Today marks the 75th anniversary of George Gershwin’s death. Some of his most memorable compositions include Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and Porgy and Bess. Below is an excerpt from Robin Thompson’s book The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess:
The opera Porgy and Bess would prove to be unique in an even greater way. The period of its creation and its subsequent performance history have been unlike that of any other American opera. As far as George Gershwin was concerned, Porgy and Bess was an opera composed in the operatic tradition, rather than in the musical-comedy idiom of the mid-1930s. Like the book and play, it would break its
own share of boundaries. Certainly, it would contradict the public’s perception of what constituted opera at the time of its New York opening. Porgy and Bess examined American themes rather than those of European history, mythology, or Roman and Greek literature.
It had the structure of opera, built from its customary musical forms of arias, duets, trios, choral ensembles, orchestral interludes and the like, but it was to be composed using the American musical idioms of jazz, “Negro” spirituals, and American popular song. “If I am successful,” Gershwin wrote to a friend, “it will resemble a combination of the drama and romance of Carmen and the beauty of Meistersinger, if you can imagine that.”
However, from its glittering opening on October 10, 1935, at Broadway’s Alvin Theatre and for some years to come, the power to “imagine that” was somewhat lacking. Critics and audiences stationed themselves on either side of the great genre divide. If Porgy and Bess was an opera, then what was it doing in a Broadway theater? Since Gershwin himself called the solo musical numbers “songs” rather than “arias,” didn’t he mean us to understand the piece as a musical? Could American vernacular music really support the dramatic weight of larger-then-life operatic subject,
and so forth. Porgy was confusing in a few ways. More than anything else it was confusing in its newness. Initially, Porgy and Bess did not have the long and successful run that its creators, producers, and cast had hoped for. However, it was far from a failure. Within a few short years, Gershwin’s mix of traditional operatic form with American vernacular music came to be recognized as one of the work’s principal glories rather than its central failing. Few now question the ultimate success of Gershwin’s efforts.
The Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess by Robin Thompson (Amadeus Press)
In this lavishly illustrated 75th anniversary volume, created with the participation of the Gershwin estate, opera producer and author Robin Thompson recounts the history of Porgy and Bess as he looks at the various interpretations of the work and the many layers of meaning to be found in the story of the crippled Porgy, the conflicted and vulnerable Bess, the dope peddler Sportin’ Life, and the other residents of Catfish Row.
Packed with unique, rarely seen archival photographs and documents associated with the production, Porgy and Bess commemorates this uniquely American blending of musical, ethnic, and creative styles and the people, the performers, and the times that produced it.