Danish Porgy and Bess Used as Tool for Nazi Resistance
by Cecelia Bellomy
Robert’s Breen touring production of the African American folkopera Porgy and Bess is most notable for its use as a political tool during the Cold War, unprecedentedly being allowed to tour in the U.S.S.R. But this was not the first time Porgy and Bess was used to fight tyranny.
While the Breen production famously toured the world, it was not the first production of the opera to be done overseas. This claim goes to the Royal Danish Opera in Denmark. From the Theatre Research Institute’s records on the Breen touring production, there is some correspondence which uncovers this littleknown first overseas production and the political controversy attached to it.
Carl Strakosch Limited bought the rights for a Scandinavian production of Porgy and Bess between 1938 and 1939, and Holger Bech translated the script into Danish. Performed with an allwhite cast, the production debuted in March, 1943, three years after the beginning of Nazi occupation. The Germans, incensed by a production full of black characters (even performed by whites) written by the Jewish George Gershwin, “protested against this ‘offence’ [sic] and threatened to blow up the theatre” Bech wrote to Breen. With a sold out house every night, the performances continued in the face of Nazi scrutiny, eventually with “20 policemen posted around the building” for security. The production carried on until 1944 when the “whole policeforce [sic] was arrested and sent to camps in Germany.” The production was then jubilantly revived in May, 1945 after the end of occupation and continued to be performed until 1952. Bech writes that staging Porgy and Bess became a part of the Danish “‘Resistance Spirit’” against the Nazis and that the production “helped [the Danish people] through the bad years” of occupation.
All of the letters from which the above quotations were taken are letters in which Bech begs Breen to give Carl Strakosch Ltd. back the rights to revive the Scandinavian production of Porgy and Bess. Breen revoked the rights in 1952 after his Everyman Opera Company gained control of them. Breen never allowed Bech the rights, as he refused to let the opera be performed by anyone besides African Americans. This correspondence finds itself at a fascinating intersection: Bech wanting the production back which spirited his countrymen against Nazi oppression, and Breen refusing a production which perpetuated the oppression of blacks. Porgy and Bess finally returned to the Danish Opera House in 2014 with an allblack cast as a symbol of freedom on two fronts.
Note: All of the letters quoted above can be found in the Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee Theatre Research Institute at call number SPEC.TRI.RB.1.87.8
The blogpost author:
Cecelia Bellomy is a 2nd Year (Sophomore) English Major with a Creative Writing Concentration and a Theatre minor. She has been a student employee at the Lawrence and Lee Theatre Research Institute for a year and a half, most recently working with the Robert Breen Collection.