The First Opera by George Gershwin: Blue Monday Blues

Thirteen years before Porgy and Bess was presented as an opera, George Gershwin tried to write “an opera for colored people.” According to Howard Pollack, Gershwin and the lyricist, Buddy DeSylva, “wrote the entire ‘one-act vaudeville opera’ in five days. William Vodery, who had helped arrange Shuffle Along, orchestrated the work…” The work was called “Blue Monday Blues” and opened the second act of George White’s Scandals of 1922, at least for one night.
The original orchestrations were lost; but in 1953 new orchestrations were funded by the Ford Foundation for a television Broadcast by CBS as part of its Omnibus series (now called “135th Street Blues”). George Bassman freely adapted both the music and the text. The Bassman orchestration has been used by others since then, including Skitch Henderson in a 1954 radio broadcast and by Marin Alsop in her 1992 recording.
In our opinion, the music is in a real sense “unrealized,” in that it is more of a sketch than a true one-act opera. That said, it was a great compositional step forward for Gershwin in 1922 and would lead to Rhapsody in Blue in 1924 and Porgy and Bess in 1935.
It is also, in part, a parody because it tries to emulate the beginning of Ruggero Leoncavallo’s one-act opera, Pagliacci, where the baritone comes onto the stage and sings “The Prologue.”
This Gershwin music is not for everyone, but at least listen to the first 3-4 minutes. You will hear the impressive overture and the beginning of the prologue, explaining what the opera is about.
According to Pollack, the opera appeared on opening night of the Scandals and then was cut. It was too much for a 1922 audience. Remember in 1924, no one knew how the audience in Carnegie Hall would receive Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue; and even by 1935, Porgy and Bess received mixed reviews. In general, we think that Gershwin’s operatic and orchestral music is inspired, but we recognize that not everyone will like it.
Here is the European Gramophone review of Marin Alsop’s 1992 recording:
“For those who do not already know it (which will be nearly everyone, although there is a previous recording—9/77) this will be an astonishing discovery. Gershwin’s first opera was written as part of George White’s 1922 Scandals and although one or two critics recognized its importance, it was generally derided and the impresario had it removed from the bill. The libretto by B. G. DeSylva is little more than a bar-room parody of the worst operatic cliches—which include an aria ”Vi, I’m expecting a telegram”. The 23-year-old Gershwin’s music, however, exhibits all the qualities that later grew into his mastery of total American music and which, to a large extent, laid down the rules and the technique for future generations of American opera composers.
“The Overture leaps forward with all the vigour of later Gershwin essays in similar jazz-oriented style and the main song, ”Blue Monday Blues”, is as strong a parody of the blues style as anyone had created up to that time. One needs to try and imagine the impact of this piece on an audience in 1922—when even ragtime had yet to be heard as anything but an aberration. Five years before Showboat and 13 before Porgy, Blue Monday seems to be really the first true ”jazz opera”. Its brevity does not lend itself to much interpretation but all the soloists throw themselves into their roles with feeling—happily there is no sense of condescending parody. It makes one realize how little we still know of Gershwin’s total theatrical oeuvre—when will we ever hear Treasure Girl, Show Girl, Song of the Flame or Pardon My English?
“Marin Alsop conducts her own Concordia orchestra, which she founded in 1984, in Oscar Levant’s Caprice for orchestra, an agreeable interlude originally conceived for a radio show in 1940, and which Joseph Smith’s informative notes tell us was once featured by Beecham. Leslie Stifelman plays the Gershwin Concerto with clarity and strength—I have heard more subtle performances of it, but it is the perfect companion piece to the opera, showing the progress the composer was making in his quest for the American sound.’ “