THE LIFE AND TIMES OF PORGY AND BESS

The Story of an

American Classic

By Hollis Alpert

Knopf. 354 pp. $35

"Porgy and Bess" has by now been with us for so long -- its New York premiere was in the fall of 1935 -- that we tend to think of it not merely as an entity unto itself but also as solely the creation of its most famous collaborator, George Gershwin. Hollis Alpert is here to tell us otherwise. His useful "The Life and Times of Porgy and Bess" traces the origins of America's greatest opera back to the forgotten novel and play from which it sprang, and gives all due credit to the equally forgotten writer whose name is scarcely known beyond his native South Carolina.

He was DuBose Heyward and he was Old Dixie from tip to toe: "He was white and, though hardly prosperous, a born-and-bred member of Charleston's proud if somewhat faded aristocracy." Born in 1885, he observed life in that city's black quarters with a sympathetic interest extraordinarily rare for whites of his time and place, and in 1925 published a novel called "Porgy" that was widely praised, in the words of a fellow Charlestonian, for "the absolutely unexampled newness of the Southern Negro as subject."

It is true of course that the novel, like the play Heyward subsequently wrote in collaboration with his wife, Dorothy, retailed many of the stereotypes about black life that whites in all regions accepted without question. More to the point, though, for it explains the lasting popularity of the story in all its forms, "Porgy" rose above race and stereotype and time and place -- rose above everything -- to achieve universal human dimensions.

No doubt this is what drew Gershwin to it, though he also had it quite specifically in mind to write "a full-length opera with jazz motifs" in which blacks would play central roles. The collaboration of Gershwin, his brother Ira and DuBose Heyward took a while to coalesce, but all parties seem to have been committed to it from the outset and the common enthusiasm for it was markedly high, all the more so when one considers the number of years over which that enthusiasm had to be sustained.

That all of these parties were white bothered more than a few black intellectuals and artists of the day. "The times are here," Duke Ellington said, "to debunk Gershwin's lampblack Negroisms." It is significant, though, that by the 1950s Ellington's opinion had softened sufficiently for him to send a wire to the director of a new production of "Porgy and Bess" that said: "Your Porgy and Bess the superbest, singing the gonest, acting the craziest, Gershwin the greatest." By then the opera had transcended the limitations of its characterizations and setting, and had been accepted by whites and blacks alike -- or so at least Alpert convincingly argues -- because of its great artistry and power.

No less significant than Ellington's change in view has been the eagerness with which the greatest black singers have played its principal roles and sung the music, by now beloved all over the world, that Gershwin wrote for them. Todd Duncan, Paul Robeson, Leontyne Price, William Warfield, Clamma Dale -- the list goes on and on, an honor roll not merely of black artistry but also of American operatic singing.

Like most transcendent works of art "Porgy" has been different things to different people in different times and places. All of this Alpert traces thoroughly, indeed at times too thoroughly as his accounts of various touring companies become little more than mere itineraries; these passages would have benefited from a bit of judicious cutting. But an excess of detail does not diminish the persuasiveness of Alpert's argument that "Porgy" has been one of this country's most valuable exports, speaking in its own clear voice to the rest of the world about America.

The story of "Porgy" and its travels involves many people, not merely Heyward and the Gershwins and the illustrious singers, but also Rouben Mamoulian, whose direction of the original production set the standard by which all others have been measured; Robert Breen, who took the opera abroad and helped keep it alive at home before its place in our culture was conclusively established; Truman Capote, who traveled with the touring cast to Russia and, in "The Muses Are Heard," sacrificed fact to journalistic convenience; Sam Goldwyn, who turned the earthy original into a sanitized movie.

At this point in its history "Porgy" is far larger than any of those who have had parts in that history. It is one of the few artifacts of American culture, whether high or low, that are indisputabe monuments, national treasures of incalculable value. Hollis Alpert has written a helpful account of how it reached that high status.