Saturday, December 26, 2020

This Day in Cold War History (‘Porgy and Bess’ Staged in Leningrad, at Soviet and US Turning Points)

Dec. 26, 1955—In the first American theater troupe appearance in the Soviet Union since the Bolshevik Revolution, the international touring company of Porgy and Bess performed in Leningrad.

The massive company, nearly 100 strong, presented the 1935 “folk opera” by George and Ira Gershwin amid simultaneous watersheds in U.S. and Soviet history. In America, the civil-rights movement was picking up momentum with the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision and the onset of the Montgomery bus boycott. In the U.S.S.R., Nikita Khrushchev, having been named secretary of the Communist Party, was gauging how to expose Joseph Stalin’s totalitarian abuses.

In this atmosphere, the production by the Everyman Opera Company became a vehicle for political controversy, as this work had been since its Broadway premiere 20 years before. Then, it was a matter of domestic dispute: How accurate was its depiction of African-American life? Now, many wondered if the Soviets would use the show to highlight American racial inequality as Marxism competed against the free-enterprise system in the postwar order.

So much intrigue and suspense surrounded the event that it received unusually extensive press coverage, including by CBS correspondent Daniel Schorr and Truman Capote, stepping away from novels, musicals and film scripts to venture into creative nonfiction for The New Yorker Magazine. Capote’s chronicle of the epic trip, The Muses Are Heard, became his first significant step into the genre that he would transform with In Cold Blood.

The all-black cast (insisted on from its Broadway premiere) of the Everyman group had already been touring for four years, including a triumphant stop earlier that year before a demanding Italian audience in Milan's La Scala to perform the theater's first American opera. But the stakes were far higher when Everyman director and co-producer Robert Breen led his company into Russia.

Throughout the international tour, the group had been sponsored by the U.S. State Department. But funding was denied for the Russian leg of the long tour because the State Department felt the Soviets would use this depiction of poverty in Charleston’s Catfish Row in its propaganda war against America.

Instead, funding was handled by the Soviet Ministry of Culture, and as the Everyman group prepared for the show, they anxiously considered whether they were being watched by their hosts and how they should answer incessant questions about the civil-rights struggle going on back at home.

It is hard not to read Capote’s account without admiration for the intelligence, talent and dignity of its African-American cast, each member balancing fidelity to an imperfect country that could easily be embarrassed on the world stage with their commitment to truth and justice.

It is equally difficult to read Capote without rolling one’s eyes at State Department representatives addressing the cast in carefully calibrated terms, at other whites along for the ride (e.g., Ira Gershwin’s wife Lenore on rumors that their hotel rooms would be wired: “Where are we going to gossip? Unless we simply stand in the bathroom and keep flushing…”) and at Capote’s trip through a local department store.

Despite some jitters before and during the performance on how Soviet listeners were reacting (Bess’ adjustment of her garter upset some local prudes), the show moved audiences in Leningrad and, later, Moscow. It paved the way for later productions in Mother Russia of My Fair Lady, The Threepenny Opera, Annie Get Your Gun, Kiss Me, Kate, and Sugar.

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