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1955

Porgy and Bess opens in Leningrad

In one of the most publicized cultural exchanges of the Cold War, Porgy and Bess, an opera featuring an African-American cast, opens in Leningrad. Performances were also staged in Moscow in January of the next year.

The opera was only one part of a significant U.S. effort during the 1950s to use American culture as a force in the nation’s Cold War propaganda. The effort was based on the conclusion that while much of the world certainly appreciated (or, at least, respected) America’s military and economic might, this was not enough. Too many people overseas viewed the United States as a military behemoth lacking the culture and refinement that were so highly prized in many nations. Porgy and Bess, not only illustrated that Americans did not lack culture, it was also a response to critics, particularly the Soviets, who maintained that America was a racist nation.

As a Cold War public relations tool, Porgy and Bess performed admirably. While American reporters traveling with the show indicated that the average Russian seemed somewhat taken aback by the “unorthodox form” of the opera, the overall response was very favorable. As a New York Times critic declared, “the pervasive Gershwin melodies that distinguish this opera have recreated here at least temporarily an emotional bond between Russians and Americans.” The opening night audience in Leningrad gave the cast a 10-minute standing ovation. Even the Soviet press acknowledged that, “Our American guests have shown that original art is understandable for people of all countries.”

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