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Georg Koen

Internationally acclaimed lieder singer Georg Koen was born on April 4, 1934 in Memphis, Tennessee. His interest in singing and performing began in the sixth grade. His mother died when he was twelve and Koen went to live with his maternal aunt. He began performing with The Teen Town Singers, a group of young people who sang on WDIA radio in Memphis. While performing with this group, a representative from Rust College High School in Holly Springs, Mississippi offered him a full scholarship. Koen traveled throughout the Midwest performing and earned his diploma in 1951.

From 1952 until 1954, Koen studied music at the University of North Dakota. Drafted into the United States Army, he performed in the televised U.S. Army chorus production of Get Set Go. Koen also performed with the U.S. Army concert band in Germany. In 1958, he made his European debut as a lieder singer and toured throughout Germany. In 1960, Koen was invited by Princess Margaretha of Denmark to perform at her annual society charity ball.

Koen’s singing abilities earned him audiences in Norway, Sweden, Finland and Yugoslavia. In 1962, he became the first American artist since World War II invited to perform in Bulgaria. From 1962 until 1971, Koen continued his European success, performing in Barcelona, Madrid, Berlin and Turkey. Although he was a well-known concert, television and radio performer, he was unable to achieve the same notoriety in the United States because of his race. In 1976, Koen received critical acclaim for a lieder recital in Norway. This was his final performance.

After he retired, he formed a banking analysis company called Corporate Computer Services which provides banking consulting services for high-profile clients including CBS, Club Med, Newsweek Magazine and Sterling Optical.

Accession Number

A2005.032

Sex

Male

Interview Date

1/31/2005

Last Name

Koen

Maker Category
Marital Status

Single

Occupation
Organizations
Schools

Rust College High School

Gladstone Elementary School

University of North Dakota

First Name

Georg

Birth City, State, Country

Memphis

HM ID

KOE01

Favorite Season

Fall

State

Tennessee

Favorite Vacation Destination

Yugoslavia

Favorite Quote

None

Bio Photo
Speakers Bureau Region State

New York

Birth Date

4/4/1934

Birth Place Term
Speakers Bureau Region City

New York

Country

United States

Favorite Food

Beef Wellington, Bread, Salmon

Short Description

Lieder singer Georg Koen (1934 - ) was the first American artist since World War II invited to perform in Bulgaria, and he received critical acclaim for his final performance in Norway. After he retired, he formed a banking analysis company called Corporate Computer Services.

Employment

Coporate Computer Systems

Favorite Color

Blue, Yellow

Timing Pairs
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DAStories

Tape: 1 Story: 1 - Slating of Georg Koen's interview

Tape: 1 Story: 2 - Georg Koen lists his favorite things

Tape: 1 Story: 3 - Georg Koen describes his mother's background

Tape: 1 Story: 4 - Georg Koen describes his father's background

Tape: 1 Story: 5 - Georg Koen describes his father's personality

Tape: 1 Story: 6 - Georg Koen describes his maternal and paternal ancestry

Tape: 1 Story: 7 - Georg Koen describes his earliest childhood memory

Tape: 1 Story: 8 - Georg Koen describes childhood holidays in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 1 Story: 9 - Georg Koen describes his childhood neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee

Tape: 1 Story: 10 - Georg Koen describes the sights, sounds, and smells of his childhood

Tape: 1 Story: 11 - Georg Koen describes being raised by his maternal aunt

Tape: 1 Story: 12 - Georg Koen remembers how his interest in music first developed

Tape: 1 Story: 13 - Georg Koen describes his experiences at Gladstone Elementary School in Cleveland, Ohio

Tape: 1 Story: 14 - Georg Koen remembers his elementary school aspirations and influences

Tape: 1 Story: 15 - Georg Koen describes his childhood activities and friends

Tape: 2 Story: 1 - Georg Koen talks about his childhood musical interests and influences

Tape: 2 Story: 2 - Georg Koen recalls his mother's death and its impact on him

Tape: 2 Story: 3 - Georg Koen describes his experience at Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi

Tape: 2 Story: 4 - Georg Koen describes attending University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, North Dakota

Tape: 2 Story: 5 - Georg Koen talks about studying music and dramatic arts in New York, New York from 1954 to 1956

Tape: 2 Story: 6 - Georg Koen remembers performing on the U.S. Army's television show 'Get Set, Go' in New York, New York

Tape: 2 Story: 7 - Georg Koen talks about his musical experiences while stationed with the U.S. Army in Munich, Germany

Tape: 2 Story: 8 - Georg Koen talks about his musical studies in Europe and performance tour of Yugoslavia in 1960

Tape: 2 Story: 9 - Georg Koen describes performing at the charity event Gentofte Bornevenner Friends of Children for Princess Margaret of Denmark

Tape: 2 Story: 10 - Georg Koen talks about the professional discrimination he encountered in the U.S. compared to Europe

Tape: 3 Story: 1 - Georg Koen describes being featured on a Norwegian television program in 1961

Tape: 3 Story: 2 - Georg Koen talks about living in Europe as an African American during the Civil Rights Movement

Tape: 3 Story: 3 - George Koen details his experiences performing in Bulgaria in 1962, pt. 1

Tape: 3 Story: 4 - George Koen details his experiences performing in Bulgaria in 1962, pt. 2

Tape: 3 Story: 5 - Georg Koen talks about how he handled the language barrier while living in Europe

Tape: 3 Story: 6 - Georg Koen remembers giving a highly acclaimed performance in Barcelona, Spain

Tape: 3 Story: 7 - George Koen recalls his singing engagements following his performance in Barcelona, Spain

Tape: 3 Story: 8 - Georg Koen explains the difference between a lieder singer and an opera singer

Tape: 3 Story: 9 - Georg Koen describes his television performance in Turkey in 1971

Tape: 3 Story: 10 - Georg Koen explains his decision to focus on building a career in Europe rather than the United States

Tape: 3 Story: 11 - Georg Koen talks about obstacles he encountered as an African American performer returning to the United States in 1967

Tape: 3 Story: 12 - Georg Koen talks about performing in Oslo, Norway in the 1970s

Tape: 4 Story: 1 - Georg Koen talks about the banking analysis business he started after his retirement from singing

Tape: 4 Story: 2 - Georg Koen talks about changes to the music industry in the 1970s and the challenges of developing a career in Europe as an international singer

Tape: 4 Story: 3 - Georg Koen talks about the presence of African Americans in opera in the United States

Tape: 4 Story: 4 - Georg Koen shares advice for African Americans aspiring to a career in classical music performance

Tape: 4 Story: 5 - Georg Koen reflects upon the increased opportunities for African Americans since he began his career

Tape: 4 Story: 6 - Georg Koen reflects upon his life

Tape: 4 Story: 7 - Georg Koen describes his hopes and concerns for the African American community

Tape: 4 Story: 8 - Georg Koen describes his family's impression of his career

Tape: 4 Story: 9 - Georg Koen recalls the theatres he wanted to perform at in Helsingor, Denmark and Stockholm, Sweden

Tape: 4 Story: 10 - Georg Koen describes how he would like to be remembered

Tape: 4 Story: 11 - Georg Koen talks about the importance of preserving history

Tape: 4 Story: 12 - Georg Koen talks about his favorite performance in Madrid Spain

Tape: 4 Story: 13 - George Koen reflects upon his legacy

Tape: 4 Story: 14 - Georg Koen talks about Hans-Jurgen Massaquoi

Tape: 4 Story: 15 - Georg Koen narrates his photographs, pt. 1

Tape: 5 Story: 1 - Georg Koen narrates his photographs, pt. 2

DASession

1$1

DATape

3$2

DAStory

6$7

DATitle
Georg Koen remembers giving a highly acclaimed performance in Barcelona, Spain
Georg Koen talks about his musical experiences while stationed with the U.S. Army in Munich, Germany
Transcript
So, let's talk about your, your Spanish debut in Barcelona [Spain].$$Yes. So then I left Sofia [Bulgaria] and I went directly to Barcelona. The reason I did that, one of the dancers from the theatre where I had worked in Sweden, is--I had written to him, I promised him that I would write once I got settled in southern Europe and I knew my itinerary. His wife saw the letter, forwarded it to her husband, and she wrote me a letter and said that he--"I forwarded your letter to him. He's now in Spain. Why don't you go to Spain?" And I wrote her back that I can't because I have this big contract that's being sent to me to sign, and because the situation in Bulgaria had not yet changed. So when it did change, I knew what I was going to do, I'm going to Spain. And I went to Barcelona. I had wired him that I was on my way, and I couldn't say exactly when I was going to get there because once you got to the Spanish border, then they tell you, "Manana came into existence." (Laughter) It was a different situation then, because this was under [Francisco] Franco. But I made it late in the night, and they had what they call a guardias on the street. When you arrived at your building, you clap your hand and the guardia would come out and open the door for you to the building. So they told the guardia that I was coming and I was an American and to please see me in. And he did. And that was the beginning of my Spanish experience.$$And how were you received by Spanish audiences?$$Oh, beautifully, better than I had anticipated. My friend was studying with a Russian ballerina and she said to me one day--because in a rehearsal, 'cause she was doing zarzuela choreography of the zarzuela 'Luisa Fernanda' [Federico Moreno Torroba] at the Grec theatre [Teatre Grec, Barcelona, Spain] in Barcelona. My friend was a part of the ballet, and she said to me, "Wouldn't you like to perform in Spain?" And I said, "Oh, they wouldn't have any interest in my work here." She says, "Quite the contrary." She says, "They love you in Barcelona, I'm sure." She said, "Let me speak with the impresario here. He's the most important man, and he's opening up a new theatre called the Victor- the Opera Victoria [Teatro Victoria, Barcelona, Spain]." So she did and a couple of days later she came back and she said, "He wants you to come to the theatre tonight to sing for him after the performance." So I did. I went and he had his music director [Augusto Alguero] there who did not like me. But the reason he did not like me, according to the impresario, was because his wife, who was very famous, called (unclear) Carmen Sevilla, she did like me. And the impresario said, "Just ignore him. Just ignore him. He's jealous." And he said, "And if he won't write for you, I'll get someone else to write for you, but you're going to be a big success in Barcelona. And what I want you to do is to sing some selections from 'West Side Story' among some of the things you're going to do for us." So I got very good reviews at the opening. And finally, one night I presented a song, which I had presented that day on the radio. And it won the first award at a song festival, but because of a natural disaster south of Barcelona, no one was interested. People were very unhappy and they were trying to rearrange a recovery in the area, 'cause this was all along the Mediterranean Sea where the disaster had occurred. So the impresario thought that I probably could bring some significance to, or attention to the song. And I did at the ra- on the radio that day. There was an audience and the reception was overwhelming. So that night when I arrived at the theatre, he said, "We're going to insert that number you did today on the radio in our show tonight. And it'll just simply be a black backdrop and we'll spot on you in the center of the stage." And I said to him, "But I haven't memorized it yet." "Doesn't matter. Use the music." And I did. And the ovation was absolutely not to be believed. Mary Santpere, who was the star of show, said that they never had such an ovation in that theatre ever. And from the night on, everyone seemed to have been waiting for me to do that number. And so my experience in Barcelona was exceptional.$And how long were you in the [U.S.] Army?$$Two years.$$Um-hm. Did you travel--did you, were you stationed abroad--$$Yes (simultaneous).$$--(simultaneous) during that two-year period?$$Yes. And I was sent to Germany by accident, really, 'cause I was denied the opportunity to sing in the [U.S.] Army Chorus.$$Because you were black?$$Yes. And because--well, that was part of the story. The, they--I passed the audition with flying colors evidently. And they were very interested to have me join them. I met a lot of the chorus members. They did have a black member. He became a very famous Metropolitan Opera [New York, New York] tenor, [HistoryMaker] George Shirley. But what happened was, that as they traveled around the country, there was no problem in the northern and western states; but when they went south, there were no accommodations for the black member. So he had to fly back to Washington [D.C.]. And they were a little hesitant to have a second black person on the team having to endure that sort of thing. And I was very disappointed when they said that that changed their minds, 'cause I felt that if this is the federal sponsored endeavor, they should uphold the law and make the states either come and fall into line or don't go there period. So I had gone to school with my congressman's daughter from North Dakota. And she--I wrote her father, and she was in Washington at the time, and he spoke to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and they decided that I should go to Germany with a concert band that was being organized. And I had to go to Fort Hood [Killeen], Texas, for orientation. And when I arrived, the commanding officer said, "What are you doing here?" And I looked at him strangely, and he realized that I didn't know what he was talking about. And he said to me, "I was at your audition in Washington. You passed with flying colors. You were supposed to join the chorus." I said, "They changed their mind." He said, "Well, let me tell you, I welcome you here. It's their loss and my gain." And he says, "Anything you want when we get to Germany, you let me know." And as a result, besides the concerts that I gave, I was able to study with an opera singer [Hedwig Fichtmuller] in Munich [Germany] every week, I was given a pass for the whole day to go to Munich and have these voice lessons. So it was a great opportunity--turned out better for me than had I gone to the chorus.$$(Pause) And so that was in 1957?$$Yes. Well, that would have been (simultaneous)--$$(Simultaneous) When you went to Germany?$$Yes. That was in '57 [1957].$$Um-hm. And so--$$So, I was in Germany from '57 [1957] to '58 [1958]--$$And did the concert--the [U.S] Army Concert Band, did it tour throughout Europe (simultaneous)?$$(Simultaneous) Yeah. They toured, not throughout Europe. See, German-American relations were rather poor. So we were concentrating on certain areas in Germany where we were stationed, and we would give concerts. And then I would give--I had decided that I wanted to do concerts myself of lieder. And it was suggested that I should go into the hospitals to do that, because they have little concert halls. And I did, and the first one I did, the paper, newspapers came and were quite--they thought I was rather bold to come with German lieder on a program to sing to the patients. But the newspaper said they had a pleasant surprise when I started to sing [Johannes] Brahms, [Franz] Schubert and [Robert] Schumann. And I began to do that throughout Wurttemberg [Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany], where we were located. And when I left Germany, I did a farewell recital and got it rave reviews.