Porgy and Bess has led a troubled life. Gershwin
intended his opera to open at the Metropolitan Opera House but
it premiered instead at Boston’s Colonial Theatre on 30 September
1935. It then ran for 124 performances at New York’s Alvin Theatre
with Gershwin insisting on an all-black cast. Even then critics
debated whether Porgy and Bess was an opera. Conductor
Serge Koussevitsky thought it was but critic/composer Virgil
Thomson had his doubts. The controversy was exacerbated when
a revised version was produced on Broadway in 1942 with the
recitatives reduced to dialogue, the orchestra diminished and
the cast halved. The eventual production was more in line with
American musical theatre traditions.
In 1952 the operatic format was restored
and with Leontyne Price as Bess, William Warfield as Porgy and
Cab Calloway as Sportin’ Life, it toured Europe and made its
London premiere at the Stoll Theatre on 9 October that year.
A film version with Sidney Poitier, Dorothy
Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr appeared in 1959. But the Gershwin
estate objected to it and in 1974 pulled it from release.
Racial controversy has also plagued Porgy
and Bess from the beginning. Duke Ellington said that ‘the
times are here to debunk Gershwin’s lampblack Negroisms’ and
several members of the original cast were concerned that it
would stereotype black Americans as living in poverty with an
addiction to drugs while solving their problems by fighting.
The American Civil Rights movement in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s
further fuelled the debate.
Porgy and Bess was eventually performed at
the Metropolitan Opera House - fifty years after its premiere
- on 6 February 19