American Experience

When the new production of the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess opens the Met season on September 23, it will mark the latest chapter in the endlessly fascinating journey of what many believe is our greatest homegrown opera. Eric Owens and Angel Blue star in the title roles of the composer’s rich—but complicated—masterpiece. By Matt Dobkin

On March 29, 1932, in a letter to DuBose Heyward—author of the 1925 novel Porgy and, with his wife, Dorothy, of a subsequent stage adaptation—George Gershwin wrote, “My dear Mr. Heyward: I am about to go abroad in a little over a week, and in thinking of ideas for new compositions, I came back to one that I had several years ago—namely, Porgy—and the thought of setting it to music. It is still the most outstanding play that I know about the colored people. I should like very much to talk with you before I leave for Europe.”            

Apparently, Heyward responded kindly to the praise, for in a follow-up letter less than two months later, Gershwin again wrote to say, “I was very glad to have your letter telling me that the operatic rights to Porgy are free and clear.” Over the course of 1932, the men’s correspondence intensified as they worked out the legal logistics and strategized to get around a desire by Al Jolson to take on the role of Porgy, in blackface, in a musical production of the source material. Their collaboration continued with a retreat to Heyward’s weekend home on Folly Island, on the coast of Charleston, South Carolina, where much of the local Gullah culture inspired the book and Gershwin’s eventual opera. Work continued, albeit slowly, through 1934, with Heyward writing to Gershwin on March 2, “I have been hearing you on the radio, and the reception was so good it seemed as though you were in the room. In fact, the illusion was so perfect I could hardly keep from shouting at you, ‘Swell show, George, but what the hell is the news about Porgy!!!’”            

Gershwin replied a few days later, “I am working as much as I can on our opus and I am finding it very interesting. I am skipping around—writing a bit here and a bit there. It doesn’t go too fast, but that doesn’t worry me as I think it is all going to work out very well.”     

In the end, Porgy and Bess worked out very well, indeed, considering that it has become an indelible piece of American musical history in the 85 years since its Broadway premiere, and given its seemingly endless parade of timeless tunes, from “It Ain’t Necessarily So” to “I Loves You, Porgy” to “Bess, You Is My Woman Now” to “My Man’s Gone Now” to, of course, “Summertime,” which holds the record for most covered popular song of all time, with more than 25,000 renditions from such diverse artists as Billie Holiday, Janis Joplin, Miles Davis, R.E.M., the Doors, and Fantasia. (Gershwin, sadly, would never know of the perennial power of his lone operatic work. The initial Broadway run was not a commercial success, and the composer lost money on the project. Less than two years later, he was dead from a brain tumor at age 38.)         

But the creation of Porgy and Bess was fraught, and staging it today remains so. The original creative team—Gershwin, his brother, Ira, who wrote many of the lyrics, and the Hewyards—was entirely white, and the African American story they chose to tell, one of drug addiction, promiscuity, and murder, was viewed by many to traffic in stereotypes that were outdated and offensive even in the thirties. And then there was the libretto, which, though rich and dramatic, was written to evoke a Southern black dialect that can border on cringe-inducing. Gershwin’s insistence that all productions of his opera feature principal casts and choruses of exclusively black artists created a wealth of opportunities for African American opera singers who otherwise weren’t regularly cast, but many of them had to be convinced that the characters in Porgy were worthy of their artistry. Moreover, the piece has been dogged since the beginning by questions about whether it was truly an opera or a piece of musical theater (and, indeed, it has been staged as both over the decades).       

For his part, bass-baritone Eric Owens, who stars as Porgy opposite soprano Angel Blue in the new Met production, believes, “It’s whatever who’s putting it on wants it to be. After so long, a piece of art is birthed to the world, and it’s a gift. People are going to interpret it in different ways. I just think it’s valid to present it any way people who love it want to, if they give it their all, and their heart and soul.”   

Certainly, the Met forces, under the baton of David Robertson, will be giving it their all in this season’s new staging. Working with set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Donald Holder, and, in her Met debut, the acclaimed young choreographer Camille A. Brown, director James Robinson, who believes Porgy exists within the grand opera tradition, has created a production he describes as cinematic in its sweep. “Porgy and Bess is a huge show,” Robinson says. “It has an epic scale, so it requires a production that is just as epic. We have a set that moves and changes, and we get to see it from all different angles, which is really exciting. It is a very grand, beautiful, colorful but austere production. It definitely evokes a seaside community in Charleston, South Carolina. And every individual in that community of Catfish Row, every member of the chorus, has a story.”     

That 60-member chorus, made up almost exclusively of artists new to the Met, may be as essential to the story of Porgy as the chorus in Britten’s Peter Grimes, judging the lead characters, commenting on the action, and driving the story. That story, of course, centers on the disabled beggar Porgy, who tries to rescue the beautiful but troubled Bess from the abusive men—Crown and Sportin’ Life—who provide her with drugs and take advantage of her sexually. But all the members of the community who see this drama unfold are part of the story themselves.         

“The inhabitants of Catfish Row are integral to every - thing that’s going on with every other character,“ Robinson continues. “You get to know how this community functions. It’s a very religious community—they’re bound by their faith.” Where some observers view Catfish Row as a “slum,” Robinson sees a rich, interconnected working-class community in which everyone is doing his or her best to get by.      

Blue agrees. “I view Bess as someone who is broken, who is looking to be accepted,” she says. “I think she’s looking for a true, unconditional love—and I think that’s what most of the people in Catfish Row are looking for. I think Bess represents a part of every person because all of us are searching for something, be it a relationship, or religion, or something else. Of course, she doesn’t make the wisest decisions, but I still feel that there is a lot of hope she’s clinging to. In a way, she’s kind of like Violetta in La Traviata, when she says, Is it possible to have real love? Does that actually exist?”            

If Blue is interested in the emotional brokenness of her character, Owens sees Porgy as shaped largely by his physical brokenness. “There’s this wonderful innocence about Porgy, being a person who has this disability,” he says. “People like him are amazing observers of human behavior—he’s a keen study of character. But when you talk about someone having an affliction, it’s not just him. You just can’t necessarily see it right away with the other characters. I find that very interesting.” These nuances of character create clear acting challenges for the principals. But Gershwin’s music, despite its extreme familiarity, also poses serious demands. “The score is a lot more difficult than people know,” Owens says. “There’s so much jazz in it, but there are also oodles of Stravinsky and Puccini, a lot of homages to certain composers. And when you have a show that has spawned so many popular musical numbers, and that has also become a staple in the pop world, the stakes are higher when you’re trying to present the piece within the actual operatic context. It could be really easy for us to just sing ‘Bess, You Is My Woman Now’ as a love duet, but there’s a lot of subtext. Finding those moments, and trying to make them true to the show—there’s a lot of responsibility there.”           

For Blue, the sheer vocal range of Bess ranks her alongside Tosca and Violetta as the hardest roles in her repertoire. “There are a lot of moments where she’s doubled in the orchestra, and she’s singing in her middle voice. But there are also moments where, vocally, I don’t really feel operatic. I grew up in the church—my dad was a pastor—and there are moments in Porgy and Bess that are less about technique and more about a feeling.”             

Gershwin’s love for spirituals and jazz, of course, is heard throughout Porgy and Bess, which had its long awaited Met premiere in 1985—50 years after it was first staged—with Grace Bumbry and Simon Estes in the title roles. Back then, Bumbry and Estes were essentially the only principals who had been regularly singing leading roles at the Met; the rest of the cast were making debuts. That’s not the case at all today. In the new production, of the eight major characters, seven have thriving Met careers—Blue, Owens, Denyce Graves, Latonia Moore, Golda Schultz, Ryan Speedo Green, and Alfred Walker— with only Frederick Ballentine making his company debut, as Sportin’ Life.    

In a fascinating bit of history, the Met was involved in early discussions with Gershwin about the piece having its world premiere in the old Met on 39th Street. Then–Met Chairman Otto Kahn was a fan of Gershwin’s, in particular of his genre-straddling style, and he initially contracted the composer to write a new opera based on the popular Yiddish play The Dybbuk, but rights issues scuttled the project. When the idea of Porgy arose, Kahn showed interest, but it was apparently agreed by all parties that presenting the premiere with an all-black cast in the midst of the Met’s repertory season would be too complicated and costly. Not only did Porgy not premiere at the Met in the 1930s, no African American principal artist would appear with the company in any production until 1955, when General Manager Rudolf Bing hired Marian Anderson and Robert McFerrin.      

This intertwined history of Porgy and Bess and the overdue ascendance of African American artists at the Met is explored in a season-long exhibition in the Met’s Founders Hall galleries. The company is also issuing a special companion CD featuring the essential black artists of that initial 1955–85 period, and planning a number of Porgy-related panel discussions and performances. The idea is to seize the opportunity afforded by the opera’s historic return to the Met stage to encourage conversation about the various issues this complicated masterwork continues to raise. 

Even the new production has been a long time coming. General Manager Peter Gelb has had his sights on Porgy and Bess since he started at the Met nearly 15 years ago, but he had to wait, until now, for the rights to become available. First the 2012 Broadway production, starring Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis, had to complete its run, and then there was a period when Steven Spielberg was considering making a Gershwin biopic that he ultimately decided to pass on. 

Owens and Blue are not surprised by the lasting fascination with Gershwin’s only opera. “I think it has stood the test of time because of the score, because of the music,” Owens states. “A really good score elevates a piece and makes it something that people want to continue to see and hear.”        

“I think the reason Porgy and Bess has managed to stay in people’s hearts for 85 years,” Blue adds, “is because it really resonates. In a sense, the characters could be from any background, any language. The story itself is truly universal.”

Matt Dobkin is the Met’s Creative Director, Content & Strategy