Porgy and Bess


George Gershwin Porgy and Bess folk opera, to a libretto by DuBose Heyward, Dorothy Heyward, and Ira Gershwin. Directed 2009 by Francesca Zambello (Associate Director Rita D'Angelo Tikador) at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. Stars Eric Owens (Porgy), Laquita Mitchell (Bess), Chauncey Packer (Sportin' Life), Lester Lynch (Crown), Angel Blue (Clara), Karen Slack (Serena), Alteouise deVaughn (Maria), Eric Greene (Jake), Michael Bragg (Mingo), Michael Austin (Robbins), Calvin Lee (Peter), Kenneth Overton (Frazier), Malesha Jessie (Annie), Amber Mercomes (Lily), Samantha McElhaney (Strawberry Woman), Earl Hazell (Jim), Darren K. Stokes (Undertaken), Fredrick Matthews (Nelson), Ashley Faatoalia (Crab Man), Richard Farrell (Detective), Louis Landman (Policeman), and John Minágro (Coroner). Additional solo voices: Pamela Dillard, David Hughey, Kenneth Nichols, Taiwan Norris, Shawnette Sulker, Nicole Taylor, and Tammy Woods. John DeMain conducts the San Fransisco Opera Orchestra (Kay Stern Concert Master) and Chorus (Chorus Director Ian Robertson). Set design by Peter J. Davison; costumes by Paul Tazewell; lighting design by Mark McCullough; choreography by Denni Sayers. Directed for screen by Frank Zamacona. Producers were Jessica Koplos and Matthew Shilvock; Executive Producer was David Gockley. Released 2014, LPCM stereo was recorded with 48kHz/16 bit and surround sound was recorded with 96kHz/24 bit sampling. Disc has 5.1 dts-HD Master Audio sound output. Grade: A+

The Porgy and Bess opera is based on the 1925 novel Porgy by DuBois Heyward, a Southern aristocrat descended from Thomas Heyward, Jr., who signed the United States Declaration of Independence. DuBois, a self-trained author of prose and poetry, met his wife Dorothy, a playwright, at the MacDowell Colony. Dorothy convinced DuBois that the novel could be made into a play, and together they wrote Porgy and Bess, which premiered at the New York Theater Guild in 1927 and ran for 367 performances:

George Gershwin saw that the play could be made into an opera. His brother Ira and the Heywards contributed to the libretto and the lyrics:

So what were all these white folks going writing about black life in the era of Jim Crow? DuBose lived in the seaport of Charleston, South Carolina. He was part of the Southern literature movement that emerged after the Civil War dealing with the racial, social, and economic problems of the region. This literature ranged from the humorous Br'er Rabbit trickster stories of Joel Chandler Harris to the mysterious and monumental tomes of William Faulkner. The mostly white authors thought they were dealing honestly and sympathetically with the blacks they depicted. To the blacks, Southern literature too often seemed demeaning and patronizing. It was just an especially elegant and pernicious way of covering for the ongoing economic oppression and exploitation inflicted by the whites on the emancipated but mostly uneducated and defenseless blacks. At any rate, DuBose knew or knew of Samuel Smalls, a crippled beggar, gambler, and petty criminal who travelled about Charleston in a cart pulled by goats.  All the other characters are products of Heyward's imagination or stereotypes. Below are views of Eric Owens as Porgy:

The black folks speak Gullah, a black English dialect that was used extensively in the Porgy novel. With the help of the mostly standard English subtitles, you can follow the dialog easily:

Porgy ekes out a living and rents a room in Catfish Row next to the wharf. Most of his neighbors are decent and god-fearing like Clara (Angel Blue) holding her baby for the famous "Summertime" song:

Clara's husband is Jake (Eric Green), a stalwart fisherman who owns a boat. Here he jokingly turns a lullaby into a famous song complaining of the fickleness of women:

The chorus joins Jake in a sly dance:

But there's also shiftless characters around like the sleazy dope peddler Sportin' Life (Chauncy Packer):

Most of the leaders seem to be women. Here we meet (on your left) Maria, the keeper of the cookshop (Alteouise deVaughn), who is constantly trying to get rid of Old Sportin' Life. On your right is Serena (Karen Slack), the closest thing Catfish Row has to a preacher:

Finally we meet Bess (Laquita Mitchell), a low-life woman, with her man Crown (Lester Lynch), an enormously strong stevedore:

The funeral for Robbins. Serena is the widow, whom we see here raising money to pay for the burial. A mourner (un-credited solo voice) rises to sing out as the spirit moves her: 

The whole chorus moans:


Crown fled town just ahead of the police. Bess has nowhere to turn. Porgy takes pity and lets her stay with him:

Porgy buys Bess a divorce from Crown, which was complicated by the fact that she couldn't show she was married to the stevedore. Lawyer Frazier (Kenneth Overton) rubs it in a bit:

The most famous music from the opera is "I got plenty of nothing."

Jake plans to go out on his boat to the fishing grounds even thought the weather looks bad. He will not return. And soon his son will be an orphan:

It's a holiday and the Catfish Row folks go on a pick nick and religious revival on nearby Kiawah Island. Porgy has no nice clothes to wear,  so he stays behind to guard Catfish Row. Sportin' Life performs a humorous "anti-Gospel" song, the famous "It Ain't Necessarily So."


Serena and other leaders are irritated at Sportin' Life,  but most seem to agree that he has a point:

Nobody knows that Crown has been hiding out on Kiawah Island. Crown sees Bess and grabs her just as the boat leaves to go back to Charleston. Bess is desperate to return to Porgy, but Crown overpowers her. It will be several days before he lets her go:

After the shock of encountering Crown, Bess  falls desperately ill. There's no money to take her to the white folks' hospital.  Serena has a prayer service. Below she berates Dr. Jesus for not curing Bess:

Dr. Jesus goes to work and Bell recovers. Porgy has figured out that Crown is on the island. Bess is still trying to be loyal to Porgy:

A hurricane drives Crown off of Kiawah. He's back for Bess:

Bess tries to be brave:

That's enough. There are many interesting characters in this that we haven't met. And you probably can't figure out what's to come from the screenshots I've used.

But I think you can see from our screenshots how detailed and rich this production is. Executive Producer David Gockley knows more about P&B than anyone else. He says in a bonus extra that this is the strongest cast ever assembled. It's performed, per Gockley, to the grandest extent possible as the opera Gershwin envisioned (and not as a musical). The top leads are fully-qualified opera singers who are performing all over the world in a vast variety of roles in opera, choral, and recital settings. All the credited singers and chorus members are fully engaged as splendid actors throughout. Zambello's direction is completely engaging with fine personal acting touches throughout. The score is energetically played under John Demain and brilliantly recorded. Finally, Frank Zamacona does a great job with the video. 

So what do we make of this magnificent video of a somewhat controversial folk opera? Some observers consider Porgy and Bess to be monument build by compassionate whites to the spirit of the victims of Jim Crow.  The black artists who sing in it seem to love it. But other voices,  such as Kendra Hamilton of Charleston, hold it in disdain as"a way for whites, in America and in Europe, to participate vicariously in fantasies of what they imagine African-American life to [have been]." Read Hamilton's piece on the Internet where she goes on to claim that Black audiences have rejected the Porgy story in all its incarnations. Probably both views are too extreme. Probably if there's going to be a true black American opera, it will have to be written and produced by blacks. (I note all the people behind the scenes in the San Francisco P&B were white.)

I have my own personal view. I grew up in North Carolina about 5 hours away from the Charleston beaches. I lived in the South through the end of official Jim Crow and into the current era of official integration. Never before in history has there been an attempt to merge two peoples who started so far apart. In 150 years we just managed to make a decent start. And now the black population is under new pressures from waves of immigrants seeking jobs and seats at the schools. And what have I done to atone for the injustices of the past? Nothing. Well, maybe I have no sins of commission on my head, but how deep are my sins of omission? And why do we still have more young black men in prison than in college? These are the things that gnaw and keep me on the verge of tears while I enjoy the drama of Porgy and Bess. Grade: A+

Here are two clips. The first is a short trailer. The second is a longer visit with some of the lead artists in the video: