Not too many musical classics have experienced the sort of polar-opposite reactions from audiences and critics that Porgy and Bess has elicited ever since it debuted on Broadway in 1935. The opera, which features some of the most recognizable songs in all of American music, has been praised as a bold attempt to exalt African American vernacular in the operatic canon, and pilloried as a patronizing, if not outright racist, caricature of black life in the South in the early 20th century. Even some of the black performers who have most ably filled principal roles in the opera through the years have voiced their reservations about the work.
The great St. Louis-born mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry, for example, said of her own experience playing and singing the part of Bess: “I thought it beneath me. I felt I had worked far too hard, that we had come far too far to have to retrogress to 1935. My way of dealing with it was to see that it was really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we liked it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it was still going to be there.”
Here, LIFE.com presents photos made on the set of the earliest film version of the opera — Otto Preminger’s 1959 Porgy and Bess, starring Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis Jr. as the drug-dealing pimp, Sportin’ Life, and Pearl Bailey.
(Photos: Gjon Mili—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images)