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Alvy Powell and Marquita Lister
Alvy Powell and Marquita Lister

NOTE: This In Performance broadcast will begin one hour earlier than usual, at 2:30pm.

Over the last decade, the Akron Symphony Orchestra has periodically programmed opera – collections of operatic excerpts, and complete concert-format and semi-staged operas. The latter have included Bizet’s Carmen in 2003 and Verdi’s La Traviata in 2007.

For the 2010-11 season, music director Christopher Wilkins set an even more ambitious goal – a large scale, semi-staged production of George Gershwin’s American "folk opera," Porgy and Bess.

Gershwin’s vision for Porgy and Bess specified an African-American cast and onstage chorus. In addition to the national and regional talent recruited for the singing roles, Wilkins called on the musicians who have brought several years of the orchestra’s Gospel Meets Symphony programs to life, augmenting them with performers from Akron’s Youth Excellence Performing Arts Workshop (YEPAW). An additional 68 voice chorus located in the upper balcony included members of the Akron Symphony Chorus.

HISTORY

In 1924, author DuBose Heyward read a newspaper account of a local African-American man accused of aggravated assault, a crime of passion. It caught Heyward’s attention and imagination. "Goat Sammy" was disabled, unable to stand or walk; a cart pulled by a goat was his only mobility.

Porgy, Heyward’s novel inspired by Goat Sammy’s story, became a best seller. Composer George Gershwin read Porgy in September of 1926 and immediately contacted Heyward, proposing that they work together on a folk opera adaptation of the tale. Heyward’s response was strongly favorable, but he was already involved in a collaboration to produce a stage production of Porgy with spirituals.

This was just two years after Gershwin’s sensational success with Rhapsody in Blue, and he was much in demand. So it wasn’t until late in 1933, more than 7 years after their initial contact, that the author’s and the composer’s schedules finally meshed. The month after that, though, Heyward began sending material to Gershwin. The following spring he spent a month in New York with George and his brother Ira, who was helping with the lyrics.

Heyward had set Porgy in his native Charleston, South Carolina. Since almost the inception of the project he’d been trying to draw Gershwin there for a visit. Finally, in June 1934, Gershwin rented a cottage on an island off the Charleston shore. Heyward and his wife Dorothy, who had assisted with the theatrical Porgy, joined Gershwin there.

Gershwin spent quite a bit more of his summer enjoying the island than he did working on the opera. Nevertheless, he was able to absorb some of the African-American musical culture on a neighboring island.

When he returned to New York late in July, Gershwin set to work in earnest, wrapping up the recitatives and orchestrating his opera. This time he soloed on the orchestration (Paul Whiteman had orchestrated Rhapsody in Blue for him). A year later, Porgy and Bess – now bearing the second character’s name to distinguish it from the earlier spiritual-based musical – was finished.

Gershwin’s next tasks were casting and production. He was seeking classically trained African-American singers for his cast, and Todd Duncan’s name surfaced almost immediately. However, Duncan taught at Howard University, and Gershwin "didn’t want any university professor to sing" in Porgy and Bess. When Gershwin actually heard Duncan sing, though, he gave Duncan the lead on the spot.

Gershwin may have thought of Porgy and Bess as an opera, but he was careful to book its Broadway run at the Alvin Theater, assiduously avoiding the word "opera" in connection with it. The show opened in New York on 10 October 1935. It ran for a rather modest 124 performances and was not a financial success.

Nevertheless, Porgy and Bess went on tour in January 1936, playing in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and Washington DC. In Washington the cast protested the National Theatre’s policy of discrimination. Eventually, the theatre management gave in. Porgy and Bess became the first performance there to have an integrated audience.

Porgy didn’t achieve real audience and financial success for another half-dozen years. The turning point was a 9-month 1942 run at Broadway’s Majestic Theatre. However, what played at the Majestic was not Gershwin’s original work. The show’s director had made draconian cuts in the libretto, halved the size of the cast, pruned the orchestra, and eliminated many of the recitatives in favor of spoken dialogue.

A 1952 version reversed many of the cuts, and brought in sizable European audiences. Although that production made a few appearances here in the States, the first really successful American performance of Porgy and Bess as the full opera Gershwin had envisioned didn’t take place until nearly 40 years after the premiere.

In the summer of 1975, Lorin Maazel led the first essentially uncut modern performance of Porgy and Bess with the Cleveland Orchestra and Cleveland Orchestra Chorus. It was recorded by London/Decca. The recording was out of print for some years, but was reissued in 2007.

That same year, Houston Grand Opera presented a fully staged, full length performance, which they later took to Broadway’s Uris Theater. That performance was recorded by RCA.

At last, a half-century after Gershwin had first conceived the idea for Porgy and Bess, it was the fully-fledged American opera he had meant it to be. Its international stature has only grown since then.

SYNOPSIS

Act I, Scene 1

It is night in Catfish Row, a shantytown near the Charleston waterfront. A piano plays "Jassbo Brown’s Blues." Clara sings her infant to sleep with the lullaby, "Summertime." Jake, Clara’s husband, sings "A Woman is a Sometime Thing" to the baby.

Porgy enters (in the Akron performance, he supports himself with a crutch rather than riding a goat cart) as a crap game is in progress. The others tease him for his interest in Bess. Bess enters with her lover, Crown, who is intoxicated. Crown joins the crap game. Enraged at his losses, Crown attacks another player, Robbins, and kills him with a cotton hook.

Crown runs away to hide. As the police arrive, the Catfish Row residents scatter. Bess, now abandoned by her runaway lover, pleads to the nearly empty scene for help and shelter. Sportin’ Life, Catfish Row’s drug dealer, offers to take her to New York, but she refuses. Porgy opens his door to her.

Act I, Scene 2

Robbins’s corpse lies in his and Serena’s room, a saucer on his chest for burial cost donations ("Overflow, Overflow"). The police arrive on the scene and accuse Peter, a half-deaf elderly man, of the murder, expecting the others to finger Crown. No one does, so Peter is hauled off as a "material witness." Serena mourns Robbins with "My Man’s Gone Now." His friends commend his soul to heaven with "Leaving for the Promised Land."

Act II, Scene 1

It’s a month later on Catfish Row. Jake and the fisherman mend their nets and prepare to take to sea, despite warnings of September storms ("It Takes a Long Pull to Get There"). Porgy sings "I’ve Got Plenty of Nothin’," and his friends remark on how he’s changed since he’s been with Bess. Sportin’ Life once again tries to entice Bess with his "magic dust" and life in New York, but Porgy’s example has helped her change her ways. She refuses both. Porgy sends the dope peddler packing. He and Bess sing the love duet "Bess, You is My Woman Now."

A picnic is in the offing ("Oh, I Can’t Sit Down"), but Porgy can’t go. Bess says she’ll stay home too. Porgy insists that she join their friends at the picnic.

Act II, Scene 2

It’s evening, and the picnic is in full swing on Kittiwah Island ("I Ain’t Got No Shame"). Sportin’ Life extols the virtues of religious skepticism in "It Ain’t Necessarily So." Serena arrives and casts "Shame on All You Sinners." Now they have to hurry, or they’ll miss the last boat home.

As the others pack up to leave, Bess lingers. Abruptly, Crown appears; he has been hiding on the island. She begs him to leave her alone ("What You Want With Bess?"), but he compels her to stay. The boat leaves without her.

Act II, Scene 3

It’s early morning, a week later. Jake and the fishermen make final preparations for their fishing excursion, with a partial reprise of "It Takes a Long Pull to Get There." The police have released Peter.

Bess has returned from Kittiwah Island, incoherent. She lies delerious in Porgy’s house. Serena prays for her recovery ("Oh, Doctor Jesus"). Catfish Row awakens as the Strawberry Woman, the Crab Man and Peter the honey man offer their wares.

Bess calls for Porgy. She admits to having been with Crown. Porgy replies that he knows, but it’s all right. Bess has promised Crown that she will go with him, but now she’s afraid. She wants to stay with Porgy ("I Loves You, Porgy"). Porgy swears that he will protect her from Crown.

Anxiously, Clara watches the sea. A storm is brewing. The hurricane bell rings its urgent warning. Fearing the worst, Clara falls to her knees.

Act II, Scene 4

The storm rages outside Serena’s room, where all have gathered to wait and pray. Peter sings "I Hear Death Knockin’ at the Door" – and just then there is a loud, violent knock at the door! Crown bursts in, returning to claim Bess. Serena warns Crown that the storm may kill him, but he sings "If God wanted to kill me, He had plenty of chance ‘tween here and Kittiwah Island." He taunts the entire company with a bawdy song ("A Red-Headed Woman").

Clara spots Jake’s boat, capsized ("Jake’s Boat In the River"). She hands her baby to Bess and rushes out into the storm. Bess urges all the men to follow her, but it is Crown who does so, shouting that he will return for Bess.

Act III, Scene 1

In the courtyard the next night, all mourn Clara, Jake, and Crown – surely lost in the storm ("Clara, Clara"). Sportin’ Life, however, hints that Crown is not dead. Bess sings "Summertime" to Clara’s baby. The courtyard empties.

Crown slinks into the abandoned courtyard, creeping toward Porgy’s door. As he passes the window, an arm reaches out and plunges a long knife into his back. Crown staggers. Porgy stumbles out of the house, seizes Crown, and throttles him. "Bess, Bess, You Got a Man Now," he proclaims.

Act III, Scene 2

The next afternoon, the police arrive to investigate Crown’s death. Serena says she knows nothing – and that all in Catfish Row will swear that Crown murdered her husband Robbins. The police ask Porgy to identify Crown’s body. He refuses out of fear; Sportin’ Life has told him that if a man’s killer looks at his corpse, the corpse’s wounds will bleed. The police haul him away.

Sportin’ Life approaches Bess. Porgy could be in prison for years, he tells her. He might even be executed. The dope peddler offers Bess his "happy dust" to assuage her fears. At first she refuses, but then she succumbs to the temptation. Sportin’ Life again presses her to accompany him to the big city ("There’s a Boat That’s Leaving Soon for New York"). He reminds her that she is now again all alone.

Act III, Scene 3

A week later, life in Catfish Row seems normal ("Good morning, Sister"). Porgy returns. Everyone sings "It’s Porgy Coming Home." Porgy has been in jail for contempt of court after refusing to identify Crown. Even there his luck held up; he’s won cash at jailhouse crap games. He brings gifts for all, including a red dress for Bess.

But – "Oh, Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess?" Serena and Maria join in, excusing and explaining her actions: Bess has gone to New York with Sportin’ Life. Porgy calls for his goat cart. He will find Bess, wherever she is, and bring her back. He and the chorus sing the finale, "Oh Lord, I’m On My Way."

CAST
 
Bess Marquita Lister
Porgy Alvy Powell
Crown Lester Lynch
Serena Angela Renee Simpson
Sportin’ Life Emmanuel LeGrair
Jake Brian Keith Johnson
Clara Candice Hoyes
Maria Carla J Davis
Mingo Jaron LeGrair
Robbins Jason Davis
Jim Ernest Jackson
Peter Allen Maxwell
Annie Julissa Faw
Lily Angeleine Valentine
Nelson, Honey Man Brian Tartar
Crab Man Jaron LeGrair
Strawberry Woman Brenda Justice
Wake Woman Samantha Garner
Wake Man Durrell LeGrair
Hurricane Woman Merissa Coleman
Detective Frederick Reader
Policeman Henry Beazlie
Policeman Kenton Kober
 
PRODUCTION STAFF
 
Chorus Master Levi Hammer
Production Manager Tony Kovacic
Stage Manager Matty Sayre
Stage Director Frank McClain
Lighting Designer Deb Malcolm
Hair / Makeup Designer Karlise Brown
Costume Designer Debbie Meredith
 

The Porgy and Bess Chorus
The Akron Symphony Orchestra
Christopher Wilkins, conductor

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2 Responses to “In Performance: Akron Symphony’s Porgy & Bess

  1. ankh entertainment Says:

    We are reading, the latest autobiography by the Dean of African American composer, William Grant Still. http://www.williamgrantstill.com. The latest autoiography called, My Life, My Words states that Gershwin like most White composers of that time, stole music from composers like Still and put their name on the music. Gershwin is said to have been one such composer who lifted music from the play, Shuffle Along naming it, Porgy and Bess. We find this composer intriguing and would love to hear your thoughts on thsi subject matter.

  2. David Roden Says:

    Thanks for your note, AE. I haven’t made an exhaustive study of this subject, but quite a few musicologists have noted that Gershwin had a strong interest in African-American music. We do know that he was in the audience at least once for “Shuffle Along” in the 1920s, and also for “Levee Land.”

    From what I’ve read, William Grant Still – a fine composer who, by the way, studied at Oberlin College, just up the road from here – implied pretty strongly that Gershwin had gotten the main melodic idea for “I Got Rhythm” from Still. Gershwin may have heard it as part of Still’s improvisation in the pit during “Shuffle Along.”

    “I Got Rhythm” was a huge hit when Gershwin used it in “Girl Crazy” in 1930. Still seems to have been quite conscious of the effect it would have on his listeners when he incorporated Gershwin’s snappy, syncopated version of the motif into the scherzo of his Afro-American Symphony later that same year – effectively borrowing it back!

    Whether Gershwin used any of Still’s material for “Porgy and Bess,” I can’t say, not having studied both side-by-side. However, it does appear that Gershwin (and some of his colleagues, both in the US and in other nations) felt pretty free to treat everything they heard that way as public domain or folk music.

    Not being a legal expert, I’m not going to try to pass judgement on whether any of that rises to plagiarism or copyright violation. I will say though that conscious and unconscious quotation and borrowing has been going on among musicians and composers for centuries, and I think you could argue pretty persuasively that such cross-pollination has made music richer.

    In earlier times, before copyright laws, the “borrowees” usually considered this a compliment. (Indeed, they had little choice.) Today they call it copyright infringement and bring in the lawyers. Determining which is the better system will be left as an exercise for the reader.

    To whatever extent Gershwin did incorporate musical ideas from William Grant Still and others, I think it made him a better composer. Some may say that doesn’t excuse such behavior, but it certainly enriches our musical legacy from Gershwin.

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