A Cold War secret weapon
I want to take you to a street in South Carolina. Right on the waterfront. We're looking up at a mansion that used to be a thing of glory. Now it's a rough looking tenement almost falling down, and packed with people who have nowhere else to go. There dockworkers and fishermen and a beggar on the street. A group of men is gathering to throw dice. There are palm fronds. The women are in flouncy skirts, the men in Chino's. And this. This is all on a stage. Because outside, it's twelve degrees. It's winter in Moscow to make things even chillier. This is Cold War Moscow, nineteen fifty-six and an American cast has come to put on Porgy and Bess. I'm Jade Simmons. And this is decomposed. We bring you the stories that have shaped classical music, the heart breaks, the betrayals, and the acts of sheer genius that changed everything. Here we're doing something a little different. We're exploring, not just who composed the music, but who brought it to life, we're going to talk about Porgy and Bess, the opera written by music legend George Gershwin who had a huge impact on American music. But we're also going to talk about the many performers who have sung the music. He wrote the opera Porgy and bass is supposedly a story of real life in the South Carolina slums, but it's been controversial. Since the moment it debuted in nineteen thirty five the opera is set near where I grew up in Charleston, South Carolina. It's a city of contradictions where people are always talking about how beautiful the plantations are or how charming the market is. And sometimes we don't realize that the market is the slave market, or those plantations were once. Places where slaves lived and worked, and so even today, the city of Charleston carries as much controversy as the opera Porgy and best still does today. People have been leveling the same criticisms at the show for more than eighty years, they say the characters are walking racial stereotypes, and they say it's another example of a white composer, getting credit for a score that draws heavily from black music over the decades, directors and cast around the world have had to wrangle with its troubled legacy. But they've also celebrated the creativity of the music and all the opportunities it is held for black performers in this episode we're going to take you from the operas inspiration to the premier and then to a very specific tour that unfolded in the nineteen fifties. It happened. When Europe was still we building after the devastation of World War Two, when it was the height. Of the Cold War. And when the civil rights movement was growing in strength. In the face of all this, the US State Department sent Porgy and Bess on a worldwide run and one government official called it their secret weapon. If you haven't seen Porgy and Bess. This is the super short version. The opera tells the story of Porgy a disabled beggar who's in love with Bess. Bess is struggling with addiction, and she's in a relationship with a violent man Porgy tries to rescue her from both. The opera is ultimately a tragedy by the end Porgy kills best as abusive boyfriend it's an act of defense. But by the time Porgy is released from jail. He finds that best is gone. She's headed north to New York with her drug dealer. The opera is based on the novel Porgy by Dubose Heyward Hayward, also grew up in Charleston. Not far from the docks. He writes about he was inspired. He said by story, he saw in the newspaper about a black beggar and attempted shooting with his wife Dorothy Heyward, adapted his novel into a Broadway. Play a few years later, George Gershwin, and his brother, IRA, joined in, and they worked to turn the whole thing into a full blown opera. Of course Dubose and Dorothy, Heyward, George and IRA Gershwin. They were all white. This was the reality. Of mainstream culture for really the majority of US history, the composers, and writers, and the lira Cest, and the theater producers, they were almost entirely white. There were incredibly talented black composers, Scott Joplin, Florence price, Samuel Coleridge, Taylor, and many others. But they didn't really get opportunities like this to get an opera stage, especially in opera about black light. Gershwin. When he decided to take on the project people got excited, he was already a star when he began composing the music for Porgy best he was famous for popular musicals like girl. Crazy and funny face and for symphonic jazz works like rhapsody in blue. Supposedly. He read Hayward novel, Porgy, all in one sitting staying up late to finish it, it was just what he was looking for a story, he could use as a foundation for something he'd been wanting to do to compose a full length opera. He wanted to leave a legend, bigger than pop music as he sought opera was considered distinguished in a way musicals and radio hits Wirt opera was for the ages. To write the music for Porgy, and bass Gershwin traveled down to South Carolina to visit the Hayward's and see what had inspired the story, they visited black churches nightclubs Gershwin spent five weeks on an island off. Charleston coast listening to spirituals and other folk music from the black community who lives there. Kamal. After soaking all this in George Gershwin went home to compose. He was trying to write an American opera Europe was filled with opera America. Not so much barely at all. You look at the guardians list of the top fifty operas of all time, and you see Italy. Italy, Italy, Italy. Some France, Germany Austria, Italy, Italy. Italy. You can see what Gershwin was up against total European dominance, but he crafted his opera drawing on black spirituals and folk music, and it worked. There is exactly one American opera on that fifty list that entry. It's Porgy and Bess. It's an opera with an actual black cast. This detail is key. It could have gone, another way, when Gershwin was getting ready to stage Porgy and best. He got a very generous offer from the place today. Byu an opera the Metropolitan Opera in New York, but he said, no supposedly, because he didn't think they would let him cast black singers there with no black singers. It would have been a cast in black face and Gershwin. Didn't wanna go along with that he went to Broadway. Instead. There weren't many opportunities like this for black performers at the time starring roles in Broadway shows, or for singing opera, the production could pick from the elite of the elite, the leads Porgy and best were played by Todd Duncan who was the head of Howard university's music department and, and Brown the first black singer ever admitted to Juilliard the rest of the cast had similar impressive resumes. The quote unquote real characters. They were cast portray, however, were very different from them the characters in Porgy, and Bess are illiterate, and poor. They are gamblers and drug dealers. And while white critics mostly praised this as an accurate, portrayal of black life, some black critics and musicians immediately called it out for damaging stereotypes jazz legend Duke Ellington slammed it as. Did others and Brown who played Bess remembered her own father, hating, the opera. She said he told her the show, quote perpetuated, the image of blacks as lazy, people singing hymns and taking dope. This is what the original cash struggled with. They were playing characters complicated by stereotypes, but they were doing it on Broadway. They were on the biggest platform available performing technically difficult. Rich music at the highest level of their professions Brown clearly struggled with this. She came from a prominent family in Baltimore. And now she was playing a sexualize drug addicted, women onstage in a show people were hailing as authentic. But through the material she saw chance at opportunity. She said if it brought. Us forward in American music, and opera roles for black singers. Then we should do it. George Gershwin died in nineteen thirty seven just two years after Porgy and best premiered. And we're going to leave him there for the rest of the story, which is really just getting started. After Gershwin's death. The opera kept going. The music caught summertime became even a bigger hit than the show itself. But even when the music's gorgeous, and even when the audience loves it, every cast member who's taken on these roles. They've continued to the bait how their work fits into American culture, and what messages their role sent Eva Jessye who led the choir for both of the shows early Broadway runs said later, that the cast would drown out the N word in the libretto when they performed it took time, but the word was finally written out of the opera by Georgia's brother IRA considering the baggage and criticism surrounding organ, bests, it's pretty surprising. What happened next? The nineteen fifties were critical moment in international relations World War, Two had revamped. The world order communism was as. Strong as ever in the Soviet Union. The US was pushing its own brand of democracy countries were having to choose sides. Are you with the east or the west propaganda was flying from everywhere? And one thing, the Soviet Union was quick to critique was race relations in the US, their messages, said, just look at how unequal things are there. They weren't wrong. But it wasn't the narrative the US government wanted to spread so here we get to one of the most interesting tactics. The government uses to influence international opinion art in this case opera. After the break the State Department pulls out its secret weapon. And I'll tell you about the one person who wasn't allowed to be a part of it. If you're looking for more fascinating stories and phenomenal music. Go to your classical dot org, you can stream classical music, twenty four seven and find out more about the people bought hind the notes. It's all at your classical dot org. I'm Jay Simmons and this is decomposed. In the nineteen forties and fifties. The US government was facing a lot of international criticism around race relations. So the US responded with a coordinated effort to spread its own cherry picked version of reality. The government sent carefully selected black speakers abroad to counteract stories about the inequality African Americans faced in the US. But the criticism continued to grow Soviet periodical rand stories about lynchings in business conditions for African American laborers. The US government needed to do more in response. Enter Robert greens. Breen was a mover and shaker in the theater world. He knew how to get things done. And he knew how to make people pay attention in nineteen fifty two. He partnered with Blevins Davis producer to launch production of Porgy and best. That is absolutely stacked with talent. Look at this cast, and it's hard to believe they shared a single stage. There's leontyne price arguably, one of the most famous classical American sopranos, there's Cab Calloway, a jazz singer of Cotton Club beim. There's even Maya Angelo, a very young Maya Angelo, who sang and danced before her literary career made her national phenomenon. Breen had planned his production, just right. The Truman administration was looking the sponsor shows to tour Europe as an act of the PLO, Assey and to spread US culture. The government agreed to send the Breen Davis production of Porgy and best on the road. It's important to note here that this was not a universally celebrated the season, some government officials and politicians asked why send out an opera that showed. Terrible. Living conditions for African Americans isn't that the exact wrong message to send black critics had bigger concerned. What if Europeans accepted the offer as documentary what if they believed that catfish row and all of its residents was a real life snapshot? North has been people. Got Mike got on. Oh day long. One of the songs I got plenty of Nuton has Porgy saying he's satisfied, even if he's poor because he's got my gal got my Lord got my song. That didn't line up with African Americans calling for actual ebonic quality. We can't say exactly why the opera was picked, but there was a plan for how it would be presented in hopefully for how would be interpreted, if you put on Porgy invests, but you emphasize to audiences that took place in the past, you can say, yes. Things used to be bad. There was racism, we admit it, but look at our dazzling and talented cast, see how far we've all come. How could they achieve all this? If things were still bad. Of course that was the government's plan but it was the cast who had to carry it out. They began by Toren Porgy and best around the US then they cross the ocean on a mission from the US government, which you couldn't forget because they arrived by air force plane. They played in Austria, Germany, England, and France in their first stretch singing, and wowing. Bream claimed he counted with a stop watch twenty nine minutes of plots over twenty one curtain Coles at the Berlin performance alone. The cast was a huge attraction in country after country and this show didn't stop when the music did the actors were constantly on display, it was an all out PR blitz. They got stopped on the street and in restaurants with photographers snapping away and people wanting autographs, according to Lillian Hayman, who was in the cast people even wanted to touch her face. She said to quote see if the black came off the press also had an obsession with the cast clothes in their fashion when they were out the actors were in evening gowns with firs or sharply tailored, suits and hats. The photographs are. Totally glamorous this fed into the US, government's propaganda push to drown out stories about segregation and prejudice to spread the message African Americans had access to education and culture and wealth, a presidential advisor named CD Jackson, one of the cast out on the streets and foreign cities. He said, quote, their clothes will be visible and touchable and their freedom from fear will be visible. All of this positioning of the cast for propaganda. It worked a columnist wrote in the New York Times that the cast had shown up here as great artists, putting the lied to a good deal of the communist exaggerations about the limitation of negroes opportunities in the United States. In so many ways the cast was in this impossible spot, they were being presented by the US government as proof that the US was full of opportunity for African Americans, which was misleading at best, but they were also getting the opportunity of a lifetime to sing antipathy form around the world. To change people's minds about where black performers could go. They even put on Porgy and Bess at the famous opera house less Scala in Milan, Italy. A young my Angelo told and Isreaeli reporter we have a great responsibility to keep the players success. If it is a hit, and it is our managers are going to put on another negro show and more negro actors will be employed and given a chance to show the world that we can do we are responsible for every negro actor in the world. In all the Breen Davis production of Porgy and bass was kind of unstoppable. It's stretched on over four years. They hit five continents. The US State Department largely kept underwriting their travels the cast changed as the months in years past, but the production kept touring, they hit the US Canada, Spain, Italy, Switzerland Belgium, Yugoslavia and Yugoslavia. So many people wanted to see the show that some of them even split a ticket, one person would watch the first half then swap out at intermission. So the next person could watch the second half it didn't stop there. The cast hit resil- Uruguay Colombia Venezuela, Mexico than back to Europe. Government officials clearly felt they were getting their money's worth air force Brigadier General, Dale, snr. Myth wrote a letter to Breen saying it is through operations such as Porgy, and best that World War. Three can be one without a fight. This means that you are saving lives and keeping our country free with every performance. But for all the government talk about how effective Porgy and best was and building. Goodwill spreading American culture in counteracting negative messages about the US. There was one place that the US State Department said was too far. There was one place. They would not pay to send them the Soviet Union. As I said, before, Robert Breen the tours producer knew how to get things done even if the US government didn't like what he was up to he'd wanted to bring Porgy and bass to the Soviet Union for years, but the US State Department said, no twice. So Breen found someone who would say, yes, someone who would cough up the money the Soviets themselves. This was out of hand, the US had wanted to fight Soviet propaganda spreading another countries, but they didn't want to send the Porgy invest cast to the Soviet Union directly. What if the Soviets used the opera's portrayal of poverty, and prejudice against the US Kenan opera be a double agent? This is ridiculous. But while the US may not have paid for this trip. They did not forbid it in nineteen fifty five plans were made to get the cast of Porgy and best from east. Berlin to Leningrad to cross the iron curtain. American officials gave the cast briefing on the realities of Russia. They were told to be careful about what they said. And if there were political questions, they were told, quote, don't answer them. We are on a cultural mission with that as a send off the cast boarded a train, this trip was a huge deal. No. You. S theater group had ever visited the Soviet Union before American press. Tagged along from everywhere. The New York Times the Associated Press CBS time life, even Truman Capote was there to cover it for the New Yorker. There's footage from the store moment when they arrived, the cast stepping off the rail cars crowds cheering the actors glamorous. And for coats in the cold Russian weather, one actress, even carrying a small dog. They were greeted by huge crowds people throwing flowers and clapping, but during their trip person after person kept asking one question. Where's paul? Robeson. Was an American star. Did everything he was a pro football player a singer and actor and he had his law degree from Columbia, but it's his singing that people knew him most for he had a huge following a US and abroad. He even played Buckingham Palace. If you know, his work, it's likely from his performance of old men river. That. And. But. But he was also outspoken about racial inequality in the United States and his support of communism. He railed against the horrors of lynching and spoke about the power of unions and the need for civil rights in nineteen fifty the United States revoked his passport, all those musicians and speakers that the US across Europe on goodwill, tours, who they didn't send is just as important as who they did Rogerson was kept at home when Porgy and Bess arrived in the Soviet Union. Russians wanted to know where he was the issues. He spoke out about civil rights and inequality were more relevant than ever at this point. And more public, the Montgomery bus boycott was in full swing. Emmett tills funeral had been held just a few months before the. World was watching how the civil rights fight in the US was unfolding. And the Soviet audience was especially curious where is palm. Rogerson. But just because Robeson wasn't physically. There doesn't mean people didn't hear from him. The Breen Davis production was very careful about how they presented Porgy and best to Russian audiences in the program. They stressed that the opera took place in the past, again, as, if they could claim it's not like this anymore. Roberston didn't let that fly in open letter from Paul Robeson appeared in the Soviet state, paper, Pravda sincere. Greetings to the Soviet people. It said. Robeson emphasized, the events in Porgy, and best are not just a thing of the past. He wanted people to know that they were still very much a reality for African Americans struggling against white supremacy. The letter said, I know that they the cast members are proud of the heroic struggle of their people who fight for quality and human dignity in Mississippi and in South Carolina where the events performed in their play on fold. Now it's impossible to know if the cast themselves read this letter someone would have had to translate it for them as it appeared in Russian. But I wonder if they were thinking about just what Rogerson was saying when they were performing there on the stage in Moscow in front of the fishing nets and the poem FRANZ. I wonder if they were thinking about everything that Porgy and best represents of the many angles, you can view it from of the stereotypes of Carey's, but also the opportunities that brought them to that very stage. I wonder if they were thinking about everything happening back at home, people fighting for the right to a bus seat to an equal education. Thinking about how they were there in Moscow to fight for every black performers right to be on stage. The Breen Davis tour played a dozen or so more shows after Moscow, the last performance was an Amsterdam on June. Third nineteen fifty-six in all over four years. Production stopped in seventy cities in twenty nine countries. They performed Porgy invest for audiences that spoke eighteen different languages. The cast which changed over the years dealt with racism with people who miss red Porgy and best documentary with people who still shun them in the face of all of that they still wild. Then when they finally returned home Robert Breen got busy trying to arrange one more thing. He wanted the cast of visit the White House, he pulled all his usual strings, and wrote letters, appealing to the Eisenhower administration. He wanted the actress to be recognized for all the work they done for their service to the country. But the White House refused. There are many things to think about when we listen to Porgy and Bess to admire Gershwin's work to appreciate the beauty of the performances. And also to think about all the stories of all the cast members who've played these parts and Sundays words. Maya Angelo gave an interview in twenty ten almost sixty years after she performed in Porgy and Bess. She was asked why she went on the tour how she felt about the work. She said, I knew that there was art from the poets and from the Gershwin's. I knew there was great art. I also knew that they had been inspired by great art. The great art of the African American. More full? What's the other piece? I think about when I listen about the musicians who inspired the work in the first place, the ones Gershwin may have heard in those weeks. He spent in South Carolina listening and researching the ones in the churches or the nightclubs. The ones who get no credit even to this day. But whose work is praised performed and celebrated all over the world. This is our last episode of decompose for. Now, if you enjoyed the show, please rate and review us on your podcast app and tell us what composer, you'd love to hear about in the future. You can find decomposed on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter at decomposed show. That's at decomposed show. Tell us your favorite composer, and who we should cover next. For a complete listing of the music you heard in this episode go to decomposed show dot org. That's decomposed show dot org. For more about the music you heard this episode you'll see our reading list there for this episode. We definitely recommend the strange career of Porgy and Bess by Ellen Newnan along with work by Michael Cy you and John Harper Taylor. Find the fullest at decomposed show dot org. Decomposed is hosted by me. Jade Simmons, it's produced by Tracy Mumford and Ryan more, Chris Juillan is our editor, this episode was written by Tracy Mumford with me drawing on research, by Leinna Leeson, a doctoral student at the university of Michigan sound design by Aaron Cohen, engineering by Corey Schrapel. Thanks to Ryan cats. Our fact checker, the interim director of podcast for eight APM is Loren, d. Decomposed is made possible by inspired by you NPR's capital campaign, and the generosity of Ruth and John Hus. Before you go. Let's talk about how these stories get told decomposed is a public radio podcasts. That is supported by your donations this show and shows like it only happened with your support donate today to hear more shows like this from APM podcast. Give today at decomposed show dot org slash donate.