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The Theater Tickets
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"How about a musical?"
"What about a mystery?"
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"Let's see a comedy!"
"Let's see a comedy!"
"Let's see a comedy!"
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"No American opera house would or could have touched this music or this theme, and no American producer would or could have dreamt of a production approaching the operatic dimensions of the original."  With these words ("Stereo Review," April 1976), composer-critic Eric Salzman both summed up the forty-year history of Porgy and Bess and issued a challenge.  To their great credit, Sherwin M. Goldman and the Houston Grand Opera, led by its general director David Gockley, have eagerly accepted this challenge.  So, at last we have a production of Porgy and Bess as its creators conceived it.
Ever since its first presentation by the Theatre Guild in 1935, Porgy and Bess has been a victim of the sobering realities of American cultural life.  Version after version of Porgy has adjusted the work to the standards and limitations of the Broadway musical, an ambiance where commercial considerations always have had a disproportionate influence over what has been presented on the stage. 
Porgy and Bess is an opera.  The existence of jazz and popular elements in Porgy does not make it any less opera.  Verdi was unabashedly "popular" and Mussorgsky made important use of fold materials, but their works are considered operas and performed as operas.
Many compromises were made in previous presentations of Porgy.  The opening "Jasbo" or "Jazzbo" Brown nightlife scene that DuBose Heyward and George Gershwin wanted required an additional set.  The Theatre Guild, which mounted the original production, did not want to spend the money to build the set and the scene was cut.  Wherever the show has played, especially in the United States, it has had to contend with the tiny orchestra pits of the Broadway-type theatre.  This has meant that the full range and power of Gershwin's orchestrations have been consistently diluted and altered.  
In musical comedy an audience expects to see the same principals appear in every performance.  But where the vocal requirements are as demanding as they are in Porgy, three leading singers, Porgy, Bess, and Serena, cannot possibly perform their parts in full voice seven or eight times a week without doing their vocal instruments irreparable damage.  We do not expect the principals in grand opera to do this.  Nor should they be expected to do so in Porgy and Bess.
Traditionally, The Buzzard Song and large chunks of the final scene have been cut from Porgy's part.  In addition, recitatives were changed to spoken dialogue because even sophisticated theatre-goers such as Richard Rodgers felt that recitatives did not work for Broadway.  By restoring Porgy and Bess to its original operatic dimensions, everyone participating in this production is playing an historic part in letting one of the great works of the American imagination emerge with the full force and splendor it deserves.  Of course, Porgy and Bess does not reflect the social values of the 1970's.  It was created in the 1930's and in the broadest sense was part of the cultural revolution that reflected the unrest and yearning of the Great Depression years when American materialism in its purest form was severely tested.  Politically, culturally, and spiritually American had lost its moorings in the 1930's.  As a result, many of our original creators sought to rediscover American, her land, her people, her folklore, her underlying values and traditions.
From the murals, court houses, and W.P.A guide books to the states to searing social and literary documents like James Agee's and Walker Evans' Let Us Now Praise Famous Men or Henry Miller's bitterly piercing vision of America as The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, a panoply of artistic creating bore witness to the depth and intensity of our quest for a kind of national reawakening.
In Porgy man in his innocence and power is pitted in an eternal struggle with nature and social forces.  Porgy is a spiritual brother to Melville's Ishmael and Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby in the tragic dimensions of his strengths and limitations.  In the banjo song I Got Plenty O' Nuttin' he chants the anthem that whimsically and deliciously refutes the materialist credo.  Yet he can offer little in its place except his reliance on man's ability to withstand all kinds of privation, and his own benign, almost mythical faith.  Catfish Row with its tightly-knit society of primitive, eye-for-an-eye justice is a kind of pre-industrial island separate from the urban, technological world. But it is still dominated by the tantalizing presence of the city with its lure of sin, "happy dust," and the high life, so magnetically captured in Ira Gershwin's lyric for Sportin' Life, There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon for New York. As the opera soars to its overwhelming conclusion, Porgy affirms man's capacity to pursue his dream. His journey to new York in search of Bess is a journey far from the golden age of innocence in which he lived. Whether Porgy ever finds Bess or finds her only to lose her again, one thing is certain: the promised land is going to be filled with teeming tenements, and huge ghettos of anonymity where the value of the individual man, whom Porgy embodies, will mean less and less.
When Porgy sets out on his spiritual and physical journey "on the long, long way to the heavenly land," we are both exhilarated and moved to pity and tears. We hope it is just possible that Porgy's remarkable courage and unbreakable will might sustain him, just as the work's creators sustained their faith in what is now recognized as an American classic.
--Robert Kimball--Co-Author of THE GERSHWINS--(Anthaneum, 1973).

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