Restored “Porgy and Bess” Score to Be Showcased at Hill Auditorium

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Porgy and Bess

Left: Todd Duncan (Porgy) and Anne Brown (Bess), 1935. Right: John Bubbles (Sportin’ Life) and Brown, 1935. Photos courtesy the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

The version of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess that will be performed at Hill Auditorium on Saturday, Feb. 17, won’t be tremendously different from other renditions familiar to audiences through the decades. But it will be the closest thing anyone’s heard in quite some time to the “folk opera” performed just the way its creators intended.

Saturday’s opera is part of the Gershwin Initiative -- a long-term partnership between the Gershwin family and the University of Michigan. Presented by the University Musical Society and the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, the event will mark the public debut of a new, scholarly edition of the opera’s score. Morris Robinson as Porgy and Talise Trevigne as Bess lead the cast; the performance will also include the University Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kenneth Kiesler; the UMSMTD Chamber Choir, directed by Jerry Blackstone; and the Our Own Thing Chorale, directed by Willis Patterson.

Set in Charleston, South Carolina, circa 1920, the 1935 work tells the story of how Porgy, a disabled beggar, is transformed by the love of Bess. The score -- music by George Gershwin; lyrics by Ira Gershwin with DuBose and Dorothy Heyward, who wrote the source material -- includes such memorable songs as “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’,” and “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”

As noted in the program by Wayne Shirley, editor of the new edition of the score, revisions from past versions are not major. The most noticeable change is probably the restoration of the Orphan Band -- a common phenomenon in large cities at the time -- that musically interacts with the full orchestra. Other short bits of music have been restored and, in general, the score has been tidied up and unified, based on original sources.

Porgy and Bess

John Bubbles performing "It Ain’t Necessarily So" at the Alvin Theatre, New York, 1935. Photo courtesy the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

Mark Clague, editor in chief of the new edition, explained in an interview that George Gershwin wrote out the piano-vocal score to the opera first, then did orchestrations later. That led to a number of small changes along the way -- adding a couple bars of transitional material for a particular instrument, or making minor trims here and there. The result is that different versions of the score have different numbers of bars of music in some places.

“All of that just makes the thing continually going out of alignment. It’s an interesting problem,” Clague says. “Eventually you just have to make a decision about certain ambiguities.” The loss of the Orphan Band material, meanwhile, was due primarily to the physical limitations of the pages of the score; all the instruments simply don’t fit, and the addendum George Gershwin wrote out has usually been ignored, if not forgotten.

Porgy and Bess

"Oh, I Can’t Sit Down" performed at the Alvin Theatre, New York, 1935. Photo by Vandamm Studio. Courtesy the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

Shirley -- who had been researching the score since the 1960s out of a general interest -- became known to Ira Gershwin on other projects, so when Gershwin made it known in his later years that he thought the Porgy and Bess score needed some careful attention, Shirley was the natural choice.

The project now consists of an 800-page, fully notated score, but Clague says that the definitive edition is still a few years away from final publication. Saturday’s performance is a critical step in the process.

“By putting it into performance, we learn a lot,” Clague says. Are there typos? Have small mistakes crept in? Do the musicians respond to the notation in the desired manner?

Ruby Elzy (Serena). Pre-Broadway tryout, Colonial Theatre, Boston, 1935. Photo courtesy the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.
Ruby Elzy (Serena) in a pre-Broadway tryout at the Colonial Theatre, Boston, 1935. Photo courtesy the Ira & Leonore Gershwin Trusts.

Following this performance, the scholars will make further revisions to the score in preparation for a performance by the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2020, with still more tweaks likely to follow. The score will initially be made available for rent, then ultimately will become published and purchasable.

Presenting the new edition in a university setting not only helps iron out the kinks, it offers a perfect opportunity to provide context and background to the work itself, Clague notes: “It brings a much broader perspective to these works.” And with Porgy and Bess, that’s critical; the characters are African-American but the creators were white, and stereotyping has long been a concern for those involved in performing and presenting the work. U-M is hosting a symposium related to the current performance, examining issues of “race, representation, and appropriation.”

Clague says that one thing that keeps Porgy and Bess relevant is the fact that many of the issues it addresses -- law enforcement’s treatment of minority communities, hurricane damage, domestic violence, drug addiction -- still confront society. “A lot of the things we’re struggling with today are themes of Porgy and Bess,” he notes. “Rather than a nostalgia piece about the past, it’s very much about the present.”


Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.


The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” takes place at 7:30 pm on Saturday, Feb. 17, in Hill Auditorium. A pre-show talk takes place at 6:30 pm in the Hill Auditorium Mezzanine Lobby, featuring an introduction to the opera by Naomi André, associate professor of Women’s Studies & Afroamerican and African Studies, and Jessica Getman, managing editor of the U-M George and Ira Gershwin Critical Edition. Related performances and panel discussions take place all day Friday and Saturday. For more information, read "Confronting Porgy and Bess" by Kai West, a PhD pre-candidate in historical musicology and an editorial assistant at the Gershwin Initiative.