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…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.