This Cultural Olympiad story was produced in partnership with ArtsATL as part of "Atlanta Remembers: The 1996 Olympics," WABE's series on the impact of the 1996 Summer Olympics on Atlanta, 20 years later. For more stories, click here.
Opera is not an Olympic event, but it figured prominently in 1996. The Olympic Arts Festival ran concurrently with the Atlanta Olympic Games, and a highlight of the multidisciplinary arts assemblage was a performance of George Gershwin's musical "Of Thee I Sing" by the Atlanta Opera.
The musical, which first opened on Broadway in 1931, skewers American politics and politicians – a perfect tonic to Great Depression-era woes. The plot follows the election campaign (and eventual presidency) of the fictional John P. Wintergreen. His party runs simply on the platform of “love,” promising that if elected, Wintergreen will marry the partner chosen for him at an Atlantic City beauty pageant. Of course, Wintergreen falls for his campaign secretary, instead of Diana Deveraux (the fairest flower of the South and winner of the pageant). Mayhem and political hijinks ensue.
Sixty-five years after its Broadway premiere, then Atlanta Opera artistic director William Fred Scott staged a performance of “Of Thee I Sing” for the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival, the culmination of an ambitious four-year Cultural Olympiad.
The concert took place at Atlanta Symphony Hall with many in attendance, including several diplomats. In a recent interview on “City Lights,” Scott told Lois Reitzes that the reception was warm.
“I remember looking out,” he remembered, “and seeing these wonderful people, some of whom didn’t speak a lot of English, just wreathed in smiles.”