It was in 1929 that George Gershwin (1898-1937) read DuBose Heyward's novel Porgy and determined to write an opera using its story dealing with black life in Charleston, South Carolina. After Hayward had made Porgy into a play, he fashioned a libretto for Gershwin, and collaborated with George's brother Ira Gershwin on the lyrics. The composer dedicated himself totally to the formidable task, doing research which took him for the summer of 1934 to Folly Island, ten miles from Charleston. There he absorbed the music and folkways of the resident blacks; on nearby islands he attended services of the Gullahs, taking part in their "shouting." In Charleston he was fascinated by the street vendor's cries, some of these becoming the only true folk material to be incorporated into a score that abounds in a folk-like idiom.
After the actual work of composing was done, Gershwin spent some nine months orchestrating the opera, and in September 1935, it opened in Boston, moved to New York for a 16-week run, then went on a road tour of three months. To be sure, there were dissenting voices that said Porgy and Bess is a super-musical rather than an opera, but the overwhelming consensus was, and is, nomenclature aside, that the work is a masterpiece - an American classic. (An extravagant production at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in the 1980s, although late in coming, was a welcome acknowledgment of that fact.)
Gershwin's success with Porgy was due to his sense of artistic rightness and his complete honesty with himself. The work has its big set pieces, but in style and content it does not have pretensions to grand opera status. It is gloriously melodious and unabashedly melodramatic; there are at least five important roles; the orchestra is large and rich, and participates importantly, as does a chorus. Come to think of it, how much more grand opera-like could the work be?
-- Orrin Howard annotated programs for more than 20 years while serving as the Philharmonic's Director of Publications and Archives. He continues to contribute regularly to the program book.