Major Operas | Porgy and Bess by George Gershwin | Modern Era

Composed: 1934–35
Premiered: 1935, New York
Libretto by DuBose Heyward after his novel Porgy, with lyrics by Heyward and Ira Gershwin

Act I

During a crap game in Catfish Row, Charleston, Clara sings a lullaby to her baby. Porgy, a cripple, returns home in his goat cart. Crown, high on ‘happy dust’ provided by Sportin’ Life, picks a fight with Robbins and kills him. Bess, Crown’s woman, has nowhere to hide until Porgy opens his door. Serena, Robbins’ widow, refuses Bess’s money for a ‘saucer burial’ until told it is from Porgy. Peter the honeyman tells the detective that Crown did it and is taken away.

Act II

Jake, Clara’s husband, is preparing his nets. Porgy has nothing to complain about. Maria chases away Sportin’ Life. Peter is to be released. Porgy and Bess pledge themselves to each other. Maria invites Bess to the picnic on Kittiwah Island. Sportin’ Life has interesting ideas about Old Testament stories. Bess tells Crown, who has been hiding on the island, that she is now with Porgy. The fishermen set off. Bess is ill in bed after being lost on the island. When she wakes she declares her love for Porgy. The hurricane bell is heard. While everyone prays for the storm to cease, Crown returns, looking for Bess. Clara has seen Jake’s boat upside down. She rushes out into the storm but only Crown goes to help, still threatening to ‘get’ Porgy.


Jake and Clara have been drowned. Porgy is waiting when Crown returns and then kills him. The police take Porgy to identify Crown’s body. Sportin’ Life tempts Bess to come to New York. One week later Porgy comes home looking for Bess, and his neighbours eventually explain that she has gone with Sportin’ Life. He sets off after her.

Sounds Familiar

George Gershwin’s music and DuBose Heyward’s lyrics have reached far beyond the scope of Porgy and Bess. As soon as the two men agreed to work on this project, Gershwin wrote the song that Clara sings as a lullaby in the show. Today, it is usually performed out of context and in myriad styles.

Personalities | George Gershwin | Modern Era | Opera


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