Porgy & Bess: Summary, Songs & Composer

Instructor: Colleen Cleveland

Colleen has taught college level Game Development and Graphic Design and has a Master's in Interactive Entertainment and Masters in Media Psychology.

This lesson is an introduction to an English language opera entitled ~'Porgy and Bess~', which was composed by George Gershwin. Considered a cutting- edge work for its time, ''Porgy and Bess'' was the first opera designed to showcase African-American opera singers.

Overview of the Plot

Until George Gershwin stepped on the scene, opera had a reputation as a centuries-old art form enjoyed by the kings and noblemen of Europe and typically sung in French, German or Italian. Gershwin was a classically trained pianist, so, it wasn't a big leap for him to work on an opera inspired by the novel, 'Porgy', a best-selling work written by DuBose Heyward and published in 1925.

Set in the poor parts of South Carolina, both the book and opera are about the romance that develops between Porgy, a disabled black man and poor beggar, and Bess, who's involved in an abusive relationship with a drunken murderer named Crown. Eventually, Porgy kills Crown during a fight. When Porgy get's out of jail, he learns that Bess has taken off for New York with a drug dealer called Sportin' Life and goes to look for her in his goat-cart.

Porgy and Bess was an amazing breakthrough, not only because of its English-speaking libretto or words, but also for its all African American cast. In 1959, Porgy and Bess was released as a musical film starring Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis, Jr. as Porgy and Sportin' Life respectively; Dorothy Dandridge played Bess.

Porgy and Bess cast in Austria
Porgy and Bess

The Songs

The score of Porgy and Bess is an eclectic combination of blues, folk, jazz and southern spirituals. One of the opera's most popular and recognized pieces is Summertime, a jazz and blues infused piece later recorded by Billie Holiday and Janis Joplin. Through both its slow pace and sultry tone, the song evokes the heat of the summer in the South and the melancholy of a spiritual. My Man is Gone Now, which describes the grief of a widow, has been rerecorded by other great musicians, such as Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong. It Ain't Necessarily So can be found on a 1965 album by The Moody Blues, one of the major rock bands of the 1960s and 1970s.

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