The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess

Music: George Gershwin
Libretto: DuBose and Dorothy Heyward and Ira Gershwin
Premiere Date: Sept 30, 1935, Colonial Theatre, Boston

From the extraordinary writing duo of George and Ira Gershwin comes a Depression-era masterpiece rich in timeless tunes, including “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Considered the great American opera, Porgy and Bess was inspired by Charleston’s Cabbage Row, a 1920s community bound by faith, tears, music, and laughter. In a tender love story, Porgy and Bess seek harmony in the face of addiction and social injustice.

Scenery produced by The Glimmerglass Festival; Costumes by The Glimmerglass Festival and Washington National Opera

Performed in English with English supertitles

Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre

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Get the Feeling

Photos by Karli Cadel/Glimmerglass Festival

Listen to Porgy and Bess

Synopsis

Act 1

Scene 1: Catfish Row, a summer evening

An evening in Catfish Row, an African-American tenement on Charleston’s waterfront, in the 1930s. Jasbo Brown entertains the community with his piano playing (“Jasbo Brown Blues”). Clara, a young mother, sings a lullaby to her baby (“Summertime”) as the workingmen prepare for a game of craps. Among the players are Sportin’ Life, Jake, Mingo, Jim, and Robbins, who enters the game despite the protestations of his wife, Serena (“Roll Them Bones”). Jake breaks away briefly, takes the baby from his wife Clara, and sings his own lullaby, “A Woman Is a Sometime Thing.” Porgy, a disabled beggar, enters on his goat cart to organize the game. As the game begins in earnest, Crown, a strong and brutal stevedore, storms in with his woman, Bess. He buys cheap whiskey and some of Sportin’ Life’s “happy dust.” Drunk and agitated, Crown gets into an argument with Robbins; a brawl ensues, and Crown kills Robbins with a cotton hook.

Crown runs, telling Bess to fend for herself until he returns after the heat has died down. Sportin’ Life gives her a dose of happy dust and invites her to join him in New York, but she refuses, and he takes off. Fearing the police, the residents of Catfish Row quickly retreat to their homes. Bess, left alone, frantically knocks on doors, seeking shelter. Finally, Porgy opens his door to her, and Bess tentatively enters. Meanwhile, in the courtyard, Serena collapses over the body of her husband.

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Scene 2: Serena’s Room, the following night

Robbins’ body is laid out with a saucer on his chest. Serena sits disconsolately as neighbors, including Porgy and Bess, come in to comfort her and to contribute money for the burial (“Gone, Gone, Gone”). Porgy leads an impassioned plea to fill the saucer with donations (Overflow”). A white detective enters and coldly tells Serena that she must bury her husband the next day, or his body will be given to medical students, for dissection. He suddenly accuses Peter of Robbins’s murder. The old man protests his innocence, blurting out that Crown did it; the detective moves on to Porgy but gets no information out of him, and Peter is hauled off as a “material witness.”

Serena laments her loss (“My Man’s Gone Now”). The undertaker enters. The saucer holds only fifteen dollars of the needed twenty-five, but he agrees to bury Robbins as long as Serena promises to pay him back. Bess, who has been sitting in silence slightly apart from the rest of those gathered, suddenly begins singing a gospel song. The neighbors join in, welcoming her into the community (“Leaving For the Promised Land”).

Act 2

Scene 1: Catfish Row, a month later, in the morning

Jake and the other fishermen prepare for work (“It Takes A Long Pull To Get There”). Clara begs Jake not to go during hurricane season, but he insists; they desperately need the money. Porgy, content in his new life with Bess, emerges from his home with a new outlook on life (“I Got Plenty of Nothing”). Sportin’ Life saunters over to Maria’s table; she  upbraids him for peddling dope around her shop (“I Hates Your Struttin’ Style”). A fraudulent lawyer, Frazier, arrives and sells Porgy a divorce for Bess, even though it turns out that she had not been married to Crown. Archdale, a white lawyer, enters and informs Porgy that Peter will soon be released. A buzzard flies over Catfish Row – a bad omen – and Porgy demands that it leave him and his newfound happiness (“The Buzzard Song”).

As the rest of Catfish Row prepares for the church picnic on nearby Kittiwah Island, Sportin’ Life again offers to take Bess to New York with him; she refuses. He attempts to give her some happy dust, but Porgy forcefully orders him to leave Bess alone. Sportin’ Life leaves, and Porgy and Bess declare their love for each other (“Bess, You Is My Woman Now”). The neighbors, in high spirits, set off for the picnic (“Oh, I Can’t Sit Down”). Maria invites Bess to join them, but Bess demurs; Porgy’s disability prevents him from boarding the boat. Porgy persuades her to go along and have a good time, and he proudly waves her off as the boat departs (“I Got Plenty of Nothing” Reprise).

Scene 2: Kittiwah Island, that evening

Everyone is enjoying the picnic as it winds to a close (“I Ain’t Got No Shame”). Sportin’ Life entertains the crowd with his cynical views on the Bible (“It Ain’t Necessarily So”), but Serena chastises them for their blasphemy (“Shame On All You Sinners!”). The neighbors gather their belongings and head towards the boat. Bess lags behind, and suddenly Crown emerges from the bushes. He reminds her that Porgy is “temporary” and laughs off her claims of living decently. Bess pleads with him to let her go (“Oh, What You Want With Bess?”) but Crown refuses. He grabs her, preventing her from boarding the boat, and forcefully kisses her. As the boat whistle sounds again, Bess surrenders, unable to resist.

Scene 3: Catfish Row, a week later, just before dawn

A week later, Jake leaves to go fishing with his crew, one of whom observes that a storm may be coming in. Peter, still unsure of his crime, returns from prison. Meanwhile, Bess lies in Porgy’s room, delirious with fever. Serena prays to remove Bess’s affliction (“Oh, Doctor Jesus”), and promises Porgy that Bess will be well by five o’clock. The day passes, and street vendors hawk their wares (“Vendors’ Trio”).

As the clock chimes five, Bess recovers from her fever. Porgy knows Bess was with Crown but he doesn’t mind. Bess admits she has promised to return to Crown, and though she wants to stay in Catfish Row, she fears she’s too weak to resist him. Declaring her love for Porgy, she begs him to protect her; Porgy promises she’ll never be afraid again (“I Loves You, Porgy”).

As the winds begin to blow, Clara watches the water, fearful for Jake. The sky darkens and the hurricane bell clangs. People hurry inside and Clara collapses, calling her husband’s name.

Scene 4: Serena’s Room, dawn of the next day

The residents of Catfish Row gather in Serena’s room for shelter from the hurricane. They drown out the sound of the storm with prayers and hymns (“Oh, Doctor Jesus”), but Sportin’ Life mocks their assumption that the storm is a signal of Judgment Day. Clara desperately sings to her baby (“Summertime” Reprise). A knock is heard at the door, and many believe it to be Death (“Oh There’s Somebody Knocking At the Door”). Crown enters dramatically, having swum from Kittiwah Island, seeking Bess. The townspeople try to drown out his blaspheming with prayer, but he taunts them with a vulgar song (“A Red-Headed Woman”).

Suddenly Clara screams, falling back from the window. Bess rushes over and peers out; Jake’s boat is upside down in the river. Clara thrusts her baby at Bess and rushes out. Bess pleads for someone to join Clara, but no one moves. Finally Crown, looking at the frightened faces around him, taunts the men for their cowardice. He opens the door, shouts at Bess that he will return, and plunges into the storm. The others return to their prayers.

Act 3

Scene 1: Catfish Row, the next night

The storm has passed, and the residents of Catfish Row mourn the loss of Clara, Jake, and Crown (“Clara, Clara, Don’t You Be Downhearted”). Sportin’ Life hints to Maria that Crown has somehow survived. Bess, now caring for Clara’s baby, tenderly sings to him (“Summertime”). As night falls on Catfish Row, Crown stealthily enters and makes his way to Porgy’s room. Porgy confronts Crown, and a fight ensues. Ultimately, Porgy prevails,  killing Crown. Porgy cries out, “Bess… You’ve got a man now. You’ve got Porgy!”

Scene 2: Catfish Row, the next afternoon

The police and the coroner arrive, seeking information about Crown’s murder. Serena and her friends deny any knowledge of the crime, so the detective orders Porgy to come and identify the body. Bess is distraught, and Sportin’ Life hints that Porgy will either spend years in jail or die by hanging. Offering her more happy dust, Sportin’ Life again invites Bess to join him up north (“There’s A Boat That’s Leaving Soon For New York”). He thrusts another packet of dope at her, but she refuses it and runs inside. Tossing it into her room, he slowly starts off. Suddenly, the door of Porgy’s room flies open, and Bess comes out, high on happy dust. Arm in arm, Bess and Sportin’ Life swagger out through the gate.

Scene 3: Catfish Row, a week later

On a beautiful morning, Porgy is released from jail, where he has been arrested for contempt of court for refusing to look at Crown’s body. He is in high spirits and has brought presents for everyone, including a beautiful red dress for Bess. He doesn’t understand why everyone seems so uneasy at his return. Seeing Clara’s baby with Serena, he realizes something is wrong (“Oh Bess, Oh Where’s my Bess?”). Maria and Serena tell him Bess has run off to New York with Sportin’ Life. Porgy calls for his goat cart, and resolves to leave Catfish Row to find her. He prays for strength, and begins his long journey (“Oh, Lord, I’m On My Way”).

Characters & Cast

Porgy

A crippled beggar who falls in love with Bess.

Morris Robinson

Hailed for his “firm, opulent tone,” (The Classical Review) Morris Robinson is considered one the most interesting and sought after basses performing today. He was last seen at The Atlanta Opera in Rigoletto (2015).

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Newbie Guide

The Opera Experience

Operas on our mainstage are grand theatrical experiences. You can always expect the unexpected, and for our productions to be presented at the highest quality.

Supertitles

Many operas are in a foreign language. Supertitles are similar to subtitles in a film, except they are projected above the stage. These translations will help you follow what’s happening on stage.

What to Wear

There is no dress code at The Opera and you will see everything from jeans to evening gowns and formal suits. Most people use it as a chance to enjoy dressing up in their own style.

Arriving in Good Time

If you are late, you will be escorted to the nearest late seating area. At intermission ushers will show you to your seat. Plan ahead to arrive with extra time.

Directions & Parking at Cobb Energy Center

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Pre-Performance Talk

Learn about the history of the opera and the composer with board member and opera aficionado, Carter Joseph. One hour prior to curtain. Free with your ticket!

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Familiarizing Yourself with the Story

Because of the foreign languages, classical music, and often complex plots, you will very likely enjoy the performance better if you spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with the story and characters in advance. Some people even like to listen to the music in advance and others prefer to let it wash over them during the show and perhaps look it up afterwards.

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How is an Opera Staged?

Auditions

Actors first audition for roles up to a year in advance, or for more experienced artists, directors also invite them to play a role.

Rehearsals

Most of the rehearsals are held in our rehearsal hall, and not the actual theatre. The conductor begins orchestra rehearsals about a week and half before opening night. They have four rehearsals with the conductor, and then the singers are added into the mix.

Sets & Costumes

The Atlanta Opera Costume Shop alters the costumes to fit our singers. Sometimes they do have to make costumes if there aren’t enough, or if there is nothing that fits, etc. Once the sets are in place, the cast begins rehearsing at the theatre. The Opera production staff works with staff at the theatre to get all of the lighting and technical aspects of the production together.

Sitzprobe & Dress Rehearsal

The orchestra comes together with the singers in a special rehearsal called sitzprobe. There are no costumes during the sitzprobe, this is mainly to hear the voices with the orchestra. There is a piano dress rehearsal, when the singers rehearse in full costume for the first time so they can get used to wearing them. Finally, all of the pieces are put together for two full dress rehearsals leading up to opening night.

Composer

George Gershwin (1898-1937)

George Gershwin, born in Brooklyn, New York on September 26, 1898, was the second son of Russian immigrants. As a boy, George was anything but studious, and it came as a wonderful surprise to his family that he had secretly been learning to play the piano. In 1914, Gershwin left high school to work as a Tin Pan Alley song plugger and within three years, “When You Want ‘Em, You Can’t Get ‘Em; When You Have ‘Em, You Don’t Want ‘Em,” was published. Though this initial effort created little interest, “Swanee” (lyrics by Irving Caesar) — turned into a smash hit by Al Jolson in 1919 — brought Gershwin his first real fame.

In 1924, when George teamed up with his older brother Ira, “the Gershwins” became the dominant Broadway songwriters, creating infectious rhythm numbers and poignant ballads, fashioning the words to fit the melodies with a “glove-like” fidelity. This extraordinary combination created a succession of musical comedies, including Lady, Be Good! (1924), Oh, Kay! (1926), Funny Face (1927), Strike Up the Band (1927 and 1930), Girl Crazy (1930), and Of Thee I Sing (1931), the first musical comedy to win a Pulitzer Prize. Over the years, Gershwin songs have also been used in numerous films, including Shall We Dance (1937), A Damsel in Distress (1937), and An American in Paris (1951). Later years produced the award-winning “new” stage musicals My One and Only (1983) and Crazy For You (1992), which ran for four years on Broadway.

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In 1926 Gershwin read Porgy, DuBose Heyward’s novel of the South Carolina Gullah culture, and immediately recognized it as a perfect vehicle for a “folk opera” using blues and jazz idioms. Porgy and Bess (co-written with Heyward and Ira) was Gershwin’s most ambitious undertaking, integrating unforgettable songs with dramatic incident. Porgy and Bess previewed in Boston on September 30, 1935 and opened its Broadway run on October 10. The opera had major revivals in 1942, 1952, 1976, and 1983 and has toured the world. It was made into a major motion picture by Samuel Goldwyn in 1959, while Trevor Nunn’s landmark Glyndebourne Opera production was taped for television in 1993.

George Gershwin was at the height of his career in 1937. His symphonic works and three Preludes for piano were becoming part of the standard repertoire for concerts and recitals, and his show songs had brought him increasing fame and fortune. It was in Hollywood, while working on the score of The Goldwyn Follies, that George Gershwin died of a brain tumor; he was not quite 39 years old. Countless people throughout the world, who knew Gershwin only through his work, were stunned by the news as if they had suffered a personal loss. Some years later, the writer John O’Hara summed up their feelings: “George Gershwin died July 11, 1937, but I don’t have to believe it if I don’t want to.”

Courtesy of Gershwin Enterprises | Full Bio

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Conductor

David Charles Abell

Born in North Carolina, David studied with Leonard Bernstein and Nadia Boulanger, gaining degrees from Yale University and the Juilliard School. Intensive study of viola, piano and composition gave way to a concentration on conducting from the age of fourteen.

David’s recent projects have included West Side Story at Glimmerglass, Rigoletto and Carmen for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Porgy & Bess and Die Fledermaus at Cincinatti Opera, Eugene Onegin at the Hawaii Opera Theatre and Barrie Kosky’s production of Die Zauberflöte at Opera Philadelphia, as well as Kevin Puts’ acclaimed Silent Night in Kansas City, Cincinatti and Michigan.  In the UK, David also recently conducted his own new critical edition of Kiss Me, Kate for Opera North (for whom he has also conducted Rossini’s La gazza ladra); in 2015, he made his debut with English National Opera for its production of Sweeney Todd (starring Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson), returning in 2017 for an equally-acclaimed Carousel.

 An established name in France, David has appeared regularly at the Théâtre du Châtelet, conducting French premieres of Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, Sweeney Todd and Into the Woods, Porter’s Kiss Me Kate (also in Luxembourg and for Glimmerglass) and Bernstein’s On The Town; he has also conducted Follies at Opéra de Toulon, as well as recent concerts with the Orchestre National de Lyon, the Orchestre National d’Île de France the Orchestre Pasdeloup and the Orchestre de Cannes.

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He has conducted many of the top British orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, BBC Symphony Orchestra, City of Birmingham, Bournemouth, Hallé and Royal Scottish National. His Royal Philharmonic Orchestra debut was the internationally-televised Tenth Anniversary Concert of Les Misérables (he also 25th Anniversary spectacular at the O2), and he has since appeared with the orchestra in repertoire ranging from Copland to Puccini to Kern (Show Boat, also in the Albert Hall). Other guest engagements include the Vienna Symphony, Hong Kong Philharmonic, Iceland Symphony and two concerts in Carnegie Hall conducting the New York Pops.

David made his BBC Proms debut conducting the BBC Concert Orchestra in a live telecast of Richard Rodgers’ Oklahoma!.  He has worked with the Orchestra on many other occasions, including a BBC Proms tribute to Stephen Sondheim and the premiere of Rachel Portman’s The Water Diviner’s Tale. His work with the BBC Symphony Orchestra includes a centenary concert for his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, at the Barbican in 2018.  David is a regular guest conductor with the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, which he has twice conducted for Proms in the Park (broadcast live on BBC television) with repertoire including Copland’s Third Symphony. His performance with Peter Donohoe of the Gershwin Concerto in F from the same concert was featured in BBC Music Magazine.  A much-respected face in the West End, David has regularly directed the Olivier Awards and was the first MD for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies at the Adelphi Theatre.

David’s TV projects have included Rachel Portman’s opera The Little Prince and The Waltz King, a drama/documentary about the Johann Strausses, father and son (both subsequently released on DVD), and the Châtelet production of Sunday in the Park with George (Mezzo TV).  Recordings include Something’s Gotta Give with baritone Simon Keenleyside, Forever with soprano Diana Damrau, Jonathan Dove’s Tobias and the Angel, the musicals Miss SaigonMartin Guerre and Man of La Mancha and highlights from La Bohème and Madama Butterfly with the Royal Philharmonic.

Future plans include Sweeney Todd in Zurich (again with Bryn Terfel), Carousel at the Volksoper in Vienna, and concerts for the RTE Concert Orchestra and with the Orchestre National Bordeaux Aquitaine.  David is the Principal Guest Conductor for the prestigious Philly Pops.

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Production Director

Francesca Zambello

An internationally recognized director of opera and theater, Francesca Zambello’s American debut took place at the Houston Grand Opera with a production of Fidelio in 1984. She debuted in Europe at Teatro la Fenice in Venice with Beatrice di Tenda in 1987 and has since staged new productions at major theaters and opera houses in Europe and the USA. Collaborating with outstanding artists and designers and promoting emerging talent, she takes a special interest in new music theater works, innovative productions, and in producing theater and opera for wider audiences.

Ms. Zambello has been the General Director of The Glimmerglass Festival since 2010, and the Artistic Director of The Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center since 2012. She also served as the Artistic Advisor to the San Francisco Opera from 2005-2011, and as the Artistic Director of the Skylight Theater from 1987-1992. In her current roles at the Kennedy Center and the Glimmerglass Festival she is responsible for producing 12 productions annually. She has begun major commissioning programs for new works in both companies that have resulted in productions of many large and small-scaled new works. During her tenure both companies have increased their national and international profiles.

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Francesca Zambello has recently been awarded the Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres by the French government for her contribution to French culture and the Russian Federation’s medal for Service to Culture. Other honors for her work include three Olivier Awards from the London Society of Theaters and two Evening Standard Awards for Best Musical and Best Opera. She has also received the award for Best Company Achievement. The French Grand Prix des Critiques was awarded to her twice for her work at the Paris Opera. Other awards include Best Production in Japan, the Palme d’Or in Germany, the Golden Mask in Russia and the Helpmann Award in Australia.

Francesca Zambello most recently developed and directed the world premiere of Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier for the San Francisco Opera, where she served as Artistic Advisor from 2006-2011. Other recent opera projects have included the first international production of Carmen to ever be presented at the National Center for the Performing Arts in Beijing, the world premiere of An American TragedyCyrano and Les Troyens for the Metropolitan Opera, Carmen and Don Giovanni at the Royal Opera House, Boris GodunovWar and PeaceBilly Budd and William Tell at the Paris Opera, and The Ring for the San Francisco Opera.

Recent theater projects have included Aida at San Francisco Opera; Washington National Opera’s Ring Cycle; Show Boat in London at the Royal Albert Hall; a new musical, Rebecca, for Vienna’s Raimund Theater, Stuttgart’s Palladium Theater (presented by Stage Entertainment), and in St. Gallen, Switzerland; Tibet Through the Red Box, a new play by David Henry Hwang for the Seattle Children’s Theatre; The Little Prince with Oscar-winning composer Rachel Portman; Napoleon in the West End; The Little Mermaid for Disney on Broadway; the musical of The Little House on the Prairie and The Master Butchers at the Guthrie Theater, and Aladdin in Disneyland. Other recent works have included a film of Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors for BBC Television, as well as a new film for the BBC, Sony and PBS of The Little Prince, and, West Side Story for the floating stage in Bregenz.

Ms. Zambello has also served as a guest professor at Yale University and The Juilliard School.

An American who grew up in Europe, she speaks French, Italian, German, and Russian. She attended Moscow University in 1976 and graduated cum laude from Colgate University in 1978. She began her career as an Assistant Director to the late Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. From 1984-1991 she was the Artistic Director of the Skylight Music Theater. She has been guest professor at Harvard and Berkeley Universities.

Francesca Zambello lives in New York and London.

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