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Porgy and Bess
(by George Gershwin)

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Opera in three acts.

Composed: 1934-35.

Libretto: Written by DuBose Heyward, based on the 1927 play Porgy (by the same author and his partner Dorothy Heyward), and which was based in turn on DuBose Heyward’s novel Porgy (1926).

Premiere: 10 October 1925, Alvin Theater, New York, United States.

Leontyne Price as Bess (image)

Leontyne Price as Bess

Act 1

The place is Catfish Row, a down-at-heel black tenement in Charleston, South Carolina, in the early 1920s. It is Saturday night and the residents are playing cards. The cripple Porgy arrives and shortly afterwards the thuggish stevedore Crown comes along with his woman, Bess. One of the card players, Robbins, wins a dice throw and an angry and jealous Crown stabs him to death. Crown escapes as the police arrive. Bess is left without a partner and Porgy takes her in. Robbins’s widow, Serena, and others pray. The police investigate the murder and detail an innocent suspect.

Act 2

Some weeks later, Jake and his fellow fishermen are working on their nets. Porgy muses happily about his love for Bess. The drug dealer, Sportin’ Life, tries to sell "happy dust" (cocaine) but is thwarted by the store keeper, Maria. A fake lawyer, Frazier, offers to arrange a divorce for Bess from Crown.

A church picnic to Kittiwah Island is being organized. Bess wants to stay with Porgy but he encourages her to go on the picnic and enjoy herself.

During the picnic the fugitive Crown suddenly emerges and begs Bess to come back to him. She misses the boat back to the mainland and finally gives in to his advances.

A week later Bess is found, very ill, on the island. She recovers and says she wants to stay with Porgy. Porgy says she has nothing to fear.

A hurricane is threatening. Everyone prays for their safety. Jake’s boat is found empty. Jake’s wife, Clara, runs out to look for him and Crown risks his life to go to sea and search for the missing fisherman.

John W. Bubbles as Sportin' Life

Act 3

People are praying for Jake, Clara and Crown who are all still missing. Crown comes back and tries to reclaim Bess. Porgy sees Crown passing by and cannot resist the urge to stab him to death.

The police come to investigate Crown’s death but receive no help from anyone in the neighbourhood. When Porgy refuses to accompany the police to identify Crown’s body, he is jailed. Porgy is finally released after a week and discovers that Bess is nowhere to be found. She had been tempted by Sportin’ Life and his promises of a splendid life with the help of a little "happy dust" and had left for New York with him.

Porgy realises that life is nothing without Bess and sets out for New York to find her and get her back.

Study Notes

Many of the songs from the opera Porgy and Bess are widely known and loved, even by people who are not into opera. Many people who know the music and all the lyrics of these songs would be surprised to know they come from an opera!

Some of the hit songs from Porgy and Bess include:

* Summertime
* A Woman is a Sometime Thing
* I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’
* Bess, You is my Woman
* It Ain’t Necessarily So

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Author: David Paul Wagner
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See also:
Middle Ages Music
Renaissance Music
Baroque Era Music
Classical Era Music
Romantic Era Music
Nationalist Era Music
Turn of Century Music

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