As the most embracing form of musical expression, opera could not fail to lure a composer of Gershwin's large ambitions. After a furiously paced apprenticeship mastering Broadway song-and-dance musical comedy formulas, from the mid-'20s -- from Rhapsody in Blue (1924) on -- Gershwin, working closely with his lyricist brother, Ira, composed to books which allowed greater scope for music. The sheer, Dionysian éclat of the dance music and generous, captivating melody lavished upon Lady Be Good (1924), Oh, Kay (1926), Funny Face (1927), and Girl Crazy (1930) enlarged the stick figures of their farcical plots into genuine characters. Strike Up the Band (1927, revised 1930), Of Thee I Sing (1931), and Let 'Em Eat Cake (1933) already have operatic scope, and human dimension which only their coruscating satire holds in check. As early as 1922, in the one-act opera Blue Monday, Gershwin had shown a flair for drama with a confident mingling of pop, blues, and jazz, though it was unmatched by literary discrimination; and his scintillant score is undone by a ridiculous book. Through the late 1920s, he toyed with the notion of an opera on American Indian themes and even sketched one on a Jewish folk tale, The Dybbuk.
A reading of Southern poet DuBose Heyward's novel, Porgy, in 1926, and a Theatre Guild production of Heyward's stage adaptation the following year, tantalized Gershwin, though the play's success and the composer's numerous other commitments delayed work on an operatic version until February 1934. In the course of an intense correspondence, Heyward and Gershwin, with Ira contributing lyrics, shaped the stage version into a musical conception. In June, Gershwin visited Charleston, staying for several weeks in a cottage on Ferry Island to absorb the African-American ambience from which Heyward had drawn his locale and characters. Back in New York by July 21, he continued hasty composition as he fielded new commitments and began thinking ahead to production and cast. Todd Duncan and Anne Brown were signed for the title roles, with the erratic but brilliant John W. Bubbles tapped for the central part of Sportin' Life. Composition was completed on August 23, 1935, and orchestration by September 2. The Boston tryout on September 30, 1935, garnered enthusiastic notices and a 15-minute ovation, but also frightened its producers by playing over three hours. In the upshot, some of the work's most original and dramatically revealing numbers were cut. By the time it opened on October 10 at New York's Alvin Theatre, Porgy and Bess hovered between the grand opera Gershwin had conceived and an over-elaborate musical, provoking mixed critical responses. Worse, audiences thinned drastically after the opening, and the show, though it played for 124 performances, lost money. Only in the last quarter of the twentieth century were Gershwin's intentions honored and his dramatic genius vindicated, prompting the conductor Lorin Maazel to note that "Gershwin's compassion for individuals is Verdian, his comprehension of them, Mozartean. His grasp of the folk-spirit is as firm and subtle as Mussorgsky's, his melodic inventiveness rivals Bellini's...."
Porgy and Bess revolves around the residents of Catfish Row, where drugs, violence, and hard times form a backdrop for a story of love between the title characters: Porgy -- a poor cripple -- and Bess, who finds herself alone after her lover, Crown, kills a man while gambling and then flees. The most famous moments from the score include "Summertime," which is sung by Clara to her baby at the opening of the opera; "Bess, you is my woman now," a duet between the two lovers; "My man's gone now," sung by the widow of the murdered gambler; and "I got plenty o' nuttin," Porgy's joyful anthem to simplicity. The choral numbers are unfailingly appealing.