- "Summer time; and the livin' is easy...your Daddy's rich, and your Mama's good lookin'..."—"Summertime"
Conceived as an American Folk Opera, Porgy and Bess is Gershwin's take on the life of African-American fishermen scraping out an existence on Catfish Row, a fictitious locale based on Cabbage Row in Charleston South Carolina.
Bess is addicted to "Happy dust" (cocaine), and strung along by her dealer/boyfriend Crown. When Crown kills another man over a craps game he escapes to a nearby island, leaving Bess. Porgy, a peddler well-liked in the community, takes her in. The story unfolds with Porgy and Bess' blossoming relationship and what happens to them in Catfish Row.
Opened to great controversy in 1935, but the music and themes are classic, and is now regarded as
one of the great American opera; no other American opera comes anywhere near the popularity and critical acclaim (both domestic and abroad). Part of the acclaim is that it is the show that integrated theater audiences thanks to its original cast. The leads would not go on if the audience in Washington D.C. was not fully integrated.
From The Other Wiki:" "Summertime" is by far the best-known piece from the work, and countless interpretations of this and other individual numbers have also been recorded and performed. The second best-known number is "It Ain't Necessarily So". The opera is admired for Gershwin's innovative synthesis of European orchestral techniques with American jazz and folk music idioms."
Tropes used in this work include:
- Babies Make Everything Better: Hinted at after Porgy and Bess adopt Clara's baby.
- Beta Couple: Clara and Jake are stable and deeply in love, in contrast to Porgy and Bess who, while in love, have many problems. However, their lives end in tragedy just the same.
- Blackface: Usually averted, despite premiering at a time when the blackface tradition was still current.
- Gershwin actually had the opportunity to have the opera debut at the Met (a composer's wet dream), but refused, as the cast would have been in blackface.
- For its European debut The Royal Theatre in Copenhagen had a production of white actors in blackface, in 1942 during the Nazi occupation, which irritated the Nazis to no end. It lasted 22 performances, before it was shut down due to German pressure.
- Circling Vultures: A buzzard flying over Catfish Row is seen as a bad omen."Boss, dat bird mean trouble. Once de buzzard fold his wing an' light over yo' house, all yo' happiness done dead."
- Colorblind Casting: A notable aversion for Opera, where color-blind casting is the norm. However in this case, casting anyone other than black singers in the lead roles would require Blackface, which would be in spectacularly bad taste.
- Cover Version: "Summertime" has been claimed to be the most covered song of all time— as a jazz standard, not the operatic version.
- Evil Sounds Deep: Averted. Both Porgy and Crown have deep voices, while the arguably worst villain, Sportin' Life, is a tenor.
- For Doom the Bell Tolls: The hurricane bell.
- The Final Temptation: Sportin' Life gives this to Bess after Porgy is arrested with "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon From New York." He succeeds.
- Grief Song: "Gone, Gone, Gone," "My Man's Gone Now," and "Clara, Clara"
- Mama Wolf: When Maria finds Sportin' Life trying to hook young boys around her shop on cocaine, he asks her if they can't be friends. She responds by singing an entire song ("I hates yo' struttin' style") threatening to gut him with her paring knife if he ever comes near the boys again.
- Monochrome Casting: All the main characters are black. Unfortunately some aspects of their portrayal are sometimes seen as rather stereotypical by today's standards, but it was considered Fair for Its Day.
- Music of Note: "Summertime," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," "It Ain't Necessarily So," "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin',"— the list goes on and on.
- Name and Name: Porgy and Bess, named after the two central characters.
- N-Word Privileges: Used many times in the early productions. In The '50s, Ira Gershwin replaced all mentions of the word.
- Pet the Dog: Crown interrupts trying to kill Porgy and Bess to venture out into a hurricane and try to rescue Clara, most of the characters believing until his reappearance that it was at the expense of his own life.
- Pimp Duds: Not the precise outfit, given the time period, but Sportin' Life's flashy wardrobe is in a similar spirit.
- Questionable Consent: On Kittiwah Island, Crown attempts to rape Bess, and in so doing ends up seducing her instead.
- Reformed, but Rejected: Bess faces this mildly from the whole community, who at least tries to help her prove herself. She especially gets this from Serena, however - who has an understandable reason, given that Bess is partially responsible for her husband's death.
- Religion Rant Song: "It ain't necessarily so"
- Rescue Romance: After Robbins' murder, Crown abandons Bess and the police are sure to come soon. She goes from door to door, begging someone to take her in, with everyone refusing. Porgy admits her, and by the start of the next scene they have been living together for a month and falling in love.
- Villain Song: "It Ain't Necessarily So," and "There's A Boat That's Leaving Soon For New York" for Sportin' Life. Half of "What You Want With Bess," is sung by Crown.
- "The Villain Sucks" Song: "Friends With You, Low-Life?" about Sportin' Life. It quickly turns from a "villain sucks" song to a "you [the villain] suck and if you don't leave my presence I'll make you leave" song.