Margit Bokor (1900-1949)

Accomplished soprano Margit Bokor spent her career in Europe and America, originating the role of Zdenka in the premiere of Richard Strauss’ opera Arabella in 1933. Having escaped from Nazi persecution in Germany, Bokor died in America in 1949, just as she secured a permanent job as an opera singer. Her vocal mastery has been preserved in recordings from the 1940s, and musicologist Agata Schindler has recognised the singer’s accomplishments in her recent publication, A Tiny Teardrop.

Bokor was born in Lučenec, Hungary (now in Slovakia). Little is known about her early life. She graduated from the Music Academy in Budapest at the age of 28, and debuted as Fidelio in Beethoven’s opera of the same name in Liepzig later that year. She was a soloist in the Dresden State Opera from 1930-33, playing a variety of roles in operas by Weber, Verdi, Bizet, Mozart, Richard Strauss, Johann Strauss, Wagner, Offenbach and others. Bokor’s performances were well-received by the press. She also sang as a guest in Berlin.

In 1933 Bokor was forced to leave Dresden as she was Jewish, and Nazi law forbade the employment of Jewish people in government institutions such as Dresden Opera House. Though she was Catholic, Bokor had Jewish ancestry. She moved to Vienna and became a soloist in the Vienna State Opera, originating the role of Anita in the premiere of Franz Léhar’s Giuditta in 1934, and performing major roles such as Octavian in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier and the title role in Weber’s Oberon. Bokor appeared across Europe, worked with esteemed conductors such as Bruno Walter and Felix Weingartner, and appeared on broadcasts by Radio Wien.

In March 1938, ten days after the Anschluss Bokor was ‘released’ from employment at the Vienna Staatsoper, and she was ordered to pay back money that had been saved for her pension. She left Vienna in the summer of 1938 and performed in Amsterdam, Brussels and Antwerp before going to Paris. The Directorate of the Vienna Staatsoper assisted in the preparation of paperwork which granted her the necessary documentation to go to America.

During the war she performed in Rio de Janeiro, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, and was finally offered a permanent role in 1947 at the City Centre Opera in New York. Unfortunately she fell ill soon thereafter and died on 9 November 1949 in New York City. The ‘Memorial Fund of Columbia University’ was named after her. Two recordings have survived: the duet ‘Aber der Richtige’ from Arabella, sung with Viorica Ursuleac in Dresden; and as Zerlina in a performance of Don Giovanni with the Vienna Staatsoper conducted by Bruno Walter (1937).

Adapted from Agata Schindler, A Tiny Teardrop: The Devastating Impact of Nazism on the Lives of Musicians in Central Europe (1933-1945) (Bratislava: Hobodné Centrum, 2016) by Abaigh McKee.