Porgy and Bess is an opera with music by George Gershwin, libretto by DuBose Heyward, and lyrics by Ira Gershwin and Heyward. It was based on Heyward's novel Porgy and the play of the same name that he co-wrote with his wife Dorothy. All three works deal with African American life in the fictitious Catfish Row in Charleston, South Carolina in the early 1930s.
Originally conceived by Gershwin as an "American folk opera," the work was first performed in various forms in the fall of 1935, but was not widely accepted in the United States as a legitimate opera until the late 1970s and '80s: it is now considered part of the standard operatic repertoire. Porgy and Bess is also regularly performed internationally, and several recordings of the complete work, including Gershwin's cuts, have been made. Despite this acclaim, the opera has been controversial; some from the outset have considered it racist.
"Summertime" is by far the best-known piece from the work, and countless interpretations of this and other individual numbers have also been recorded and performed. The opera is admired for Gershwin's innovative synthesis of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music idioms. Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a crippled black man living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina, and his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her pimp, and Sportin' Life, the drug dealer.
Setting: Catfish Row, a fictitious suburb of Charleston, South Carolina in the 'recent past' (c.1930).
The opera begins with a short introduction which segues into an evening in Catfish Row. Jabso Brown entertains the community with his piano playing. Clara sings a lullaby to her baby ("Summertime") as the working men prepare for a game of craps. Clara's husband, Jake, tries his own lullaby ("A Woman is a Sometime Thing") with little effect. Porgy, a cripple and a beggar, enters on his goat cart to organize the game. Crown, a lowlife, and his woman Bess enter, and the game begins. Sportin' Life, the local supplier of "happy dust" (cocaine) and bootleg alcohol, also joins in. One by one, the players get crapped out, leaving only Robbins and Crown, who have become extremely drunk. When Robbins wins, Crown starts a fight, and eventually kills Robbins. Crown runs, telling Bess to fend for herself. The door is shut on her by most of the residents, except Porgy, who shelters her.
The mourners sing a spiritual to Robbins ("Gone, Gone, Gone"). To raise money for his burial, a saucer is placed on his chest for the mourners' donations ("Overflow"). A white detective enters, in a speaking voice telling Serena (Robbins' wife) that she must bury her husband soon, or his body will be given to medical students. He arrests Peter (a bystander), whom he will force to testify against Crown. Serena laments her loss in "My man's gone now." The undertaker enters, and agrees to bury Robbins as long as Serena promises to pay him back. Bess and the chorus finish the act with "Leavin' for the Promise' Lan'".
Jake and the other fishermen prepare for work ("It take a long pull to get there"). Clara asks Jake not to go, and to come to a picnic, but he tells her that they desperately need the money. This causes Porgy to sing from his window about his outlook on life ("I got plenty o' nuttin'"). Sportin' Life waltzes around, selling cocaine, but soon incurs the wrath of Maria ("I hates yo' struttin' style"). A fraudulent lawyer, Frazier, arrives and farcically divorces Bess from Crown. Archdale, a white lawman, enters and informs Porgy that Peter will soon be released. The bad omen of a buzzard flies over Catfish Row, causing Porgy to sing "Buzzard keep on flyin' over".
As the rest of Catfish Row prepares for the picnic, Sportin' Life asks Bess to start a new life with him in New York; she refuses. Bess and Porgy are now left alone, and express their love for each other ("Bess, you is my woman now"). The chorus re-enters in high spirits as they prepare to leave for the picnic ("Oh, I can't sit down"). Bess leaves Porgy behind as they go off to the picnic. Porgy reprises "I got plenty o' nuttin'" in high spirits.
The chorus enjoys themselves at the picnic ("I ain't got no shame doin' what I like to do!"). Sportin' Life presents the chorus his cynical views on the Bible ("It ain't necessarily so"), causing Serena to chastise them ("Shame on all you sinners!"). Crown enters to talk to Bess, and he reminds her that Porgy is "temporary." Bess wants to leave Crown forever ("Oh, what you want wid Bess?") but Crown makes her follow him into hiding in the woods.
Jake leaves to go fishing with his crew, and Peter returns from prison. Bess is lying in Porgy's room, delirious. Serena prays to remove Bess's affliction ("Oh, doctor Jesus"). The Strawberry Woman and the Crab Man sing their calls on the street, and Bess soon recovers from her fever. Bess talks with Porgy about her sins ("I wants to stay here") before exclaiming "I loves you, Porgy." Porgy promises to protect her from Crown. The scene ends with the hurricane bell signaling an approaching storm.
The residents of Catfish Row drown out the sound of the storm with prayer. A knock is heard at the door, and the chorus believes it to be Death ("Oh there's somebody knocking at the door"). Crown enters dramatically, seeking Bess. The chorus tries praying to make Crown leave, causing him to goad them with the un-Christian "A red-headed woman make a choo-choo jump its track." Clara sees Jake's boat turn over in the river, and she runs out to try and save him. Crown says that Porgy is not a real man, as he cannot go out to rescue her from the storm. Crown goes himself, and the chorus finish their prayer. Clara dies in the storm, and Bess will now care for her baby.
The chorus mourns Clara and Jake ("Clara, don't you be downhearted"). Crown enters to claim Bess, and a fight ensures, which ends with Porgy killing Crown. Porgy exclaims to Bess "You've got a man now. You've got Porgy!"
A detective enters and talks with Serena and Maria about the murders of Crown and Robbins. They deny knowledge of Crown's murder, causing the detective to question an apprehensive Porgy. He asks Porgy to come and identify Crown's body. Sportin' Life tells Porgy that corpses bleed in the presence of their murderers, and the detective will use this to hang Porgy. Porgy refuses to identify the body, and is arrested for contempt of court. Sportin' Life forces Bess to take cocaine, and then tells her that Porgy will be locked up for a long time. He tells her that she should start a new life with him in New York with the dazzling "There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York". She shuts the door on his face, but he knows that doubt at Porgy's return will make her follow him.
Porgy returns to Catfish Row richer, after playing craps on the street with his loaded dice. He gives gifts to the residents, and does not understand why they all seem so downhearted. He sees Clara's baby is now with Serena and madly asks where Bess is. Maria and Serena tell him that Bess has run off with Sportin' Life to New York in the trio "Bess is gone." Porgy calls for his goat cart, and leaves for New York to find Bess in the closing song "Oh Lawd, I'm on my way".
Gershwin first expressed interest in composing the opera upon reading Heyward's Porgy in 1926, and quickly dispatched a letter to the author. Though initial meetings were promising, Gershwin was in no hurry to write the opera, and Heyward soon collaborated with Dorothy in writing a play named Porgy, which opened in 1927.
After consulting with Gershwin, Heyward sold the story rights to Porgy in the fall of 1932 to Al Jolson, who had a desire to team with Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II to create a musical on the subject with Jolson playing the lead role in blackface. Initial enthusiasm for the proposed musical soon waned, however, leaving Gershwin alone to conceive a staged version of the work.
Original Broadway cast
Gershwin's complete work, running four hours (counting the two intermissions), was performed privately in a concert version in Carnegie Hall, in the fall of 1935. A tryout performance took place at the Colonial Theatre in Boston, beginning on September 30, 1935 and the Broadway premiere followed soon after on October 10, 1935 at the Alvin Theater in New York City. In the course of rehearsal and tryout performances, Gershwin himself made numerous cuts and other changes designed to shorten the opera's running time and to tighten the dramatic action. The Broadway run lasted a mere 124 performances. Rouben Mamoulian produced and directed and Alexander Smallens conducted.
After the disappointing run on Broadway, a tour started on January 27, 1936 in Philadelphia and travelled to Pittsburgh and Chicago before ending in Washington, D.C. on March 21, 1936. During the Washington run, the cast—as led by Todd Duncan—protested segregation among the audience. Eventually management gave into the demands allowed for the first integrated performance at National Theatre. 
This original production included:
Around 1938, the original cast reunited for a West Coast revival; the exception being that Avon Long took on the role of Sportin' Life. Long continued to reprise his role in several of the following productions.
Crawford's Broadway revival
The noted director and producer Cheryl Crawford brought Porgy and Bess back to Broadway in 1942 with an even more drastically cut version of the opera than the first Broadway staging, making it much more like the musical theater Americans were used to hearing from Gershwin. The orchestra was reduced, the cast was halved, and many recitatives were reduced to spoken dialog. 
After trying out her concepts at a professional stock theater in Maplewood, New Jersey in September 1941, the show opened at the Majestic Theater on Broadway in January 1942. Duncan and Brown reprised their roles as the title characters, with Alexander Smallens again conducting. Etta Moten replaced Brown as Bess in June. This production was far more successful financially.
On March 27, 1943, the opera had its European premiere at the Royal Opera House in Copenhagen. This performance is also notable for the fact that it was put on by an all-white cast under the nose of the Nazi occupiers, who put an end to its run after 22 sold-out performances. 
Other all-white or mostly-white productions in Europe took place in Zurich in 1945 and 1950, and Copenhagen in 1946.
Blevins Davis and Robert Breen produced a revival in 1952 which restored much of the music cut away in 1942, along with many of the recitatives put back in place. But, with two condensed acts, it still was short of the full version composed by Gershwin, which had not yet been seen by the public. This tour however restored the work to its full operatic form, and Porgy and Bess was warmly received through Europe.  The London premiere took place on October 9, 1952 at the Stoll Theatre, where it remained until February 10, 1953. 
Notable also was this production's original cast, with Leontyne Price as Bess, William Warfield as Porgy, and Cab Calloway as Sportin' Life. The small role of Ruby was played by a young Maya Angelou. Price and Warfield met and wed while on the tour.
After a small tour of Europe financed by the United States Department of State, the production came to Broadway's Ziegfeld Theatre. It went on the road again in the fall of 1954 to Latin America, the Middle East and Europe, though Price and Warfield had since left the production. This tour saw Porgy and Bess premiere at La Scala in Milan, in February of 1955. A historic yet tense premiere took place in Moscow in December 1955, the first time an American theater group had been to the Soviet capital since the Bolshevik Revolution. Author Truman Capote travelled with the cast and crew, writing an account of this event in his book The Muses Are Heard: An Account.
Houston Grand's 1976 production
During the 1960s and early 1970s, Porgy and Bess mostly languished on the shelves, a victim of its perceived condescending racism in a racially-charged time. Though new productions took place in 1961 and 1964 along with a Vienna Volksoper premiere in 1965, these did little to change most Americans' opinions of the work.
The Houston Grand Opera production which opened on September 25, 1976 helped to turn the tide. For the first time, an American opera company had tackled the opera, not a Broadway production company. This production was based on Gershwin's original full score and did not incorporate the cuts and other changes that Gershwin himself had made before the New York premiere, but it allowed the public to take in the operatic whole as first envisioned by the composer. In this light, it became clear that Porgy and Bess was indeed an opera, not a serious piece of musical theatre. This production won the Houston Grand a Tony Award—the only opera ever to receive one—and a Grammy Award.
Another Broadway production was staged in 1983. After toying with the idea of staging the opera since the 1930s, the Metropolitan Opera staged the work in 1985, opening on February 6. England's Glyndebourne Festival tackled the work with a 1986 production. These productions were also based on the "complete score," without incorporating Gershwin's revisions. A semi-staged version of this production was performed at the Proms in 1998. The centennial celebration of the Gershwin brothers from 1996–1998 included a new production as well. On February 24-25, 2006, the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of John Mauceri, gave a concert performance at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center that restored the cuts made by Gershwin himself for the New York premiere, allowing the opera to be heard as the composer intended for it to be, for the first time since the first New York run.
From the outset, the opera's depiction of African Americans attracted controversy. Problems with the racial aspects of the opera continue to this day. Virgil Thomson, a white American composer, stated that "Folk lore subjects recounted by an outsider are only valid as long as the folk in question is unable to speak for itself, which is certainly not true of the American Negro in 1935." Duke Ellington stated "the times are here to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms." Several of the members of the original cast later stated that they, too, had concerns that their characters might play into a stereotype that African Americans lived in poverty, took drugs and solved their problems with their fists.
A planned production by the Negro Repertory Company of Seattle in the late 1930s, part of the Federal Theater Project, had been cancelled because actors were displeased with what they viewed as a racist portrayal of aspects of African American life. The initial plan was that they would perform the play in a "Negro dialect", which these Pacific Northwest African American actors did not speak, and were supposed to learn from a dialect coach. Florence James attempted a compromise of dropping the use of dialect pronunciations, but ultimately the production was canceled outright. 
Another production of Porgy and Bess, this time at the University of Minnesota in 1939, ran into similar troubles. According to Barbara Cyrus, one of the few black students at the university at the time, members of the local African American community saw the play as "detrimental to the race" and as a vehicle that promoted racist stereotypes. The play was eventually cancelled due to pressure from the African American community, which saw their success as proof of the increasing political power of blacks in the Twin Cities. 
This belief that Porgy and Bess was racist gained strength with the American Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1950s, '60s and '70s. In fact, as these movements advanced, Porgy and Bess was seen as more and more out of place. When the play was revived in the 1960s, social critic and African American educator Harold Cruse called it, "The most incongruous, contradictory cultural symbol ever created in the Western World."  Author John Hope Franklin did not totally agree with this view, stating in his introduction to Three Negro Classics "Sportin' Life clowns but not for white audiences. Porgy's clowning is a deliberate frustration of white power. Porgy also plays Uncle Tom, but he is never servile and lives for no white master." 
Gershwin’s all-black opera was also unpopular with some celebrated black artists. Harry Belafonte declined to play Porgy in the late 1950s film version, so it was offered to Sidney Poitier who regretted his choice ever after. Betty Allen, president of the Harlem School of the Arts, admittedly loathed the piece and Grace Bumbry, who excelled in the 1985 Metropolitan Opera production as Bess, made the often cited statement: "I thought it beneath me, I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there." 
Over time, however, the opera gained acceptance from the opera community and some (though not all) in the African American community. Maurice Press stated in 2004 that "Porgy and Bess belongs as much to the black singer-actors who bring it to life as it does to the Heywards and the Gershwins."  Indeed, Ira Gershwin stipulated that only blacks be allowed to play the lead roles when the opera was performed in the United States, launching the careers of several prominent opera singers.
During the era of apartheid in South Africa, several South African theatre companies planned to put on all-white productions of Porgy and Bess. Ira Gershwin, as heir to his brother, consistently refused to permit these productions to be staged.
In the summer of 1934, George Gershwin worked on the opera in Charleston, South Carolina. He drew inspiration from the James Island Gullah community, who he felt had traditions that were reminiscent of Africa. This research added to the authenticity of his work.
The music itself reflects his New York jazz roots, but also portrays southern black traditions. Gershwin modeled the pieces after each type of folk song that the composer knew about; jubilees, blues, praying songs, street cries, work songs, and spirituals are blended with traditional arias and recitatives.
In addition to being influenced by New York jazz and southern black music, many biographers and contemporaries have noted that for many numbers Gershwin borrowed melodies from Jewish liturgical music. Gershwin biographer Edward Jablonsky has claimed that the melody to "It Ain't Necessarily So" was taken from the Haftarah blessing , and others have attributed it to the Torah blessing.  Allusions to Jewish music have been detected by other observers as well. One musicologist detected 'an uncanny resemblance' between the folk tune Havenu Shalom Aleichem and the spiritual It Take a Long Pull to Get There .
The score made use of leitmotifs, which are introduced as the theme of a song. They themselves are not folk melodies, but draw inspiration from them in such a way that genuine folk music is recalled.
Use of leitmotif
George Gershwin introduces leitmotifs early in the opera to establish characters musically, and uses an intertwining of these themes to show conflict between characters. The best example of this is after the aria "There's a boat dat's leaving soon for New York" in Act III Scene ii.
Bess' idea of Porgy is expressed by snippets their duet "Bess, you is my woman now," in which they pledge their fidelity to one another:
Her idea of Sportin' Life is shown through snippets of his aria "There's a boat that's leavin' soon for New York" in which the drug peddler tries to persuade Bess to leave Catfish Row with him:
Bess's difficult decision to follow him is represented by a conflict of these two melodies. The first is heard in a sparse and distant orchestration:
Sportin' Life is sure that Bess will follow him, and the quiet cocaine motif is heard. Then his own song is heard in a dazzling, overblown orchestration, complete with swaggering rhythms:
This contrast represents Sportin' Life's successful corruption of Bess's love for Porgy.