Porgy and Bess is probably the most successful opera by an American composer. It is about the people of Catfish Row, a Charleston, South Carolina black neighborhood and the
love by the crippled Porgy for Bess, the reluctant girl friend of a smalltime criminal kingpin, Crown. The story and text is by Dubose Heyward, South Carolina poet and novelist, and his wife Dorothy Kuhn Heyward, a playwright. The couple worked with Gershwin in fashioning the opera;
George’s brother Ira contributed lyrics for some of the songs.
Because the composer was a first generation Russian-Jewish immigrant and the Heyward’s descendants of Southern aristocrats, the racial disconnect between story and storyteller has not been without controversy. Nevertheless, black authors and critics have viewed the work as sympathetic, in touch, and realistic in its portrayal of black life. Ira Gershwin stated that the opera should always be performed by black singers and actors and that is usually the case, but for a 1943 Copenhagen staging the performers were white actors in blackface, Denmark being under the Nazi yoke at that time.
Robert Russell Bennett created the Symphonic Picture in 1942 at the request of Fritz Reiner for the Pittsburgh Symphony. It is a greatest hits medley with connecting music from the opera, a type of work that Bennett is best known for. The opera itself includes songs now very well
known such as “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “I got Plenty of Nuttin’,” but for key scenes Gershwin wrote in a more operatic style, creating arias and duets for Porgy and for Bess such as “Bess, You is My Woman Now.” These songs, along with the colorful
music Gershwin created for Catfish Row, can all be enjoyed in Bennett’s musical summary of Gershwin’s opera.