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Q: Information on Helen E. Colbert - Opera Singer ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   0 Comments )
Subject: Information on Helen E. Colbert - Opera Singer
Category: Arts and Entertainment
Asked by: linny914-ga
List Price: $50.00
Posted: 24 Feb 2005 12:23 PST
Expires: 26 Mar 2005 12:23 PST
Question ID: 480210
Information on Helen E. Colbert - she was a black opera singer
performed Porgy and Bess at Lincoln Center in late 50's early 60's. 
Also in Europe and on PBS.

Request for Question Clarification by kriswrite-ga on 24 Feb 2005 12:53 PST
What kind of information are you after? A brief synopsis of her
career? A complete list of credits (likely unobtainable)? A biography?


Request for Question Clarification by pafalafa-ga on 24 Feb 2005 13:02 PST
Hello linny914-ga,

I've looked through a number of different sources now, and there
appears to be very little information available on Ms. Colbert.

Almost everything I've found is in newspaper articles from 1952-1953
that mention her (apparently stunning) rendition of Summertime in the
then-current production of Porgy and Bess.

Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any actual recordings of her
performance, due to some sort of contract dispute that involved the
entire production, so her performances in that show have been lost to
history.  Perhaps that's part of the reason why there's so little
follow-up attention.

As for the newspaper articles themselves, I cannot reproduce them here
since they are copyrighted, but I can certainly post some excerpts
pertaining to Ms. Colbert.

But like I said, there's not a great deal out there.

Let me know how you'd like to proceed on this.


Clarification of Question by linny914-ga on 25 Feb 2005 11:46 PST
Any information you can get on Ms. Colbert - any place where I can get
published information, etc.  This is my husband's mother and we are
looking for any historical information we can find.  I would love to
be able to get any published newspaper articles, etc.

Thank you.
Subject: Re: Information on Helen E. Colbert - Opera Singer
Answered By: pafalafa-ga on 25 Feb 2005 16:45 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars

Hello again, and thanks for clarifying that the information on Helen
Colbert -- though limited - would meet your needs.

Ms. Colbert had a very well-received part in a revival of Porgy and
Bess that toured around the US and around the world in the early part
of the 1950's.  She was often mentioned in the theater reviews of the
time for her notable voice and striking beauty.  Her rendition of
"Summertime" was the opening number in Porgy and Bess, so she had a
prominent role in setting the tone and expectation for the rest of the
performance to come.

She was part of an amazing theatrical and cultural phenomenon,
participating in a production that was not only recognized as a
masterpiece of theater in the US, but that toured around the world --
partly under the sponsorship of the United States Department of State
-- wowing crowds in Germany, Italy and even the Soviet Union.  She
performed with some of the great theatrical personalities of the day,
and held her own.

After Porgy and Bess, she really drops out of site as far as I can
see, and under somewhat odd circumstances.  You'll see what I mean in
the last excerpt below.

Before presenting the information on Ms. Colbert, let me explain two things:  

(1) Much as I would like to, I cannot present here the full text of
the articles in which Ms. Colbert was mentioned, as they are protected
by copyright.  However, I have provided the relevant excerpts, and a
librarian should be able to help you retrieve full copies of the
articles, if they are of interest.

(2) I checked quite a number of resources, including biographical
references, music encyclopedias, and some sites on notable
Africa-Americans.  Other than a few Google search results and a number
of newspaper articles, there was no substantial information that I
could locate on Ms. Colbert.

I wish it were otherwise.  

Having said that, here's what I came up with from newspaper searches:

'PORGY' WILL OPEN AT 'MET' ON SEPT. 3; Stands in Dallas and Capital to
Precede Limited Run Here -- Foreign Tour Scheduled

New York Times
May 7, 1952. p. 30

Realizing that a revival must be kneaded with super quality these days
to recapture its original glory, Blevins Davis and Robert Breen are
doing everything within their power to surpass former presentations of
"Porgy and Bess".  How well they have succeeded should be apparent
when the famous Negro folk musical opens on Sept. 3 at the
Mteropolitan Opera House for a limited run...

Lined up for the cast thus far are William Warfield (LaVerne
Hutcherson is standing by to play the role of Porgy twice a week), Cab
Calloway (Sportin' Life), Leontyne Price and Helen Colbert alternate
in the role of Bess; Beorgia Burke, Helen Dowdy and possibly William
Marshall for the part of Crown.

[NOTE:  This is the only reference I saw that mentioned Ms. Colbert in
the role of Bess; all other articles have her playing Clara]

'Porgy' n Bess'
The Washington Post
Jul 27, 1952. p. L1 ) 

[Ms. Colbert is simply mentioned as part of the cast for the
Washington DC show, along with...]

Helen Thigpen as Serent

William Warfield -- Porgy [Warfield sang "Old Man River" in the movie, Showboat).

Urylee Leonardos and Leontyne Price alternating as Bess.

'Porgy and Bess' In Brilliant Revival
The Washington Post
Aug 7, 1952. p. 6 

[Ms. Colbert played the character of Clara in the Washington
production, and sings the shows most famous tune, "Summertime']

President Truman last night led a cheering National Theater audience
at the opening of "Porgy and Bess," soon to represent our country at
the Berlin Festival....

...To single many from the large group is almost unfair, yet...Helen
Colbert's "Summertime" opens the rich act one with silvery splendor...

...Also in the audience:  Dorothy Heyward...getting her first view of
this new version of her late husband's work; Clarence Derwent, who led
Equity's fight against segregation in the National and who got a real
thrill from seeing a packed house.


'Porgy' Is Surely a Masterpiece
The Washington Post 
Aug 10, 1952. p. L1 

...Helen Colbert's opening "Summertime" is as beautiful as ever, as is
all her singing...

BERLIN LOVES 'BESS' AS MUCH AS 'PORGY'; Twenty-One Curtain Calls and
Awed Reviews Make Negro Cast Feel Right at Home
New York Times
Sep 18, 1952. p. 36 

BERLIN -- "Porgy and Bess" opened here tonight...and staggered an
audience of Germans and Western Allies with its richness of music,
story and acting...

The audience rose to its feet at the final curtain, forcing twenty-one
curtain calls, during which shouts of bravo rang through the house...

...Neither the English language nor the folkways of the residents of
"Catfish Strasse" was any handicap to the Germans, who, from the first
rendition of "Summertime" by Helen Colbert, caught on to the spirit of
the music of George Gershwin.

New York Times
Mar 10, 1953. p. 25 

[This review simply mentions Ms. Colbert briefly, but it is one of the
few articles to actually include a photograph from the show with a
number of unidentified male and female cast members...I thought you
might like to know of it]

New York Times
Mar 19, 1953. p. 60 

[This was an ad for the Ziegfeld Theatre that compiled reviews from a
number of different sources]

It's All Gershwin and All Gold

...Whitney Bolton in the Morning Telegraph puts the cherry on the
cake..." far the best production the Gershwin folk opera ever has
had...Bravura, color, detonation and swift, incessant movement...Helen
Colbert's Clara is enchantingly beautiful and her singing of the
deathless "Summertime" fills the theatre with golden notes..."

O'Neill's Endearing Young 'Wilderness'
The Washington Post
Jan 14, 1954. p. 18 

[This review of Eugene O'Neil's "Ah, Wilderness" also mentions the
last few performances of Porgy and Bess]:

" haven't lived until you've seen it...there are thoroughly
remarkable things from the moment the curtain goes up...At this point
we meet Helen Colbert singing Clara's haunting air, "Summertime," a
shimmering, silvery delight..."

[The article also mentions the almost unbelievable absence of a
recording of the production]:

"...The producers...will soon have something to answer for:  for a
company like this not to have a full-length recording is a

Los Angeles Times
Jun 13, 1954, pg. D2

Porgy and Bess Will Come to LA July 12
[Ms. Colbert listed in the role of Clara]


An online resource:

makes available a large number of newspapers from many smaller towns
and cities across the country, two of which had articles about Ms.

Hillsboro (Ohio) Press Gazette
January 19, 1954

Directly from smash hit engagements on Broadway and Europe, the new
production of..."Porgy and Bess" comes to Cincinnati for a seek's stay
at the Taft Theater...

[Ms. Colbert is listed as a cast member ]

Lastly, as far as newspapers go, I came across a rather strange
article from 1956...I wish I knew what to make of it, but all I can
really do is present the information as I found it:

Lima (Ohio) News
April 1, 1956

Soprano Denies Quitting US Over Segregation

BONN -- Negro soprano Helen Colbert of Philadelphia appealed to the US
Embassy at protect her from a smear campaign alleging she
has "turned her back" to America in protest against racial

The 26-year-old singer left the cast of the "Porgy & Bess"
troupe...when it finished a tour behind the Iron Russia
and Poland.

Mrs. Colbert told INS...from Stuttgart:  "...I'm an American and don't
ever intend to be anything else.  I resent my name being used as a
vehicle for anti-Americanism in these critical times..."

[The article is brief and fairly obscure, I'm afraid.  I'd like to be
able to add more, but there was nothing else I could find.  Perhaps
your husband's own family history can shed some additional light here]

To add a bit to the mystery, there was a 1963 recording of Porgy and
Bess at which Ms. Colbert is notably absent:

New Porgy Beats 'Em All
Washington Post
September 6, 1963  pg B7

Ironically, the most impressive of all "Porgy and Bess" productions
not only lost a fortune...but it could never be recorded...[the]
revival, for all its triumphs, ran into contractual problems for
commercial recording.

...Now that consideralbe loss is somewhat redeemed by...a new album,
"Great Scenes from Gershwin's Porgy and Bess."

[Much of the 1952 cast was re-assembled for the recording of this
album, including Leontyne Price in a dual role...]

...There are bonuses to this over stage work, for Miss Price in
glorious vocal form, now can double for Clara's "Summertime" (so
beautifully done in the Breen-Davis revival by Helen Colbert)...

In addition to the newspaper resources, there were small mentions of
Ms. Colbert on the internet:

The Internet Broadway Database has a listing for Helen Colbert which
lists only one stage credit -- Porgy and Bess:

Helen Colbert
Porgy and Bess
[Revival, Musical, Opera] Performer: Helen Colbert Mar 10, 1953 - Nov 28, 1953 

and also has a full cast listing showing Ms. Colbert and all her co-performers:
Porgy and Bess

I very much wish there was more information to offer...the tidbits
here are tantalizing, and I'm sure you'd like to know more, as would
I.  But there simply didn't seem to be any more out there.

However, please don't rate this answer until you feel you have
everything you need.  If you would like any additional information
about the resources I used or the information that is available, just
post a Request for Clarification to let me know how I can assist you
further, and I'm at your service.

All the best,


Request for Answer Clarification by linny914-ga on 26 Feb 2005 09:41 PST
I am going to post my answer rating as you have just made a difference
in someone's life - like you will never begin to understand.  We want
to talk to you.  My husband and I are sitting here with tears running
down our face.  Please, please, email me at - we
really would like to talk to you and explain some of the missing
pieces that are too personal to post.  My husband is Helen's only
child and you will so understand many things if we can talk to you.  I
am so grateful to you and look forward to hearing from you.

Clarification of Answer by pafalafa-ga on 01 Mar 2005 18:46 PST

Thank you SO MUCH for the wonderful feedback, not only for the rating,
but for letting me know how much this means to you.  There's no better
feeling for we researchers than to know that an answer of ours has
made a difference.

You were probably not aware that it is against the rules here for
researchers to have contact with clients outside the give and take of
the Google Answers site, so I'll have to decline your kind invitation
to be in touch with you directly.

But please do feel free to post any other remarks that you'd care to
make right here (keeping in mind that this is a public forum) or to
ask for any additional information that I may be able to help you

All the best to you and yours.

linny914-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $50.00
This has changed our lives forever.  Thank you so much - I wish I
could even begin to explain how generous it was for this researcher to
take the time to understand that this meant the world to my husband to
learn about his mother.

There are no comments at this time.

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