The first performance of Porgy and Bess

Richard Cavendish remembers the first performance of Porgy and Bess on September 30th, 1935.

One night in 1926 the composer George Gershwin picked a book called Porgy to read in bed and was so rivetted by it that he could not stop until he had read it all. He then wrote to the author at four o’clock in the morning. The author was the novelist DuBose Heyward of Charleston, South Carolina and the story was about a crippled beggar and the other black American denizens of Catfish Row (in real life, Charleston’s Cabbage Row). Gershwin had been thinking of writing an opera blending classical and jazz musical traditions and Porgy seemed to offer the ideal basis for it. Heyward and his wife Dorothy meanwhile turned the novel into a play, produced in 1927 by the well-known stage and cinema director Rouben Mamoulian, which was a notable hit.

Gershwin and Heyward agreed a deal and, delayed by earlier commitments, Gershwin started work on Porgy and Bess in 1934, spending most of that summer in and around Charleston to absorb local colour. The opera was tried out in Boston in September the following year before its New York debut in October. The libretto was by Heyward, the music by Gershwin and the lyrics by Heyward and Gershwin’s brother Ira, which meant that this ‘American folk opera’ about impoverished black Americans which made such a sensation was put together by a Deep South white aristocrat and a pair of New York Jews.

The blackface entertainer Al Jolson had shown interest, but Gershwin insisted that his opera must be performed by blacks. Paul Robeson was unavailable and an entirely black American cast for an opera was not easily found; but found they were and, directed by Mamoulian, the show ran for 124 performances on Broadway. That was not enough to cover its costs, but it made a huge impression. Its favourite songs included ‘Summertime’, ‘I Got Plenty of Nuthin’, ‘Bess, You is my Woman Now’, and ‘It Aint Necessarily So’. If anything had still been needed to establish Gershwin as a serious composer, Porgy and Bess was just that.