also notified the audience that the version to be performed was that of the 1935 production — the one produced under George Gershwin’s immediate direction, and the only one given in his lifetime. John Henken’s program notes, borrowed from the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association (which offered a production at the Hollywood Bowl with the same conductor and most of the same singers), added the further information that this concert performance included “some small additional cuts,” about which more later.
Any evaluation of Porgy and Bess in performance requires at least some consideration of what kind of work the director thinks it is. Gershwin supervised rehearsals in Boston, during which he tightened the opera by making several cuts in the score. (For convenience in rehearsal, Gershwin had paid to have the entire vocal score engraved and printed, so that each cast member could have an easily readable copy; this 559-page score is what is still in print today, despite changes made by the composer himself during rehearsals.) Some of these cuts — rather subtle ones, mostly in a few lines of recitative — were surely made to speed up certain scenes, especially the very close of the work. Others — especially the “Buzzard Song” early in Act II — were probably eliminated to spare the voices of the principals, who in the original production were performing the show on a Broadway schedule, eight times a week. Still, the question of what to include and what to cut is always at issue.
I’ll have much more to say about the performance on Friday, but first it would be helpful to survey something of the work’s history, because it has affected how Porgy and Bess has been seen and heard in the three-quarters of a century since its premiere at the Alvin Theater in New York on October 10, 1935. That history affects what goes on even today, when a very different conception is currently running at the American Repertory Theater in Cambridge. (I have not yet seen that performance, but I hope soon to be able to add a comparison with the version performed Friday night.)
Composition and Intention
Exactly what did George Gershwin intend Porgy and Bess to be? He called it a “folk opera,” mainly because he was dealing with a story taking place in a particularly tight community in Charleston, South Carolina. The neighborhood is called Catfish Row, a working-class street populated by African-American families, many of whom make their living as fishermen (though it is not usually a part of the set for a production, the sea is very close at hand; the residents can see the harbor from the windows of dwellings in Catfish Row). This community and its characters were first presented in the novel Porgy by DuBose Heyward, a white author and long-time Charleston resident who drew upon local situations and actual people (including a handicapped beggar who got around in a cart pulled by a goat — the model for Porgy).
Gershwin read the novel in 1926 and decided at once that this was the material he was looking for the subject of a genuine American opera. But when he approached Heyward about the rights, he learned that the author’s wife Dorothy had already started converting it into a straight play. In the end, this play — also called Porgy — was produced in New York by the Theatre Guild and ran for two years. Its success confirmed Gershwin’s idea that it was theatrically viable. He was convinced that it was a perfect vehicle for musical drama.
The dialogue was based on the Gullah dialect of the inhabitants of the sea islands off the coast of South Carolina. Gershwin spent part of the summer of 1934 there, at Heyward’s invitation, where he spent many days soaking up the atmosphere and the music that he heard, particularly the manner in which the people sang spirituals; he adopted their performance style in some of the elaborate choruses in Porgy and Bess. Still, Gershwin pointed out that the music was nonetheless entirely his own. The only actual melodies he quoted were some of the street cries of hawkers. Still, it is because of this study of the people’s music, and his interest in recreating its effect, that Gershwin referred to his work as a “folk opera.”
Yet despite that designation, which suggests a certain casualness, Gershwin undertook the composition with full seriousness. He studied other operas for examples of procedure. In some ways the handling of the chorus, as a representative of the community, reflects the elaborate choral writing in Wagner’s Meistersinger. The willingness to write “songs” in an operatic context may recall Carmen. Early reviewers noted similarities in the street scenes to Charpentier’s Louise. But perhaps the biggest indicator of Gershwin’s seriousness was his deep study of Wozzeck. He had met Berg in Vienna on May 3, 1928. Each composer had been delighted with the other. Gershwin heard a performance of Berg’s string quartet (Op. 3) and purchased scores of that and of Wozzeck to take home with him. In 1931 he traveled to Philadelphia to hear its American premiere. Many structural aspects of Wozzeck — a work not likely to be called a “folk opera” — can be found in Porgy and Bess. (A fascinating discussion of these, also summarizing earlier research, appears in Christopher Reynolds’s article “Porgy and Bess: An American Wozzeck” in Journal of the Society for American Music I:1 (2007), pp. 1-28.)
Gershwin’s use of the term “folk opera” may well have started a tradition of misunderstanding what kind of work Gershwin actually wrote, or at least a divergence of opinion that has lasted to the present. When Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway at the Alvin Theater on October 10, 1935, many newspapers sent both their theater critics and their music critics. In general, the former gave the opera more favorable notices. Music critics complained that it was a “hybrid” (presumably blending Broadway and the Met). Despite highly enthusiastic word-of-mouth from the Boston tryout, which had led to a substantial advanced ticket sale, the limited enthusiasm of the critics apparently had a damping effect on new sales in New York, and the opera closed after 124 performances — a remarkable run for any opera, but disappointing for a Gershwin show.
Sadly, Gershwin never had an opportunity to write a work for the theater again. The two years that remained to him before a brain tumor cut him off in his prime were spent in Hollywood, writing songs for Fred Astaire films. We have no way of knowing whether he would have made any substantial changes to Porgy and Bess in a future production.
Revivals and Reconsiderations
Porgy and Bess returned to the New York stage on January 22, 1942, in a drastically modified production by producer/director Cheryl Crawford with many of the original cast members. Crawford drastically shortened the opera, eliminating entire numbers and replacing most of the sung recitative with spoken dialogue. This left the songs, which had already become popular on the radio and in recordings, so the new Porgy attracted a more traditional Broadway audience and ran thirty-five weeks. The production became the model for many revivals in the ensuing decades.
But would George Gershwin have approved? As a man of the theater, he would no doubt have been pleased by the success of the work, but I find it hard to believe that he would have been happy with the artistic result, which essentially denatured the basic conception of his score. To take one simple but very important example: There are three places in the opera in which white characters (policemen, coroner) enter the black community of Catfish Row. Each time these representatives of a foreign outside world enter, the music stops. The white characters never sing; the black characters continue to sing, as if in a different expressive language, mutually unintelligible in any emotional sense. This striking dramatic effect is entirely lost when everyone has a speaking part.
One of the best-remembered revivals came in 1952, when Leontyne Price and William Warfield were the principals in a production that brought back much of the music cut by Crawford, including some of the recitative; this production was given very successfully in Europe as well as on Broadway. But it was still some way from offering Gershwin’s complete score.
Samuel Goldwyn’s 1959 film version, with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge (singing dubbed by Robert McFerrin and Adele Addison) is probably the form in which most people saw Porgy and Bess in the last half of the twentieth century. It was closer to the Crawford production than to a full performance of the opera; and it made a lasting impression on how most people think of Gershwin’s work. It was the soundtrack recording of this film that was my first introduction to Porgy and Bess when I was a high school student at the time of its release. At about the same time, I read Leonard Bernstein’s first book, The Joy of Music, which included an article cast as a dialogue between L.B. and a big musical producer on the subject of Gershwin. During the course of this dialogue, the two lament that some of the most expressive moments of the work are lost in modern productions because the recitative has been reduced to speech. (They refer specifically to Bess’s explanation to Crown of why she wants to stay with Porgy.) From that time on I looked forward to hearing the entire opera.
The opportunity came when I discovered the wonderful 1951 recording conducted by Lehman Engel and produced for records by Goddard Lieberson. Not only was it one of the first operatic recordings that recreated the sound effects that would be heard in a stage performance (such as the throwing of the dice in the first scene), thus giving it a remarkable vividness and presence, but it also largely recreated the 1935 production (though also putting back the “Buzzard Song”). Happily the recording was eventually reissued on a Sony Classical CD; it gives us the opportunity to get as close as possible to what Gershwin evidently wanted to hear in the performance.
After the film version appeared, productions of the opera in the United States all but disappeared for a time. The civil rights movement put Gershwin’s opera — recounting the lives of black people in a work created by three white men — in a difficult spot. However sympathetic the creators were to their characters, many black artists expressed concern about the dialect and the representation of the characters as poor and generally uneducated. Leading African-American singers were hesitant to sing the music. I loved the work, learned only from recording, but I despaired of actually seeing it on the stage. So I leaped at the opportunity, when I was leading a foreign study program from Dartmouth College to Vienna in the first months of 1976, to see a production in Budapest. This was sung in Hungarian, naturally by an all-Hungarian cast performing in blackface, though without the slightest hint of caricature. (Performances in the United States are required to use black artists in the singing roles; this rule is relaxed in other countries.) Indeed, the singers’ ability to capture the body language of African-Americans in a subservient place in their society was remarkable. But most important was the effect of the work — presented as a regular opera (though, as best I remember, with the cuts from the 1935 production): it was musically and theatrically very powerful. If I never had a chance to see Porgy and Bess again, I could be happy, at least, to have seen that production.
Not long after I returned to the United States that June, though, I learned that the Houston Grand Opera was going to mount a full-scale Porgy, and by this time, too, Lorin Maazel had recorded a note-complete version of the full score with the Cleveland Orchestra. In the following years I saw the Houston production (also with the complete score) in New York and later in Boston. By this time I had no doubt that Porgy and Bess was Gershwin’s greatest achievement and one that, in its successful blend of operatic tradition and profoundly American musical styles, could (or even should) serve as a model for future American opera composers.
Since the appearance of the Houston production, Porgy and Bess has finally been performed at the Metropolitan Opera (the New York City Opera had done it a few years earlier), and it can almost be called a standard repertory opera by now. In 2010, for the seventy-fifth anniversary of the original production, a touring company brought the work, produced by Michael Capasso in association with Willette Murphy Klausner and directed by Charles Randolph-Wright, to many parts of the country, including Worcester’s Hanover Theater under the auspices of Music Worcester. Not surprisingly for a traveling production, the show used a unit set that could be moved into many theaters, and it brought along an orchestra about two-thirds the size of the one Gershwin originally employed in 1935; but it also featured two excellent casts working in rotation. These days Porgy and Bess not only offers employment to many black singers, but it demonstrates the deep bench of African-American artists trained to a high level of ability in operatic singing.
Tanglewood on August 26
The score of Porgy and Bess is both long and musically intricate. It makes great demands on the orchestra, especially if, as here, it has to be rehearsed in a minimum time under the pressure of other events. That said, the result Friday night was very impressive, generally tight in ensemble, flexible in accompanying the recitatives (always the most difficult part in coordinating voice and orchestra, because of the rhythmic flexibility allowed the singers), and bringing out the colors of Gershwin’s orchestration.
The soloists were uniformly impressive, singing from memory, which allowed them a certain degree of active “business” (as in the craps game in the first scene). Generally the men were in summer white dinner jackets, the women in gowns of different colors, but Laquita Mitchell, as Bess, was just enough flashier in dress to stand out as the woman whom the other ladies of Catfish Row looked down on. The action was limited to what could be done while standing in place, for the most part; there was no attempt to show physically the two murders that take place. The music, of course, presents the violent passages, but it is a little disconcerting to have the singers simply standing still when the most active events are taking place. (Porgy’s killing of Crown was even less apparent because of a musical cut that gave little inkling of what was happening unless one knew the opera or had read the plot summary.)
Still, it is the singing that creates the opera, and this was clear, expressive, and effective. From Nicole Cabell’s sweet-voiced Clara, opening the opera with one of the greatest of lullabies, “Summertime,” the level was exceptionally high. Laquita Mitchell’s Bess came across at first as Crown’s floozie, but she became later a helpless, needy woman after Crown’s departure until Porgy takes her in, when she becomes a loving partner to him. Alfred Walker’s baritone made Porgy a warmly human character, a man whose loneliness is assuaged by Bess’s arrival and whose determination at the end to find her again somehow convinces us that he will succeed. (Lehman Engel once commented, in comparing the play Porgy with the close of the opera, “The play ends. The opera soars.”)
Gregg Baker was physically imposing as Crown, with a fine imposing baritone voice that characterized the brutal killer and the cynic. Jermaine Smith gave a brilliantly sleazy performance as the drug dealer Sportin’ Life, generally much more physical in his gestures than the others, as well as somewhat improvisational in his singing — all entirely appropriate, because his character is really that of a self-serving outsider, not one of the Catfish Row family. Marquita Lister (Serena), John Fulton (Robbins), and Gwendolyn Brown (Maria) all captured their respective characters eloquently, though I would love for Maria to have made a bit more of her big moment when she tells off Sportin’ Life for the lowlife he is. Robert Honeysucker gave perhaps the most fully realized characterization in the cameo role of the unethical lawyer Frazier.
Porgy and Bess has a large amount of challenging choral music, and this was taken on with great enthusiasm by the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, conductor. Bramwell Tovey told them that he did not want them to come off like a “Church of England choir”; indeed, they did not. Though ranked in the usual rows on risers behind the orchestra, they joined in the action with swaying, hand gestures, and more, echoing Sportin’ Life’s improvisatory vocalization and motions in “It Ain’t Necessarily So” or literally jumping out of their seats in “I can’t sit down.” The contrapuntal accuracy, the energy, and the clarity of diction were all first-rate.
All in all, this was a Porgy to be treasured, one that gave full measure (despite the excess cuts) to the operatic scope of Gershwin’s score. Indeed, after the second scene (in which the cast and chorus mourn the murdered Robbins), a conductor sitting next to me turned to me and asked, “In what way is this a Broadway show?” That, indeed, is the question.
Steven Ledbetter is a free-lance writer and lecturer on music. He got his BA from Pomona College and PhD from NYU in Musicology. He taught at Dartmouth College in the 1970s, then became program annotator at the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1979 to 1997.