Five Questions: Conductor Andrew Litton on ‘Porgy and Bess’

Photo: Conductor Andrew LittonIn George Gershwin’s 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess,” the colorful characters of Catfish Row, a fictitious tenement in Charleston, S.C., come to life through songs like “Summertime,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.”

The work, which depicts the tragic story of two unlikely lovers that find solace from their troubled lives in each other’s affections, is based on the Dubose Heyward novel “Porgy.” Heyward also wrote the libretto for the opera and co-wrote the lyrics with Ira Gershwin.

Colorado Symphony music director Andrew Litton leads the Symphony in an orchestral suite version of the opera. Litton arranged the work himself and his version has been named the official “Porgy and Bess” suite by the Gershwin Estate.

The conductor spoke with Colorado Public Radio about his affiliations with the music of Gershwin, the opera’s social commentary and its memorable tunes.

CPR: This is billed as your own version or arrangement of the score. How does it differ from the full version seen and heard on Broadway?

Andrew Litton: It’s mostly the same. The only composition I added was a short section for the double basses at the end of “Oh I Can’t Sit Down,” which doesn’t really have an ending in the opera. But my whole modus operandi with this was based on that fact that no existing suites from this opera were true to the original production. The suites that already existed emphasized the Broadway show aspect of “Porgy and Bess” -- so you have all the hit songs with a sort of brash orchestration and none of the really interesting connective tissue that makes up the opera itself. On one occasion, when I was getting ready to perform one of the already existing suite versions of the opera, I found myself moaning to the guy playing Porgy. I said how it’s such a shame that this suite isn’t closer to the original opera. He said to me, “Why don’t you do one yourself?” I thought, “Well, why not.” So, this version is a complete labor of love. I streamlined down to four soloists to accommodate the budgets of most orchestras. The one fallout of shorting a piece like this and trying to keep costs down is that we actually lose the bad guy of the opera, Crown, and all of his music. But, frankly, it’s not some of the opera’s best music. What I really try to do with this suite is give the audience entire scenes as much as possible and give it all a nice flow. So, you’re getting is one-third of the original opera in chronological order. It’s pure George and Ira in a truncated version.

CPR: Can you expand further on your personal history with Gershwin’s music and this score in particular?

Andrew Litton: I fell in love with the music of George Gershwin growing up in New York City, actually living about 100 yards from where the Gershwin brothers resided for about ten years of their lives. This is the apartment where George wrote things like “Rhapsody in Blue.” I always say George Gershwin is the Giuseppe Verdi of our time because when one listens to the great Italian master, one marvels at how these endless numbers of great melodies seem to pour out of him. It’s as if Verdi just exhaled a breath and out came a great melody. George Gershwin had the same incredible skill. The sad thing about this opera is that Gershwin didn’t live long enough to write more operas. He died two years after “Porgy and Bess” was completed when he was still in his late 30s. He would have had so much more to say and do in this realm. If you look at what Verdi was writing in his 30s, it wasn’t anywhere near as great as what he produced in his 40s and 50s. And I’m sure that would have been true for Gershwin as well.

I’ve conducted this music so many times I couldn’t possibly count. The first American opera ever done at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London was “Porgy and Bess” in 1992, and I conducted that 12-performance run. Additionally, I’ve been able to conduct my suite version with symphony orchestras around the nation and world, including Dallas, Minnesota, the U.K. and soon Denver.

CPR: Can you talk about the storyline, as well as the social commentary captured in the opera?

Andrew Litton: The opera hangs together from start to finish because of the development of its characters. When Bess arrives in Catfish Row she is a prostitute and high on drugs. But she becomes cured during the course of the opera by the love and devotion of Porgy, who’s crippled and the least likely person to attract such a beautiful woman. They have this fantastic relationship until Sportin’ Life, a drug peddler, corrupts her, offering her the drug “Happy Dust.” She then goes off to New York with Sportin’ Life. Porgy is stunned to learn of her departure, and leaves for New York to find her. It’s a bittersweet, moving ending.

The thing that fascinated George was this community in South Carolina. It was a tenement -- a big building that housed all these colorful people with incredible lives and challenges down there. They experienced extreme poverty but had an incredible belief in God and the power of God. George went and lived in Charleston for a little while, so he could capture not only the way they spoke, but also the nuances of the way they sang. The prejudice that was widespread then, and unfortunately does still exist at times, is handled in an interesting way. The only people that don’t sing in “Porgy and Bess” are the white characters. For years, if you wanted to perform the complete opera, the Gershwin Estate mandated that it be performed by an all-black cast. I believe this opera is an honest, unbelievable assessment of the human spirit.

CPR: This is originally conceived by Gershwin as an American folk opera. Yet all of the music, including iconic songs like “Summertime” and “Ain’t Necessarily So,” aren’t original folk compositions. What is it about the music of “Porgy & Bess” that makes it classify as folk music? It also doesn’t fit the stereotype of a traditional opera. What makes it an opera?

Andrew Litton: It’s an opera because it’s sung through. That’s sort of what defines an opera. In Broadway shows, the music stops and there’s dialogue. But this is an opera because it doesn’t stop for dialogue. There’s a number of musical genres actually represented in the opera, from pop tunes, to serenades, to wild dance music and incredible orchestral stuff. There’s even a moment in the opera -- though not included in my suite -- that has elements of early rap music, when the Mariah character sings “I Hate Your Son’s Style.” It’s a hodgepodge of great styles. As far as why it’s pegged a “folk opera,” I suspect they were probably stuck with what to call it at the time because nobody had been writing operas like this. In an effort to sell it, Gershwin wanted to express that is was music about real people. So I think that’s where the folk element comes in. But while folk instruments are used, there are no actual folk songs.

CPR: What else is on the program besides “Porgy and Bess”?

Andrew Litton: There’s just one other piece on the bill: Beethoven’s “Triple Concerto.” It’s an unusual piece for him in that it is a very happy piece. There’s no drama. It’s like a piece written for friends to play. I love the contrast of this joyous Beethoven piece and this tragic Gershwin opera. On paper, you might think, “How can you combine these two compositions?” But Beethoven and Gershwin are both rhythmic-based composers. So it works really well and the concerto offsets Gershwin’s dramatic score nicely.

The Colorado Symphony’s presentation of Andrew Litton’s “Porgy and Bess” suite runs May 16 through 18 at Boettcher Concert Hall. For more information, visit