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The Great American Opera: 'Porgy and Bess'

"Is it an opera, or a musical?" For some 50 years after its premiere, that's the question people asked about George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

It debuted on Broadway, right? So it must be a musical. On the other hand, the score surely wasn't like any musical anyone had heard before.

And the show had other problems. Its creators demanded that it be done with an all African American cast. Black performers weren't allowed at the Metropolitan Opera, so the opera had a private hearing in 1935 at Carnegie Hall. It ran four hours. After some cuts, it was previewed in Boston, and then had its Broadway premiere a few months later. It closed after only 124 performances — a bit of a flop by Broadway standards.

A touring company then took the show across the country, with protests for and against segregation following it along the way. The first integrated audience to see Porgy and Bess was at the National Theater in Washington, D.C. in 1936.

It took more than 50 years of bowdlerized versions, sometimes performed by an all-white cast, before the complete version was finally performed — that is, the operatic version.

And by now, the old question has been answered: Porgy and Bess is an opera. Many describe it as the "Great American Opera," and it's surely even more than that. By nearly any measure, the piece Gershwin called his greatest work is among the finest of all operas written in the 20th century.

Porgy and Bess is based on Dubose Heyward's novel about a crippled beggar from the slums of Charleston, S.C. The libretto was a collaboration between Ira Gershwin, Heyward and novelist's wife, Dorothy Heyward. George Gershwin worked on the opera in Charleston itself, and on James Island, where the music and traditions of the Gullah community gave him inspiration. Added to the score's unique musical palette are traditional black church music, chords from Gershwin's Jewish heritage and the quintessential swing of American jazz.

On World of Opera, host Lisa Simeone presents the Great American Opera straight from the nation's capital, in a Washington National Opera production from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, on the banks of the Potomac in Washington, D.C.

See the previous edition of World of Opera or the full archive

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