'Porgy and Bess' as Gershwin Intended
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block. Tonight, in Nashville, a premiere, of sorts. It's the first time an audience will get to hear the Porgy and Bess that George Gershwin put on stage in 1935. The Porgy that generations have been enjoying is not the one Gershwin feverishly edited and added to, right up to the time it hit the boards. Rebecca Bain of member station WPLN in Nashville explains.
REBECCA BAIN reporting:
Rocking up slightly on his toes, conducting John Mauceri is intent on extracting the best possible performance he can from the Nashville Symphony. He knows they're making history.
(Soundbite of music from Porgy and Bess)
Mr. JOHN MAUCERI (conductor, Nashville Symphony): It must be dah-dah-dah-dah-dah, bom-bom-bom.
BAIN: When Porgy and Bess ended its run in 1936, all of the performance material was put in a box. And there it stayed a half-century. Musicologist Charles Hamm was prowling through the Carnegie library, when he came across the conductor's score used in that first production. He then tracked down scores used by the director, vocal coach, stage manager, and Gershwin himself. With the composer's handwritten notes on tempo and phrasing, crossed out sections of music, literally hundreds of changes.
Mr. CHARLES HAMM (musicologist): Gershwin was absolutely immersed in the rehearsals leading up to the first performance. He went to every rehearsal, sometimes he took over as rehearsal pianist.
Unidentified Male: 156, one flat, ready? (unintelligible) wah-wah, do-dah.
Mr. HAMM: This is the final version of something that he felt very deeply about, no question about that. This is the way he wanted the opera to be done, and it has not been done that way since 1935.
(Soundbite of music from Porgy and Bess)
BAIN: The reason Gershwin's edited version has gone unheard is simple. Gershwin published the first score for the opera as soon as he completed it. Well before rehearsals and his revisions had begun. Subsequent productions worked from the published score, not the one amended by Gershwin for the premiere of Porgy and Bess.
Hamm reported his findings in the Journal of the American Musicological Society in 1987 and waited for the furor he was certain would follow. And he waited.
Mr. HAMM: I think the simplest answer is that most conductors don't read musicological journals. To put it another way, I've been waiting about, what? 16 or 18 years for someone to pay attention to this article. And it's finally happening.
Mr. MAUCERI: Every composer who writes for the music theater, whether it's opera or musicals makes huge changes once it's put on the stage.
BAIN: John Mauceri, music director of the Pittsburgh Opera, and principal conductor of the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, is leading the Nashville Symphony in this restored version of Porgy and Bess.
Mr. MAUCERI: George Gershwin was a famous over writer. He always wrote works much longer to get them out, and then he always edited them after. And that's true of An American in Paris, the Concerto in F, and in the case of Porgy and Bess, absolutely true. So, what people will hear is actually George Gershwin's last version, or actually the completion, of his compositional process.
(Soundbite of Music from Porgy and Bess)
BAIN: Mauceri spent months reconstructing the revisions Gershwin made to Porgy and Bess, the result is a shorter opera by about 35 minutes. Cutting some passages of music, tightening scenes, and dropping other sections all together. Though the songs most associated with the opera remain intact.
MARQUITA LISTER (soprano): (singing as Bess) Summertime and the living is easy. Fish are jumping, and the cotton is high.
BAIN: Soprano Marquita Lister has sung the roll of Bess a number of times, including with Houston Grand Opera, Teatra alla Scala, and New York City Opera. She says most people will need to know the opera well to notice the cuts. But she thinks it will leave people talking.
Ms. LISTER: I think when people initially hear it, the reaction is either going to be, oh, that's very interesting, or, what are they doing? What makes a piece great is the intrigue. It is the conversation, it is the diverse opinion over what the piece is or is not.
Mr. ALVY POWELL: (singing as Porgy) Bess, you is my woman now. You is, you is, and you must laugh and sing and dance for two instead of one.
BAIN: Alvy Powell is one of the world's best known interpreters of Porgy, having performed the role more than 1,200 times all over the world. He thinks some cuts may not be popular with those who don't want anyone tampering with the work they think they know well. He's ambivalent about the cuts, himself, which include Porgy's Buzzard Song. Gershwin dropped it to save the voice of Todd Duncan, who first performed the role. Powell thinks it will be missed.
Mr. POWELL: There will be a great deal of controversy. I think people will listen to it and go, that's not what the score says. That's not what's in the printed score. And, gosh, they missed a whole three pages there, and that kind of thing. So, yeah, there will be controversy, no doubt.
BAIN: But the revisions aren't all cuts. Gershwin wrote a symphony of sound for this production, which has been left out of all subsequent performances and recordings of Porgy and Bess.
(Soundbite of symphony of sounds)
BAIN: Conductor John Mauceri.
Mr. MAUCERI: George Gershwin developed a series of sounds that all of the people in Catfish Row make as their morning starts. Somebody is snoring, someone is sawing wood, children are skipping rope, somebody's beating an egg, someone's hitting a rug. And it all becomes rhythm that builds up into a Charleston rhythm. It was written out in the stage manager's score, because he was the one who got to rehearse it. This will be the fist time it's been heard live in 70 years.
(Soundbite of symphony of sound)
Unidentified Cast Members: (singing) (unintelligible)
BAIN: This is also the only version of Porgy and Bess George Gershwin ever saw performed. The composer died in 1937, just one year after the first run of the opera closed. In addition to two concert performances, the Nashville Symphony will record this original 1935 version of Porgy and Bess for release later this year. For NPR News, I'm Rebecca Bain in Nashville.
(Soundbite of music)