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Work of the Week: George Gershwin – Porgy and Bess

On 13 November the complete original version of George and Ira Gershwin’s classic opera Porgy and Bess will premiere at La Scala in Milan in an evening dedicated to the memory of conductor Nikolaus Harnoncourt, who passed away earlier this year. The production is directed by his brother, Philipp Harnoncourt, and conducted by Alan Gilbert.

The original full-length version of Porgy and Bess more noticeably reveals an influence of the European avant-garde than the more frequently performed ‘reduced version’ of the opera. In the late 1920s, Gershwin was profoundly impacted when he met the Austrian composer Alban Berg. Gershwin referred to Porgy and Bess as ‘his Wozzeck’, referring to Berg’s first opera, and while its more avant-garde passages are often cut, they can be seen to strengthen the dramatic effect of the opera.

Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess – And the livin’ is easy…?

Arguably, no other opera has produced so many hits, such as the ever popular Summertime, one of the most recorded songs of all time. Yet the calming lullaby of Summertime at the beginning of Porgy and Bess contrasts starkly with the violent reality of the opera’s setting in Catfish Row, Charleston, South Carolina. In a run-down tenement block dominated by criminals, a crippled beggar, Porgy, attempts to rescue the beautiful Bess from the clutches of her violent lover and the local drug dealer. The opera is based on the novel “Porgy” by Dubose Heyward, who also wrote the libretto.

While the world premiere in 1935 was a success, Porgy and Bess was often criticised for Gershwin’s decision to cast African American singers in the main roles. A classically trained musician, Gershwin intended to write a piece that fused traditional form with other musical styles, and shows a great breadth of stylistic diversity. Classical influences, such as a fugue in the opening act, can be heard alongside jazz, ragtime and blues. Gershwin wished Porgy and Bess to be respected as a fully-formed opera, not a Broadway musical, and can therefore be regarded as an attempt to close a stylistic gap that Kurt Weill once described as:

“Metropolitan: the worst example of old fashioned opera on the one side, and musical comedy which tries to be sophisticated and low brow at the same time on the other side. Nothing in between.”

Porgy and Bess will run at La Scala until 23 November, and a production by Sydney Opera will open in Australia on 26 November.


Photo: Lena Obst, Staats­thea­ter Wies­ba­den 2013.