Publish date:
Year
1935
Month Day
October 10

“Porgy and Bess,” the first great American opera, premieres on Broadway

On October 10, 1935, George Gershwin’s opera Porgy and Bess premieres on Broadway.

Porgy and Bess began its journey to the Broadway stage in 1926, when George Gershwin wrote a letter late one night to the author of a book he was reading proposing that the two of them collaborate on an operatic adaptation. The African-American poet DuBose Heyward, author of the novel Porgy, immediately agreed to Gershwin’s proposal, but commercial commitments in New York prevented Gershwin from actually beginning work on the project for another seven years. In the meantime, singer Al Jolson attempted to mount a musical version of Porgy starring himself in blackface, but that effort foundered in 1932, leaving the way open for the Gershwin-Heyward collaboration that would feature an all-African American cast of classically trained singers—revolutionary casting in 1930s America.

Over the course of more than two years beginning in the spring of 1933, DuBose Heyward and the two Gershwins—George’s brother, Ira, joined on as co-lyricist in 1934—collaborated mostly by U.S. Mail, with only occasional face-to-face meetings. In this fashion, they nevertheless managed to create some of the greatest songs in American musical-theater history, including “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

The critics of the day were decidedly mixed in their reception of Porgy and Bess, however. While Olin Downes of TheNew York Times found “much to commend it from the musical standpoint,” composer/critic Virgil Thomson, writing for the New York Herald-Tribune,was less kind, calling Gershwin’s incorporation of blues and jazz influences into a “serious” operatic score to be “falsely conceived and rather clumsily executed…crooked folklore and half-way opera.”

Many of the songs had been cut from show between its trial run in Boston and its Broadway debut, however—a fact that may well have hurt Porgy and Bess with critics. In fact, the full George Gershwin score of Porgy and Bess would not be performed again until a triumphant 1976 revival by the Houston Grand Opera helped establish its current place in the standard operatic repertoire.

George Gershwin and DuBose Heyward died in 1937 and 1940, respectively, not knowing that the poorly-received Porgy and Bess, which premiered on this day in 1925 and closed some four months later, would later gain recognition as one of the most important American musical works of the 20th century.

FACT CHECK: We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, click here to contact us!

ALSO ON THIS DAY

Vice President Agnew resigns

Less than a year before Richard M. Nixon’s resignation as president of the United States, Spiro Agnew becomes the first U.S. vice president to resign in disgrace. The same day, he pleaded no contest to a charge of federal income tax evasion in exchange for the dropping of charges ...read more

Battle of Tours

At the Battle of Tours near Poitiers, France, Frankish leader Charles Martel, a Christian, defeats a large army of Spanish Moors, halting the Muslim advance into Western Europe. Abd-ar-Rahman, the Muslim governor of Cordoba, was killed in the fighting, and the Moors retreated ...read more

A former postal worker commits mass murder

Former U.S. postal worker Joseph Harris shoots two former co-workers to death at the post office in Ridgewood, New Jersey. The night before, Harris had killed his former supervisor, Carol Ott, with a three-foot samurai sword, and shot her fiance, Cornelius Kasten, in their home. ...read more

US Naval Academy opens

The United States Naval Academy opens in Annapolis, Maryland, with 50 midshipmen students and seven professors. Known as the Naval School until 1850, the curriculum included mathematics and navigation, gunnery and steam, chemistry, English, natural philosophy, and French. The ...read more