Plenty o' something

Summertime, It Ain’t Necessarily So and I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’ - these are all great George Gershwin hits that most of us could hum at the drop of a hat. But how many of us can claim to have seen and heard these songs in the context they were originally written: as part of one of the 20th century’s most challenging, interesting, and - for its time and place - most unlikely operas, Porgy and Bess?

One of the few opportunities to do so comes Edinburgh’s way this week, thanks to a touring production by the American-based Porgy Group. "Expect something between opera and Broadway," says the impresario behind the long-running production, Porgy Group boss Peter Klein.

As its name would suggest, the company has made this particular opera something of a speciality. Since Will Roberson’s highly acclaimed production opened 13 years ago in New York, it has toured to more than 800 cities and towns throughout the United States and performed in five continents worldwide, taking in Auckland, Cairo and the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Aberdeen audiences saw it last year during a short UK tour, while Edinburgh is the only Scottish venue in this current visit.

That’s an astonishing achievement, given most opera companies’ wariness of one of Gershwin’s finest late works. He completed it only two years before his untimely death at the age of 38. It was a strange hybrid then, both musically and in its subject matter. Expensive to put on, it lost money in its opening run.

A 1950s touring production introduced the opera to audiences around the US and as far afield in Europe as Leningrad and La Scala in Milan. Houston Grand Opera mounted a notable production in the 1970s, which it has revived every ten years or so.

But it was some 50 years after its composition before two concurrent 1985 productions at the New York Met and Glyndebourne (under Sir Simon Rattle) finally gave Gershwin’s masterpiece the Establishment seal of approval on both sides of the Atlantic. Even then, it remains a huge challenge to stage.

No other opera calls for an all-black cast, so imagine how difficult such a casting would have been in 1930s America, in an art form traditionally the reserve of the white middle and upper classes. It had to be so. Gershwin not only stipulated that at the time, but the terms of his will later specified that English-speaking countries may only produce the opera with all-black casts.

And even now, the questions are still asked. Is Gershwin’s lurid musical tale of low-life in a black South Carolina ghetto - the only surviving opera founded on 1920s and 30s jazz - actually opera at all? Or is it a lone runner teetering somewhere between opera and musical? Such considerations, of course, aren’t as relevant anymore. But in the opera’s early days they occupied the minds of those on both sides of the artistic divide. Almost to a man, critics reacted sniffily to Porgy and Bess when it opened in New York’s Alvin Theatre in 1935 - note: a Broadway theatre, not an opera house. Gershwin had high hopes of it being premiered at the Met, but these collapsed the moment his key contact there, Met chairman Otto Kahn, suddenly died.

In many ways it was ahead of its time. Gershwin based his opera on DuBose Heyward’s 1924 novel, Porgy. He and his lyricist brother Ira Gershwin collaborated with the novelist to produce a steamy but sympathetic tale of love, murder, prostitution, jealousy and drugs, set in the dockside town of Charleston. The tunes became bigger hits than the opera itself. Heyward originally suggested Al Jolson for the lead role, but Gershwin put his foot down, insisting that Jolson would be too lightweight for the intensely tragic, crippled figure of Porgy, driven to murder to win Bess’s love and draw her from a life of drugs, prostitution and entrapment.

The stylistic ambivalence initially confused matters. Rather than appeal equally to jazz aficionados and classical buffs, Gershwin’s remarkable fusion of traditional opera and African American music had the opposite effect. Duke Ellington sneered at the composer for his "lampblack negroisms". The classical critic and composer Virgil Thomson expressed the sort of green-eyed sentiment many of today’s high-minded composers often direct at the Andrew Lloyd Webbers of this world, suggesting that serious American composers "could never compete with Gershwin for distribution, nor he with us for intellectual prestige".

But in the same breath, he graciously acknowledged that "Gershwin does not even know what opera is, and yet Porgy and Bess is an opera and it has power and it has vigour".

Gershwin, of course, didn’t help matters by calling it a folk opera. Yet there’s a historical precedent. Think of the dark social undertones and subculture elements that inhabit John Gay’s 18th-century folk-based ballad opera The Beggar’s Opera (another hybrid of its time, in terms of harsh subject matter) or its 20th-century reincarnation as Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera. The difference is, ballad opera was an accepted and highly popular genre in 18th-century Britain.

Ultimately, finding the all-black cast for Porgy and Bess poses the real headache. "It’s the toughest problem of all," admits Peter Klein, who believed initially he could source his cast exclusively in New York. "As a businessman I was looking at the bottom line, but in the end we had to audition all over the US, looking for that elusive combination of black singers who can act and dance. They have to be opera trained, and the final cast included singers from Texas and Louisiana."

He also needed a set that could travel. Traditionally, Charleston’s squalid Catfish Row is depicted as a row of congested tenement buildings. "That tends to restrict the movement on stage, so we’ve gone for a kind of close-up that homes in on a staircase, windows, and a couple of doors, with the dockland as a backdrop," he says. "This is not a production where the diva screws her feet to the floor. We’ve planted microphones all over the set so the cast can move around freely without worrying about being heard. Our Sportin’ Life [the "happy dust" dealer] can then move, dance and act like the snake he is."

Klein’s belief in Gershwin’s operatic curiosity has sustained the lifespan of his company’s long-established production. "I consider Gershwin to be the Mozart of the 20th century," he ventures. "The music is so rich and harmonic, yet so contemporary. It never seems dated. Likewise, Gershwin’s music is timeless, and a combination of the different idioms he knew and loved."

Like many productions, this one makes cuts. "We’ve cut only the non-essential music," says Klein. "I believe a show of over three and a half hours cannot succeed. Most humans have only one derriere, so we play this one in under three hours."

For those worried about missing their favourite Gershwin showstopper, he offers assurance. "Not a single tune gets lost in the process."

• Porgy and Bess is at Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 17-20 March.