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The Story Behind Gershwin's PORGY and BESS

PhotoQuest/Getty Images
George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, and Ira Gershwin in NYC, 1935. They collaborated on the opera, Porgy and Bess.

It was a 1925 novel, then a Broadway play, before George Gershwin worked with novelist DuBose Heyward to create one of the first American operas. Today, the beloved music of Gershwin's Porgy and Bess lives on—and off— the opera stage.

On Sunday, August 30th at 1 PM on WRTI 90.1, Marin Alsop leads The Philadelphia Orchestra in highlights from Porgy and Bess, featuring soprano Angel Blue singing the role of Bess. You can hear a re-broadcast of the concert on Monday, August 31st at 7 PM on our HD-2 channel and streaming online. More information here.

Porgy, the novel, was written by DuBose Heyward, a successful writer from an old South Carolina family whose members included a signer of the Declaration of Independence. DuBose and his wife, Dorothy, turned the work into a play that premiered on Broadway in 1927. 

Meanwhile, the story had caught the attention of composer George Gershwin, son of Russian and Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, whose career then included Tin Pan Alley hits, including "Swannee," and "Fascinating Rhythm," orchestral works such as 1924's Rhapsody in Blue and 1925's Concerto in F, as well as musicals, including 1927's Strike Up the Band

Gershwin reached out to Heyward with the idea of working together to write an opera based on Porgy; in 1934, George and his brother, lyricist Ira, spent the summer immersing themselves in the music and culture of a coastal South Carolina African-American community.

The collaboration between the Gershwins and the Heywards produced what Gershwin described as "a folk opera," Porgy and Bess.

The story begins in summertime on Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina. Disabled beggar Porgy is in love with Bess, who's entangled with violent dock worker, Crown, and plagued by drug dealer and con man, Sportin' Life. It's a community where everyone is trying to get by.

Audra McDonald: “Summertime”

"In Bess's case, I really do believe that within her heart, she wants to do the right thing, but she struggles a lot with doing that," says Angel Blue, who sang the role of Bess in the Metropolitan Opera's 2019 production, and sang in the 2020 concert version of Porgy and Bess highlights with The Philadelphia Orchestra in March, 2020.

Angel Blue and Eric Owens: “Bess, You Is My Woman Now”



"She's caught up in this idea that there's this man named Porgy who overlooks all of her faults, and he just loves her because she's Bess."

Credit Matthew Hall/The Philadelphia Orchestra
Soprano Angel Blue singing with The Philadelphians conducted my Marin Alsop.

The opera Porgy and Bess engendered controversy in its early days; performed in theaters and in opera houses, it's been called both musical theater and opera. Although the story about an African-American community was created by white collaborators, Gershwin insisted that all performances be by black casts.  And while it opened up valuable opportunities for black artists, it was criticized by some as an inappropriate depiction of black culture, with dialect that reinforced stereotypes.

And yet, Porgy and Bess has endured and thrived, and still resonates with audiences of all backgrounds.

At its core, it's a very human story, a drama about connection and choices made in difficult times, with melodies that move us. Angel Blue says whether singing in full costume with staging or in concert, "the emotion, the singing, everything is still the same. [Bess] is driven by the idea of love."

Porgy and Bess premiered on Broadway in 1935; its music took root in our culture, spawning orchestral arrangements, concert versions and jazz standards.

Ella and Louis: "Summertime"

Golda Schultz sings "Summertime"

Miles Davis: “Bess You Is My Woman Now”

James Levine and Chicago Symphony Orchestra: Porgy and Bess Symphonic Suite

Bill Evans Trio: “My Man’s Gone Now”

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.