METROPOLITAN OPERA PRESENTS
The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess

Above: The Met streams a different encore presentation each day from its Live in HD series. 

During this extraordinary and difficult time, New York City’s Metropolitan Opera (The Met) hopes to brighten the lives of music lovers everywhere even while its stage is dark. Each day, a different encore presentation from the company’s Live in HD series is being made available for free streaming on the Met website, with each performance available for a period of 23 hours, from 7:30 p.m. EDT until 6:30 p.m. the following day. The schedule includes outstanding complete performances from the past 14 years of cinema transmissions, starring all of opera’s greatest singers.

The streams are also available through the Met Opera on Demand apps for Apple, Amazon, and Roku devices and Samsung Smart TV. To access them without logging in, click “Browse and Preview” in the apps for connected TV, and “Explore the App” on tablets and mobile devices.

Above, left to right: George Gershwin, DuBose Heyward and Ira Gershwin, creators of Porgy and Bess.

GERSHWIN’S PORGY & BESS

The company is making last season’s sold-out production of The Gershwins’ Porgy & Bess—starring bass-baritone Eric Owens and soprano Angel Blue as the title characters—available over Labor Day weekend. From Friday, September 4, at 7:30 p.m. ET, to Sunday, September 6, at 6:30 p.m. ET, you’ll be able to screen the English-language masterpiece set in 1920s South Carolina on the Met Opera’s website.

Conducted by David Robertson, other cast members include Golda Schultz, Latonia Moore, Denyce Graves, Frederick Ballentine, Alfred Walker, and Donovan Singletary.

Above: Porgy and Bess is set in the fictional neighborhood of Catfish Row, South Carolina.

THE BACKSTORY

Porgy and Bess is one of the Gershwins’ best-known works. It is an English-language folk opera featuring some of the best-loved songs by one of America’s greatest songwriters — “Summertime” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So” — as well as mighty choruses and bold orchestrations. 

Cast entirely by African-American performers, the opera is based on a play and a book named Porgy. The story is a heart-wrenching tale about addiction, abuse and the life-cramping effects of poverty and racism. And it’s also about hope, faith, joy and the redeeming power of love.

Most often claimed as “The Great American Opera,” the libretto (the text used in the opera) was co-written by Ira Gershwin, DuBose Heyward, the scion of a prominent white South Carolina family, and his Ohio-born wife, Dorothy.

When it debuted in 1935, the Broadway premiere drew Hollywood royalty, including Katharine Hepburn and Joan Crawford. it was a daring artistic choice given the racially charged theme, but despite some controversy, it gained popularity especially after the 1970’s and is now a frequently performed opera. 

The setting is fictional, but the inspiration is real. Porgy and Bess is set in the fictional neighborhood of Catfish Row, South Carolina. However, the setting and the story were inspired by the James Island Gullah community in South Carolina. In fact, most of the characters speak in the Gullah dialect. George Gershwin moved to Folly Beach, an island near Charleston, South Carolina, to draw inspiration from the Gullah community while composing the score.

This groundbreaking opera, which brought America’s racial divide to life center stage, has faced racial controversy over the years. Although Maya Angelou, who as a young dancer performed in a touring production that brought it to the Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1955, later praised it as “great art” and “a human truth,” Harry Belafonte, who held the opposite opinion, turned down an offer to star in the film version because he found it “racially demeaning.” Duke Ellington was said to have objected to its depiction of African Americans and novelist/playwright/activist James Baldwin wrote,”While I liked Porgy and Bess, it remains a white man’s vision of Negro life.” 

It is thought, however, that George Gershwin never meant to insult African Americans. On the contrary, he insisted that it could only be sung by a black cast, a tradition upheld by his brother Ira that has launched the careers of several prominent black opera singers. In fact, Porgy helped many singers of color launch their careers, including Leontyne Price, who played Bess right out of Juilliard. George Gershwin sought to write a true jazz opera and he felt that the Met staff singers couldn’t master the genre.