The song has proven amazingly adaptable to different musical genres and interpretations. Ella Fitzgerald turned the aria into a pensive, lilting reflection on life’s possibilities (“One of these mornings you're going to rise up singing. Then you'll spread your wings, and you'll take to the sky”). Billie Holiday placed the emphasis on “Your daddy's rich and your mama's good lookin'” in her sultry Dixieland rendition. Janis Joplin’s throaty cover, backed by a blues-psychedelic arrangement, built toward a powerful climax that left fans screaming for more. As placed within Porgy and Bess, though, the song served an entirely different purpose. As the opening song in the opera, “Summertime” is a lullaby sung by Clara to her baby (“So hush little baby, don't you cry”).
Yet for all the song’s later popularity, it was largely lost within the initial controversy that surrounded the opera. When first produced in 1935, Porgy and Bess drew a boatload of criticism. Many thought that, at four hours, it was simply too long. Others argued that Gershwin’s attempt to blend the old and the new, the classic and the popular, was unsuccessful. The composer had used dense orchestral arrangements, and his performers broke into operatic-like arias and delivered all of their lines in song (known as recitatives), but the music itself drew from American genres, like jazz, the blues, and gospel, and the show’s initial run was on Broadway. The most troubling criticism of Porgy and Bess was that it was racist—just a 20th-century minstrel show that invited white audiences to stare at stereotyped representations of African American life.
While there were certainly racist aspects to the opera, the criticism was not entirely fair, especially for the time. Although the trend was starting to fade, popular minstrel shows still featured white actors in blackface. The Jazz Singer, the 1927 film famous for being the first full-length motion picture to feature dialogue, told the story of an actor who regularly performed in blackface. Porgy and Bess, meanwhile, premiered in a Boston theater in 1935 with an all-black cast. Yet even though Gershwin’s opera tried to put an end to the blackface tradition, it was still labeled racist. Like minstrel shows, two white men wrote Porgy and Bess—Gershwin wrote the music; DuBose Heyward wrote the libretto and lyrics (though some credit George’s brother Ira as well)—, and the entire production crew for the first performance was white. In addition, the plot followed the trials of the impoverished and poorly educated residents of a poor black neighborhood in Charleston, South Carolina. Porgy was a crippled beggar who traveled about town in small cart pulled by a goat; Bess was a woman of shaky morals—in some productions she is cast as a prostitute—controlled by two abusive men: one a thuggish boyfriend and the other a pusher that feeds her drug addiction. In the opening, scene a craps game leads to a murder; in Act 3, a second murder is committed. And the tragic poverty surrounding the characters’ lives is dismissed in one song in language that reminded many of the popular minstrel show portraits of the ignorant yet happy slave:
“Oh, I got plenty o' nuttin'
And nuttin's plenty for me
I got no car, got no mule
I got no misery
De folks wid plenty o' plenty
Got a lock on de door
'Fraid somebody's a-goin' to rob 'em
While dey's out a-makin' more
Minstrel shows had typically lampooned Southern slaves by mimicking their supposedly ignorant and buffoonish behavior. Porgy and Bess did not do that, but it did present a stereotypically decadent slice of black life. It was the “image of black people that white audiences want to see," wrote one historian. Consequently, black leaders and actors lambasted the opera. Jazz great Duke Ellington condemned “Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms;” singer, actor, athlete, lawyer, and future activist Paul Robeson, who had recently been lauded for his portrayal of Joe, the stevedore who sings “Ol’ Man River” in the musical Show Boat, refused to play the part of Porgy.
Gershwin was surprised by the response. He had researched the work by spending time in a poor Charleston neighborhood. He said that he was inspired by the music and spirit of the people he found there, and he wanted to capture that spirit in what he believed would be an authentically American contribution to classical music. DuBose Heyward, who had first introduced the story of Porgy and Bess in his 1924 novel Porgy, also aimed to cast a complimentary light on the poor, African American residents of his hometown of Charlestown.
Yet both Gershwin and Heyward were men of their times, and their views reflected the complicated racial attitudes held by even forward-thinking whites of the 1930s.
Heyward was not the only white artist to stereotype blacks in this way. He had been inspired by “primitivism,” a movement that included painters like Paul Gauguin and philosophers like Rousseau, who sought to celebrate the innocence of the “noble savage,” the person uncorrupted by modern civilization. In fact, many Anglo-American musician and artists were drawn to the sights and sounds emanating from black communities during these years with a similarly stereotyped belief that African American art was elevated by its “innocence;” which they believed reflected the “child-like” qualities of the race still uncorrupted by civilization’s excesses.
Whatever their intentions, Gershwin and Heyward produced an opera that tapped into whites’ stereotyped perceptions of blacks. Many black leaders and performers consequently condemned the work and forced many white performers and producers to avoid it and the controversy that came with it. For years, Porgy and Bess went unperformed in the United States. Outside the US, however, the opera found greater success. European audiences were intrigued by what they perceived as an innovative expression of America’s distinct musical and racial culture. The opera—performed in blackface by an all-white cast—played to sold-out audiences in Copenhagen in 1943 until the occupying Nazi German troops shut the theater down. During the 1950s, the opera met with great success in London, Leningrad, and Milan.
When American companies tried to bring the opera back home, they were greeted by harsh attacks from black leaders. With the modern civil rights movement just beginning to take shape, African Americans were opposed to such a crude and narrow depiction of black life. As they struggled to gain their fair share of the American pie, they condemned songs like “Plenty o' Nuttin'” that celebrated poverty as a source of happiness. The Baltimore Afro-American summed up this response when they stated that Porgy and Bess was "the most insulting, the most libelous, the most degrading act that could possibly be perpetrated against colored Americans of modern times."
Today, the opera remains untouchable for many—too loaded with racist stereotypes to perform. Yet some producers have tried to preserve the opera by re-working it. Some have merely shortened the opera from its original four hours; others have written out the most offensive language. Still others have wholly reshaped the original work, adding lines and scenes designed to add depth to Gershwin and Heyward’s characters and thereby elevate them beyond stereotypes.
These efforts have generated their own controversies, though. Many artists and music scholars argue that Gershwin’s opera should be preserved as written—a flawed yet still valuable contribution to American music, a masterpiece to be appreciated as the product of its times, warts and all. American composer Stephen Sondheim recently offered the most strident version of this argument in condemning a revision of the opera. Efforts like these, he argued, insulted both the composer and the American audience. Gershwin’s work was able to stand alone, far superior—despite its flaws—to the amateurish revisions. Moreover, he felt, American audiences were not so simple that they needed their works of art updated or their theatrical characters fleshed out. What’s next,
It doesn’t look like the controversy surrounding Porgy and Bess will go away soon. The opera still taps old tensions surrounding race and representation in America; the revisions ask equally old questions regarding how we should treat works of art. Some have decided to sidestep the whole thing by just celebrating the musical gems within the work, like “Summertime.” There’s something to be said for this, as it allows us to appreciate this gorgeous lullaby without distraction, but it’s also important that we keep the controversy in front of us. It is rooted in some historical facts that should not be forgotten or simply re-worked to make more palatable. It’s probably also a good thing that the opera still strikes a nerve. It’s when American audiences become insensitive to expressions of racism that we should worry.