A slum in the neighbourhood of Catfish Row in Charleston is home to many African Americans. They are poor people on the lowest rung of the social ladder who have more or less failed in life and are eking out an existence as best they can. But racial segregation means they have no real prospects. One of them is the lame beggar Porgy who roams the slum with a goat and a handcart. One warm evening, several men begin a fight over a game of dice. The aggressive Crown stabs his opponent to death and flees. He has been living with the attractive Bess who now finds shelter with Porgy, which delights the beggar since he has always had his eye on her but never dreamt that she could ever be interested in a cripple like him. Amazingly, Porgy and Bess grow extremely fond of one another. Even when another man, Sportin’ Life, tries to persuade Bess to go to New York with him she declines. She feels that she now belongs to Porgy. When the entire neighbourhood – except Porgy – goes on a picnic to an island, Crown suddenly reappears: he is in hiding there. In secret he harasses Bess until she yields to his persistent advances and follows him into the wood. The others go back without her. She remains missing for a week and then returns to Porgy, distressed and sick. She slowly recovers and confesses all to Porgy, at the same time insisting that she loves him. She does not want anything like that to happen again. Porgy forgives her and the two resume their life of harmony. But some time later Crown returns and wants to take Bess with him. Porgy kills Crown. Although the police do not identify him as the murderer they imprison him for a minor offence. While he is away, Bess feels lost and when Sportin’ Life tells her that Porgy will never be released from gaol she believes him. So she goes to New York with him after all. Porgy is unexpectedly released after one week and finds Bess gone. When he hears where she has gone he decides to follow her and sets off in the direction of New York with his goat and his handcart.
George Gershwin was already a successful composer in around 1930 when he began to carry out a plan he had had for a long time: he wanted, at long last, to create a truly American opera. He found his subject matter in the novel Porgy (1925) by Edwin DuBose Heyward and the stage play that was based on it, since the story reflected the history of America and the problems it was then facing. The author of both novel and play agreed to write the libretto along with his wife Dorothy. George’s brother Ira also wrote many lyrics. So that he would be able to portray the setting accurately, Gershwin travelled to Charleston in 1934 and did research among the Gullah, an ethnic group of African Americans there. He incorporated their dialect and music into the libretto and composition, for example rhythmic clapping patterns that accompany spirituals and the street vendors’ calls with their characteristic rising pitch. The finished opera is stylistically very varied: it contains spirituals, street songs, working songs, jazz songs and instrumental numbers such as the storm and the murder of Crown. Gershwin masterfully portrays the atmosphere of Catfish Row and the protagonists’ emotions. European opera, with its recitatives, arias and ensemble scenes, serves as the basis of the work’s structure, but here it is redefined and filled with music that is utterly unfamiliar in this form. Gershwin achieves unity with a set of motifs for characters, places and objects which of course draws on Wagner’s use of leitmotifs but had up to then never been applied to music from the realms of jazz and spirituals. The world premiere took place on 10 October 1935 at the Alvin Theatre in New York. After an initially lukewarm reception, it became a global success from 1938. Many of the songs, such as “I Loves You, Porgy” and “Summertime” have become jazz standards. Apart from its musical significance, Porgy and Bess is an important cultural contribution to the abolition of racial segregation. Never before had a stage work dealt with the fates of African Americans in this way, with black performers in the lead roles. With his opera, Gershwin was making a clear political statement by focusing it on the problems of America’s black population and presenting them as representative of America.