Word came from Oslo, Norway that Anne Wiggins Brown, the singer who created the role of Bess in the first, 1935 production of George and Ira Gershwinâ€™s opera Porgy and Bess, passed away on March 13 at the age of 96. Brown was the last surviving member of the original Porgy and Bess production, and this seems like a good opportunity to revisit some of the key participants in the first Porgy and Bess, to honor their memory and overall contribution.
The music for Porgy and Bess was written by George Gershwin and its libretto by Ira Gershwin after DuBose Heywardâ€™s 1924 novel Porgy, which essayed the lives of impoverished African-Americans on Charleston, South Carolinaâ€™s Catfish Row in a sympathetic, if by today's standards condescending fashion. Porgy and Bess has been called the "great American opera," even though its premiere was given on Broadway -- the Gershwinsâ€™ usual stomping grounds -- at the Alvin Theater on October 10, 1935. After a weak run of 124 performances, Porgy and Bess closed the following January, but helped with an assist through a popular recording by baritone Lawrence Tibbett and its repetition on radio, the song â€œSummertimeâ€ caught on and this led to renewed interest in the opera itself. In 1942, a revival was given at the Majestic Theater -- with some of the key performers held over from the original -- that was far more successful, though it was presented in a cut form, with the recitatives eliminated in favor of dialogue. While subsequent productions restored gradually more of the music, Porgy and Bess is usually done with some measure of adaptation; complete performances remain rare.
Anne Brown (1912-2009), top billed as â€œBessâ€ in the original production, was a valued singing student at the Institute of Musical Art (later Juilliard) even though as a teenager she couldn't gain entry to the Catholic High School in her native Baltimore. She worked closely with George Gershwin as he composed the score and also suggested changing the title of the opera from "Porgy" to "Porgy and Bess." Brown also appeared in the 1942 revival, but in 1948 she married Norwegian skier and author Thorleif Schjelderup and became a Norwegian citizen. Brown's singing career ended in the mid-1950s -- she had also performed in productions of Gian Carlo Menottiâ€™s operas The Telephone and The Medium -- but she continued as a teacher; among her students were soprano Elizabeth Norberg-Schulz and actress Liv Ullmann.
Todd Duncan (1903-1998) was an already established concert singer by the time the Gershwins offered him the role of Porgy. Duncan didnâ€™t want to do it at first; he disliked the Gullah dialect used in the piece, and felt that the property as a whole was undignified, but he ultimately relented. It turned out to be the major role of his career; even though he would also later create the role of Stephen Kumalo in Kurt Weillâ€™s Lost in the Stars and would appear in mainstream opera as well. In addition to portraying Porgy more than 1,800 times, Duncan enjoyed a position as professor of voice at Howard University that lasted for more than fifty years, and made the first recording of the popular song â€œUnchained Melodyâ€ in 1955.
John William "Bubbles" Sublett (1902-1986), better known by his stage name of John Bubbles, created the role of "Sportin' Life." He was one of the greatest tap-dancers in history, and is credited for inventing the style of "rhythm tap" that revolutionized tap dancing; he even once coached Fred Astaire on the soundstage of the film musical Swing Time (1936). Bubbles worked with pianist Ford "Buck" Washington (1903-1955) in a comedy team partnership that lasted more than three decades; in 1936, they performed on the first "high-definition" (240 lines or better) television broadcast given by the BBC. Even though Bubbles couldnâ€™t read music, he was ideal for the role of Sportinâ€™ Life, though his unreliability was a major problem in the first production of Porgy and Bess. Although he lived until the mid-1980s, unfortunately Bubbles didnâ€™t record anything from Porgy and Bess. Buck Washington also portrayed the part of Mingo in the original show.
Ruby Elzy (1908-1943), created the role of Serena and stopped the show with her performance of â€œMy Manâ€™s Gone Now.â€ A native of Mississippi, in order to study voice at The Ohio State University, Elzy had to disguise herself as a maid in order to be permitted on the trolley to attend her classes. However, the sacrifice paid off; in 1933, Elzy appeared with Paul Robeson in the film version of The Emperor Jones (1933). While she sang Serena in both the 1935 production and in the 1942 revival, Elzyâ€™s parts were sung by Anne Brown in the so-called â€œOriginal Cast Albumâ€ made in 1940-1942 of the revival cast. Nevertheless, Elzy performed for Eleanor Roosevelt at the White House in 1937 and was negotiating for the lead role in a production of Aida when she died, suddenly, in Detroit at the age of 35.
Abbie Mitchell (1884-1960) appeared in the role of Clara and therefore introduced the song â€œSummertime.â€ Mitchell was an entertainer whose career began in 1898, when she appeared in one of the first of Will Marion Cookâ€™s all-black musical revues; she also married Cook that year. Mitchell appeared with everybody who was anybody in black vaudeville in the early years of the twentieth century and traveled to Europe with Cookâ€™s orchestra in 1919. In 1922, Mitchell was the subject of one of the first synchronized sound films, Songs of Yesterday, made with inventor Lee DeForestâ€™s PhonoFilm process. Her role as Clara in Porgy and Bess was her last, as she retired from show business shortly after the show closed.
J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) created the minor role of Frazier, the judge, but he was already an established legend as composer (of â€œLift Every Voice and Sing,â€ with lyrics by his brother, poet James Weldon Johnson), orchestra leader and creator of operettas -- his stage credits go back to 1901. Johnson led an all-black symphony orchestra in New York in 1914-1919 and was the author of several compilations of gospel songs such as The Book of Negro Spirituals (1925). He reprised his role as Frazier in the 1942 revival and participated in the first reasonably complete recording of Porgy and Bess, made by Columbia Records in 1951, just three years before he died.
In preparation for Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin spent some time in South Carolinaâ€™s Sea Islands listening to congregational singing in the Gullah dialect. Among the most difficult aspects of Porgy and Bess is the writing for the chorus, which for most productions given over the first fifty years of the operaâ€™s history was handled by Eva Jessye (1895-1992). Her career began when she joined the Dixie Jubilee Singers in 1926, and by the time the group appeared in King Vidorâ€™s film Hallelujah (1929) she had already moved up to the role of their leader; they were renamed the Eva Jessye Choir a short time later. Jessyeâ€™s choir also participated in the premiere of Virgil Thomsonâ€™s opera Four Saints in Three Acts (1934), and was the perfect choice to negotiate the tricky choruses in Porgy and Bess; ultimately Jessye was unofficially named "keeper of the score" in recognition of her efforts to maintain its integrity, as it went through countless changes over the years. Late in life she established a collection of African-American music at the University of Michigan and donated her private papers to Pittsburg State University in Kansas. Although her last years were spent primarily in Kansas, Eva Jessye died in Ann Arbor at age 97.
A short list of other significant performers in Porgy and Bess that did not appear in the first performance might include the names of William Warfield, Leontyne Price, Cab Calloway and actor Robert Guillaume, best known as TVâ€™s â€œBensonâ€ -- he played Sportinâ€™ Life in a 1964 revival held at the New York City Center. Although the 1942 "original cast" album of Porgy and Bess may not have been so, recordings of rehearsals of the original 1935 cast -- made well before the show opened -- have survived. Among the most highly acclaimed among modern recordings of Porgy and Bess is one from a Glyndebourne Festival Opera production led by Simon Rattle from 1989. A televised version of this picked up an Emmy Award in 1993; this performance is also notable in that it is complete. Director Otto Preminger made a â€œHollywoodizedâ€ feature film version in 1959, starring Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge that earned numerous awards, including the Oscar for best musical score. However, Ira Gershwinâ€™s growing dissatisfaction with what he felt was mishandling of the property led the film to be withdrawn in 1974, and it hasnâ€™t been seen since. This deprives posterity of the opportunity to view Sammy Davis, Jr. as Sportinâ€™ Life -- due to contractual obligations, his voice tracks couldnâ€™t even be included on the soundtrack album for the film, and Cab Calloway was substituted instead -- and Pearl Baileyâ€™s turn as Maria. While some have commented that the opera is demeaning and promotes unhealthy stereotypes, a viewpoint that can be negated just by virtue of listening to the work itself, from the first, Porgy and Bess has helped to get African-American performers into the opera house, even at times when traditional roles were difficult to come by. However, by bringing all of these different kinds of talents in show business, the first production of Porgy and Bess both elevated opera to a new kind of relevance in American culture, and changed entertainment itself.
Anne Brown, Alexander Smallens, Decca Symphony Orchestra: Summertime
Todd Duncan, Otto Klemperer, Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra: I've Got Plenty of Nuttin'
Buck and Bubbles and their Buckets: He's Long Gone from Bowling Green
J. Rosamond Johnson, Lawrence Winters, Camilla Williams, Lehman Engel, Columbia Symphony Orchestra: Mornin', Lawyer
Eva Jessye Choir, Alexander Smallens, RIAS-Unterhangsorchester: O de Lawd Shake de heavens