About this Recording
8.110287-88 - GERSHWIN: Porgy and Bess (Winters, Williams, Long) (1951)

George GERSHWIN (1898-1937)
Porgy and Bess

The debate as to whether Porgy and Bess is a musical comedy or an opera has been raging ever since George Gershwin’s masterpiece made its Broadway début in 1935. At that first performance it was called, in fact, ‘a folk opera’, and the newspapers sent both their drama and music critics to review it. Interestingly enough, the initial round of notices treated it more favourably as theatre than as opera. Since that time, the pendulum has swung back and forth, with various stagings, both populist and grand, vying for the public’s affection.

The present recording, made in 1951, is a canny compromise that brings together the best of both worlds, which is perhaps one of the reasons it has endured so well over the years. Goddard Lieberson of Columbia Records was the driving force behind the project and on this occasion, as on so many others, musical theatre fans owe him at a debt of gratitude. Lieberson not only loved musicals, he understood how to make them come to life in a recording, even if his changes and transpositions could come dangerously close to ghost-writing on occasion. He felt the need for a first-rate, full-length recording of Gershwin’s massive work, even though what emerges here is not, strictly speaking the ‘complete’ version of the show that it was initially advertised as. There are judicious trims and edits throughout, which considerably reduce the running time, but the important thing is that the piece, as an entity, is presented with its artistic integrity intact.

The libretto of Porgy and Bess was written by DuBose Heyward, based on his acclaimed 1925 novel, Porgy, and the play that his wife Dorothy subsequently fashioned from it in 1927. Heyward was inspired by the true-life story of one Sammy Smalls, a crippled beggar with a goat-cart who lived in the black tenement area of Charleston, South Carolina known as ‘Cabbage Row’. A series of events led Smalls to commit a crime of passion, attempting to shoot a woman he felt had betrayed him. Something about the individual and the setting inspired Heyward and before too long he had changed the locale to ‘Catfish Row’, and reinvented Smalls as Porgy.

The enormous success of the 1927 stage version of Porgy led a variety of people to contemplate turning it into a musical, including Al Jolson, who wanted to play the title-rôle in blackface, but Heyward wisely resisted all offers until he met George Gershwin, then at the peak of his composing career. Gershwin convinced Heyward of his desire to write ‘an American opera’ and promised to remain faithful to the original milieu.

George’s brother, Ira, joined in to help write the lyrics, but it took the collaborators years to finish their piece. When it finally opened at the Alvin Theatre on 10th October, 1935, the critical response, as noted, was mixed, and it only ran for 124 performances, impressive for an opera, but a failure by musical comedy standards.

A series of revivals in the 1940s made the work more of a popular success, but Lieberson and Ira Gershwin felt that the show’s musical elements were being put in second place. Consequently this led to the decision to create a recording that would not be specifically attached to any production of the show. It allowed Lieberson to put together a team that he felt could serve Porgy and Bess to its best advantage.

His first choice was Lehman Engel as conductor. The extroverted Engel was eventually to become one of Broadway’s most popular orchestra leaders of musical comedy, with shows like L’il Abner, Jamaica and Do Re Mi to his credit, but he actually began his professional career as a composer of incidental music for Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre and Maurice Evans’s Hamlet. Perhaps most significantly, he had conducted Harold Rome’s 1946 topical revue, Call Me Mister, and from that cast he tapped Lawrence Winters to play Porgy.

Winters was born in Kings Creek, South Carolina, in 1915 and studied at Howard University with Todd Duncan, the original Porgy. After making his New York début in Call Me Mister, he moved on to the New York City Opera, where he was a member of the company at the time of this recording. Afterwards, he spent most of his operatic career in Germany, returned to Broadway in 1960 where he received a Tony nomination for his performance in The Long Dream, and finally died in 1965.

Camilla Williams, Bess in the recording, was also singing at the New York City Opera. She was born in Danville, Virginia, in 1925 and was singing with the Philadelphia Orchestra by the age of nineteen. She made her operatic début in New York as the lead in Madama Butterfly when she was only 21. A long and distinguished life on the concert and opera stages of the world followed until her retirement in 1971. She then went on to teach until 1997 in Indiana, where she still lives today.

The rôle of Sporting Life is sung by Baltimore-born Avon Long, who was born in 1910, worked extensively in vaudeville and finally made his Broadway début in the 1936 musical, Black Rhythm. He appeared in the 1942 revival of Porgy and Bess and later went on to collaborate in numerous other musicals, the last being the 1976 revue, Bubbling Brown Sugar. He also won a Tony for his work in the 1973 musical, Don’t Play Us Cheap! He died in 1984.

This combination of varied voices and talents allowed Lieberson and Engel to create a reading of Gershwin’s score which combined the energy of musical comedy with the vocal richness of opera. As such, it has never really been equalled.

As a bonus this release also features selections from a 1950 RCA-Victor recording called ‘Highlights from Porgy and Bess’. This work was intended to showcase the talents of two stars of the Metropolitan Opera who were enjoying great personal popularity at the time, Risë Stevens and Robert Merrill.

Stevens was born in New York in 1913, with her education taking place both at Juilliard and in Vienna. Her début was in Prague in 1936 and she remained there until 1938. She first appeared at the Met that year as Mignon and from then until her retirement in 1961 remained the organization’s leading mezzo-soprano. She also made several popular film appearances in The Chocolate Soldier and Going My Way. In her later years she worked as an arts administrator and vocal coach. She still lives in New York.

Merrill was also born in New York in 1917, the son of famous concert singer Lillian Miller Merrill. He made his Met début in La traviata in 1945 and sang there for thirty years, finally retiring in 1975. He also starred on screen in Aaron Slick From Punkin Crick and on stage in Fiddler On the Roof. He last appeared as the host of the TV programme Great Moments in Opera in 1997.

Robert Russell Bennett, who conducted these selections, is known primarily as one of the great orchestrators in the history of the musical theatre. Born in 1894, he arranged over three hundred shows in a career that lasted until shortly before his death in 1981. His closest collaborator was Richard Rodgers and Bennett orchestrated seven of the musicals Rodgers wrote with Oscar Hammerstein II as well as the awardwinning score for Victory At Sea.

These Highlights are of particular interest in allowing us to hear two operatic stars of over fifty years ago (with the keys adjusted to suit their ranges) attempting to make one of the earliest ‘cross-over’ recordings.

Richard Ouzounian

Close the window