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Back on Catfish Row

Porgy and Bess

an opera by George Gershwin, DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin, at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City, September 23, 2019–February 1, 2020
Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera
Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera
Eric Owens as Porgy and Angel Blue as Bess in Porgy and Bess at the Metropolitan Opera

1.

Porgy and Bess opened on Broadway in 1935, to mixed reviews and insufficient box office receipts, but I am unable to disassociate it from the musical culture I grew up with in the 1950s, a decade when George Gershwin’s opera seemed to be everywhere. In 1951, at the dawn of the LP era, the first ostensibly complete recording was released by Columbia Masterworks.1 Earlier recordings had consisted only of hit songs from the show—“Summertime,” “My Man’s Gone Now,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So.” Columbia’s lavish three-record set offered more music than the original Broadway version, which had been shortened by at least thirty minutes before the New York opening. More crucially, it presented Porgy and Bess as an opera of densely interwoven parts, unlike productions that in the decade following Gershwin’s death in 1937 had made drastic cuts and replaced recitatives with spoken dialogue, turning it into something more like a musical.2

For my oldest brother, Robert, a precocious student of musical theater and orchestral arrangement, the Columbia recording became a constant object of study. At mid-decade, when he was fourteen and I was seven, I had the benefit of hearing many passages played repeatedly, along with a running commentary on fine points of harmony and instrumentation often beyond my comprehension. Robert’s ultimate concern being formal, he impressed on me the sense of an invisible architecture beyond words, delineated by the baton he sometimes waved in accompaniment.

No technical explanation was needed to grasp the tidal power of Gershwin’s music in the choral surges and Porgy’s final departure, especially at the volume my brother preferred. At the same time, an intimacy of feeling throughout suggested a community, almost a household, of voices running through all the possible levels of speaking, singing, crying out. To listen closely was to be pulled into an encompassing sonic environment within which lives were being lived under constant stress, in the imaginary but very real space around the record player.

For younger listeners, growing up as my friends and I did in a suburb largely white and predominantly liberal, the opera’s storyline became an inherited myth taken for granted: the unspoken yearning of the disabled beggar Porgy for Bess, the lover of the brutal dockworker Crown; the murder committed by Crown during a craps game, after which Bess finds shelter with Porgy; the blossoming love between them, threatened by her inability to resist Crown’s sexual demands and by the drug addiction into which she is lured by the seductive Sportin’ Life; Porgy’s killing of Crown, his return to Catfish Row only to discover that Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’ Life, and his vow to go and find her against all odds. It was the music that gave a sense of inevitability to what might otherwise have seemed a series of random incidents. Those epic figures seemed always to have been there, existing within the circumscribed universe of Catfish Row with only the vaguest connection to any historical or social setting. Not exactly a children’s story—with its tantalizing elements of violence and sex and the mysterious “happy dust”—but children could make it one.

This was the moment when Porgy and Bess surfaced on record in adaptations of all sorts, and found an international audience with the 1952 touring production that originally starred Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Cab Calloway, and Maya Angelou, and that eventually showed up in Leningrad as the extravaganza of cold war cultural exchange humorously described by Truman Capote in The Muses Are Heard. The large-scale jazz version released by Bethlehem Records in 1956 was one of the more curious variations. It enlisted Duke Ellington, Howard McGhee, Herbie Mann, and dozens of others supporting a cast headlined by the Velvet Fog himself, Mel Tormé, as Porgy, singing beautifully but (in retrospective listening) sounding uncertain if he is performing the songs or actually playing the role of Porgy. The disc jockey Al “Jazzbo” Collins filled in the story in his trademark hipsterish drawl, sounding like a stoned version of one of the Kiddie Hour storytellers still heard on the radio in those days, and, as Porgy led the chorus in “I’m on my way to a heavenly land,” wrapped things up with genial sentimentality: “That’s a long, long way, a thousand miles, but he’ll make it—I know he’ll make it.”

In 1958 and 1959 alone, selections from the opera were covered by Sammy Davis Jr. and Carmen McRae, Harry Belafonte and Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll and the André Previn Trio, and, with great success, Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, demonstrating if nothing else the supreme flexibility of Gershwin’s music. No more enduring monument emerged than the Porgy and Bess released by Miles Davis and Gil Evans, an abstracted quintessence that teased out implications and possibilities into a wholly original masterpiece, not so much homage as deep probing and fresh invention.

Much of this activity was spurred by the publicity build-up to Samuel Goldwyn’s film version, a box office failure when it finally opened in 1959. The qualities of mise-en-scène that Otto Preminger brought to the film can scarcely be judged from the gray-market copies in circulation, and no restored version is likely anytime soon in view of the efforts of both the Gershwin and Goldwyn estates, for differing reasons, to prevent its public exhibition.3 How much Goldwyn misjudged the moment can be gleaned from the tone of the glossy souvenir booklet promoting the film:

Charleston, South Carolina is a city whose graciousness has deep roots in American history…. It was in broken-down Catfish Row, a ghostly relic of its past grandeur, that Porgy and his neighbors lived their lives and died their deaths, sang their songs and wept their sorrows, prayed for help to the Lord in their troubles and raised hosannahs to His glory in their joys. It was from Catfish Row that they went out each morning…each to his own work in the everlasting scheme of things.

“The everlasting scheme of things” appeared wobbly in the midst of the school desegregation battle in Little Rock and on the eve of a business boycott in Birmingham, and Porgy and Bess met widening resistance. Belafonte had refused to play Porgy because he didn’t want a role that required him to be on his knees; Sidney Poitier took the part with reluctance. (He later remarked, “I don’t talk about it…I did it, I did not want to do it.”) The actors pushed back against the dialect of the libretto and fought for more standardized speech. In a television appearance with Preminger, Lorraine Hansberry attacked the work’s perpetuation of black stereotypes, with Preminger conceding that it portrayed “a world that really doesn’t exist.”4

The work’s claims to be a “Negro opera” had already prompted pushback in the 1930s—notably from the African-American composers Hall Johnson and Duke Ellington. Now such objections were harder to ignore. Clearly if Porgy and Bess were to remain viable as a work for performance, it would be for reasons other than its authenticity as a social document. For many younger fans, the question was moot; by the time the film’s soundtrack album (with Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge dubbed, as on screen, by other voices) came out, the more attractively contemporary choice in the realm of musical theater would have been the original cast album of West Side Story—a work more directly indebted to Porgy than we grasped at the time.

2.

The “world that really doesn’t exist” of Porgy and Bess had once seemed to Broadway audiences as authentic as, say, the mean streets of West Side Story seemed to theatergoers of the late 1950s. Its source, DuBose Heyward’s 1925 novel Porgy, won critical praise as an unprecedented revelation of black life, and it clearly aspires toward ethnographic precision, although with a high-toned literary polish (“The first horizontal rays of the sun were painting the wall a warm claret…”) that alternates jarringly with Heyward’s efforts at meticulous transcription of a dialect he knew from his youthful work in South Carolina as a canvasser for “burial money,” supervisor of field hands on a plantation, and checker in a cotton shed.

After the New York success two years later of the play that he and his wife, Dorothy, made from the book, he acknowledged that he had grown to see “the primitive Negro as the inheritor of a source of delight that I would have given much to possess.” As the offspring of a genteel and once-prosperous Charleston family fallen on hard times, Heyward felt at ease with his chosen subject, even if, as Richard Crawford notes with understatement in Summertime: George Gershwin’s Life in Music, “the racial imbalance of power never claimed much of his attention.”

Gershwin read the novel with enthusiasm when it came out and proposed an operatic version to Heyward with the proviso that he was not yet “prepared technically to compose an opera.” Heyward, impressed by this “young man of enormous physical and emotional vitality,” was willing to wait, while the play version (on which the opera’s libretto would be closely patterned), with an all-black cast under Rouben Mamoulian’s evidently dazzling direction, enjoyed a long run. He fended off an approach from Al Jolson, who wanted to play Porgy in blackface; Gershwin had advised him that “the sort of thing that I should have in mind for Porgy is a much more serious thing than Jolson could ever do,” and made it clear that he intended “an all-colored cast.”

When Gershwin approached Heyward, he was already the most famous composer in America, even if he saw himself as very much a continuing student of every kind of music within his purview. For the public he was a celebrity received by British royalty and featured on the cover of Time, a streetwise son of Russian Jewish immigrants who had dropped out of high school to become a teenage song plugger, written a string of hit songs, and gone on to dominate Broadway and London’s West End, scoring musicals for Fred and Adele Astaire, Gertrude Lawrence, and Beatrice Lillie. He had capped his singular ascent with the 1924 premiere of Rhapsody in Blue, a triumph neatly combining popular taste and highbrow approval. It added up to a perfect American success story in which Gershwin seemed to delight, lending his energies to a constant round of receptions, dinner galas, concert tours, radio appearances, and newspaper interviews that somehow did not get in the way of his remarkable productivity.

Sidney Poitier as Porgy in Otto Preminger’s film Porgy and Bess, 1959
AF Archive/Alamy
Sidney Poitier as Porgy in Otto Preminger’s film Porgy and Bess, 1959

Crawford’s Summertime gives as close a glimpse of that productivity as can be imagined—month by month and sometimes day by day—yet it is striking that Gershwin remains an enigmatic figure even under this close scrutiny. In its five hundred pages, we learn in rich detail about his musical development, but relatively little about his emotional side, beyond the gathering impression that the calendar of his hyperactive life masks a central unknowable solitariness. It isn’t a matter of reclusiveness. He lived in the midst of a crowd much of the time, and the lists of his social contacts are a cultural panorama in themselves, whether he was partying before World War I with S.N. Behrman, Groucho and Harpo Marx, Fanny Brice, and Oscar Levant, encountering in the worlds of Tin Pan Alley and Broadway the major jazz musicians Eubie Blake, James P. Johnson, and Willie “the Lion” Smith, or mixing at the Paris premiere of his Concerto in F in 1928 with Sergei Diaghilev, Sergei Prokofiev, Cole Porter, Arthur Honegger, Elsa Maxwell, and (in his brother Ira’s words) “some countess.”

His enjoyment of the perks of fame, all that festivity and travel and comfortable living, radiated a boyish energy; his public identity was of a man artistically serious but not in the least solemn. He appeared to get a kick out of what he called, in a radio interview, “the gorgeous rush of new things, which is the most important gift of our modern civilization…a culture of abundance, of many quick entertainments.” The age, by his reckoning, was “staccato, not legato,” and it agreed with him.

None of that abundance and quickness distracted from the musical path he had instinctively adopted, by his own account, from the moment at age six when he heard Anton Rubinstein’s Melody in F on a player piano in a penny arcade in Harlem. As an origin story, it is too perfectly movieish, but consistent with the infallible instinct with which Gershwin seems to have fastened on to every source of musical instruction that presented itself. He found teachers everywhere, and never stopped looking for them. When he met Maurice Ravel in New York in 1928, he wanted not compliments but lessons. (Ravel described Gershwin to Nadia Boulanger as “a musician endowed with the most brilliant, the most captivating, perhaps the most profound qualities…. But were we to teach him what he wants to learn, it might destroy him.”) The highlight of his European tour that same year was not any of the glittering galas but his meeting with Alban Berg in Vienna and his first hearing of Berg’s Lyric Suite.

From his earliest childhood concert-going experiences, he cultivated a precise musical memory and a “habit of intensive listening,” whether he was hearing Art Tatum play a long series of variations on his own “Liza,” or attending the New York premieres of Arnold Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire or Berg’s Wozzeck. His description of how that listening merged within him, however overblown the prose style, seems accurate as artistic autobiography:

Strains from the latest concert, the cracked tones of a hurdy gurdy, the wail of a street singer to the obligato of a broken violin, past or present music, I was hearing within me. Old music and new music, forgotten melodies and the craze of the moment, bits of opera, Russian folk songs, Spanish ballads, chansons, rag-time ditties, combined in a mighty chorus in my inner ear.

In the fusion of all that, he professed to hear “the soul of this great America of ours.”5 During the gestation of Porgy and Bess, Gershwin did not spend more than six or seven weeks in Charleston, but he evidently did plenty of listening, especially to street cries and Gullah church services. Serena’s incantatory prayer “Oh, Doctor Jesus” seems as close as he could have come to notating what he heard—not separated out from the rest of the score but part of the fusion toward which he worked, as if conscious of a heightened capacity to fully realize what he had hitherto only sketched.

Gershwin was constantly working at new techniques but also processing fresh sound impressions that carried with them hints of other lives and ways of life, and he aspired to opera as the form that could achieve his deepest ambition. In 1925 he wrote about his plans to write a “Negro opera,” which at that point he envisioned as “an imaginative, whimsical thing, like a Carl Van Vechten story…. I would like to see it open as an opera comique on Broadway.” He was, after all, a specialist in musical comedies like Oh, Kay! and Of Thee I Sing. But engaging with the task drew him into the side of his personality not yet fully expressed in his music, the melancholy aspect that would also lead, during the period of Porgy and Bess’s composition, to an intense therapeutic relationship with the Russian psychoanalyst Gregory Zilboorg.

If rights negotiations had worked out, Gershwin’s first full-fledged opera would have been The Dybbuk, from S. Anski’s Yiddish drama of demonic possession and exorcism in a Polish shtetl. One can only imagine what a different sort of work would have resulted—lacking both the American atmosphere so important to him and the humor he thought an essential ingredient of any American opera—while also registering its resonance with Porgy and Bess, another story about a community with an ethos independent from the society around it, relying on ritual and religion as essential binding forces, and roiled by violence unleashed by the frustrations and resentments of sexual passion. Gershwin was never to address so explicitly Jewish a theme, even if his music was suffused with suggestive echoes, not least in Porgy and Bess. Gershwin himself heard “Summertime” as “cantorial.”

Once he had determined on an American opera, he never considered any but an African-American theme and an African-American cast; furthermore, he wanted it staged on Broadway rather than at the Met. He had in mind a musical expression that in his experience trained white opera singers could not provide. Presumably, he also wanted a theme far removed from the shows he had so brilliantly been scoring throughout the 1920s, remembered now almost exclusively for songs like “Fascinating Rhythm,” “The Man I Love,” and “S’Wonderful,” shows whose inane plots are recounted in somewhat staggering detail in Crawford’s book: “Tom Nesbit, an American mining engineer working in Peru, reads a press agent’s article about New York chorus girl Joyce West, said to be as principled and down-to-earth as she is beautiful…”

Gershwin had already demonstrated his inexhaustible capacity to embed a world of exuberance (“I Got Rhythm”) or yearning (“Someone to Watch Over Me”) within a melody dropped more or less at random into a farcical storyline, but he had not even begun to explore the emotional interactions for which Porgy and Bess would provide the first and, as it turned out, culminating opportunity. He would spend the two years between the opera’s opening and his death from a brain tumor mostly in Hollywood, writing songs—some of his very best—for Shall We Dance, A Damsel in Distress, and The Goldwyn Follies. The last of all was “Love Is Here to Stay,” never written down but reconstructed from memory by Ira Gershwin and Oscar Levant.

3.

James Robinson’s production of Porgy and Bess at the Met establishes its focus from the outset: a community and all those who are part of it, with no distinction between background and foreground. The stage is dominated by an open-frame structure representing the interconnected dwellings of Catfish Row—sufficiently abstract to lift the place out of the realm of documentary realism—a zigzagging wooden stairway on the left leading to the upper rooms, a gate at the rear leading to the street. The absence of walls between the rooms suggests a fluid intermingling in which no one can be quite alone—a suggestion offset by the small room at the far right that will soon be identified as Porgy’s. But the place is full of people, the inhabitants miming a round of daily activities in a slow motion that contrasts with the force of the opening music, with its complement of xylophones and kettle drums.

The sixty chorus members, joined by a troupe of dancers under the direction of Camille A. Brown, often fill the stage to its capacity, so that the eye has to circle around to pinpoint the shifting center of the action. If anything, the principals are part of the crowd, moving in and out of prominence as circumstances determine. To stand out becomes a mark of isolation, whether as aggressor (Crown), fugitive (Bess), interloper (Sportin’ Life), or disabled observer (Porgy). If the staging sometimes clutters vital moments, such as Porgy’s first entrance, it affirms the degree to which the opera rides on choral waves, as individual dramas emerge from the overwhelming collective sound of all those voices supported by the equally maximal orchestra. The fight in which Crown kills his fellow gambler Robbins in the first act—played not as a slaughter of the weak by the strong but as more of a contest between equals—is an internal disturbance, an eddy of violence swirling within the heart of a crowd.

A live performance of this quality makes clear how much this is a work without lulls or intervals, crafted to induce rapt involvement. For all its sonic monumentality, it races forward. The tranquility of “Summertime” at the outset is almost the last such moment. In the continuous interlinked development that ensues, each phase tumbles unstoppably into the next, an effect mirrored by the revolving set that swivels to maintain continuity from courtyard to waterfront.

There are discreet discontinuities as well, like the scrim that separates Sportin’ Life and Bess from the rest of the community as he redoubles his efforts to extricate her definitively from its influence, or the spotlight in the first act that makes a ring of isolation around Porgy as he makes his first transition from speechlike recitative to somber lament: “They pass by singing, they pass by crying…. When Gawd make cripple, He mean him to be lonely.” The visual demarcation is helpful given the tumult of that opening scene and the brevity of that essential statement. Such passages of singular melodic distinctness—Porgy’s “They Pass By Singing,” Peter’s street cry “Here Come de Honey Man,” Bess’s “I Loves You, Porgy”—go by in a moment and are swept aside by the ongoing turbulence.

Within that flow Eric Owens as Porgy is a figure of physical and inward power only superficially constrained by disability. This is a weathered Porgy, experiencing the impact of a late and unexpected love, brought into a total devotion whose rocklike gravity defies obstacles and dangers of whose force he is entirely aware. I would have liked to hear Owens do the “Buzzard Song,” omitted here as it was from the original production (in part to ease the punishing vocal demands of Porgy’s role), an aria whose drama of foreboding overcome by jubilant rejuvenation would have fit in well with his interpretation. He reached a particular intensity of feeling in “Bess, You Is My Woman Now,” in which there was a palpable sense of the unlikely bond created with Angel Blue’s mercurial Bess, who is constantly in movement and at risk of drifting away, yet incandescent in the moment of their union. From scene to scene, Blue embodied a process of unstable shifting and inward struggle, most jaggedly in her encounter with Crown when he accosts her after the picnic on Kittiwah Island, making of “Oh, What You Want wid Bess” a painful self-appraisal addressed more to herself than Crown.

Alfred Walker’s Crown was a portrait of energy unmoored, in the grip of male pride and male rage, and additionally powerful for the sympathy Walker elicited. By contrast, Frederick Ballentine as Sportin’ Life—avoiding the vaudevillian tones of Avon Long or Sammy Davis Jr. (or Cab Calloway, apparently Gershwin’s model for the role)—made his character less seductive, more frankly menacing: a disturbing, demonic presence except for the moment when Maria, in the rhythmic spoken tirade beautifully performed by Denyce Graves, brandishes her fishknife and sends him packing, suddenly a minor devil put in his place.

What is striking about Porgy and Bess in performance is how much freedom Gershwin’s music allows for the exploration of character. A literal reading of the libretto alone suggests a much narrower range of interpretation, with the various characters’ motives and the limits of their understanding pinpointed without ambiguity. The music gives space for unanticipated revelation, just as it allows a flexibility of approach: to hear Latonia Moore explore the possibilities of Serena’s “My Man’s Gone Now” and “Oh, Doctor Jesus” is to feel the music being not simply performed but reinvented. Porgy and Bess, more than anything else Gershwin composed, is a documentary not of a Catfish Row whose real-life model he encountered only fleetingly, but of all he was able to extrapolate from his intense focus on hearing it. One can only wonder if he imagined all that performers have continued to create from his music; there can be no doubt that he intended not a work fixed unchangeably at a single point in time but a process of continuing change that would keep it vital.

  1. 1

    Produced by Goddard Lieberson and conducted by Lehman Engel, the Columbia recording featured Lawrence Winters as Porgy, Camilla Williams as Bess, and Avon Long as Sportin’ Life.  

  2. 2

    Recordings since 1951 have sometimes incorporated even more of Gershwin’s music. The question of how best to respect the score’s integrity remains fluid, as evidenced by some arguable cuts in the Metropolitan Opera’s current revival. I think particularly of the children’s chorus that precedes Porgy’s final entrance, a brief burst of exuberance that heightens the catastrophe of what follows. Detailed discussion of the issues surrounding different versions of Porgy and Bess can be found in Joseph Horowitz, “On My Way”: The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin, and Porgy and Bess (Norton, 2013). 

  3. 3

    The film’s current situation is summarized in Kim Masters, “David Geffen, Samuel Goldwyn and the Search for the ‘Holy Grail’ of Missing Movies,” The Hollywood Reporter, February 23, 2017.  

  4. 4

    An account of the film and its reception can be found in Chris Fujiwara, The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger (Faber and Faber, 2008). 

  5. 5

    George Gershwin, “Jazz Is the Voice of the American Soul,” Theatre Magazine, Vol. 45, No. 311 (March 1927).