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Hungarian State Opera’s Production of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess Overshadowed by Yet Another Controversy

Fanni Kaszás 2019.04.08.

In what was a highly controversial move, the Hungarian State Opera opened its previous season with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. This was the first time in 40 years that the show had not been put on by an all-black cast. Now, the show is back for another run. Unfortunately, its six upcoming performances are already being overshadowed by a fresh controversy: the general director of the Opera allegedly asked the Hungarian cast members to sign a paper saying they identify as African-American.

Last year, the inflammatory move gained the attention of the media, both foreign and domestic. According to the Opera, it staged the production last year following a two-year negotiation with the copyright holders in which the restriction was lifted and it was given permission to “produce the Gershwins’ masterpiece using excellent Hungarian singers.”

In an effort to appease Gershwin’s heirs, the copyright-holder has done its best to ban any performance which does not use an all-black cast. Of course, in many European and Asian countries, this restriction makes staging the performance practically impossible. This, in turn, results in audiences missing out on Gershwin’s tale. Last year, Szilveszter Ókovács refused to accept the restriction and promised to fight to stage the opera.

At the time, Ókovács told the New York Times that the contract with Tams-Witmark, the agents of Gershwin estate in New York, did not include a restriction on the casting. He claims that it was only mentioned in conversation: “They said only an all-black cast, nothing else… but we didn’t see it in the contract.” The Opera was later instructed to indicate on all posters and marketing materials that the production would take place without authorization and would be “contrary to the requirements for the presentation of the work.”

Hungarian State Opera to Stage Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess with Hungarian Singers for the First Time in 40 Years

Last year, many speculated that the Opera might be using illicit photocopies of the scores rented from last year’s performances in order to stage the opera with white, Hungarian singers. The show is now back for a six-performance run starting on 5 April. Hungarian news portal index.hu reported that the Hungarian singers were asked to sign a paper stating: “I, the undersigned, hereby declare that African-American origin and consciousness are an integral part of my identity. That’s why I am especially pleased to be able to perform in George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.” News of the form even attracted the attention of the Guardian.

Index.hu wrote that the form might be necessary to prevent the copyright holders from coming to Budapest and disrupting the performance. Index suggests this is merely a harmless form of “satirical disobedience” on General Director Szilveszter Ókovács’ part. However, some cast members have expressed worry that not signing it could affect their careers.

Ókovács did not explain to Index how he was able to stage this year’s performance given the fact that he only obtained the license for last year’s four performances. He also declined to comment on the form; however, he did not deny its existence. While answering, he asked questions which, according to the Guardian, “in fact were a series of his own questions about black identity.”

According to the paper, Ókovács asked the following: “What color is ‘black’ on the Pantone scale?”; “One of Barack Obama’s grandparents was ‘white’, do you think it would be right if he performed in Porgy and Bess?” and “Would you remain calm if you paid for a product displayed in the shop window, but the shop assistant informed you that you cannot buy it because you are not black?”

Fact

When George Gershwin’s masterpiece Porgy and Bess was first staged in 1935, but in the racially challenging times, it suffered a rather unpopular public reception as some misunderstood the intention of the composer and felt aggrieved at the prejudice strengthening against African-Americans. As an act in favor of the emancipation, the librettist and brother of the composer, Ira Gershwin introduced the rule of the all-black cast in the 1980s, a few years before his death. Before this rule was introduced, the Hungarian State Opera had put Gershwin’s piece on stage with its own artists in the 1970s.

Last year, the theater also made headlines when it canceled 15 performances of Billy Elliot. The theatre called off the performances following Magyar Idők journalist Zsófia N. Horváth’s criticism of the show. She claimed that it perpetuated the idea that to be oneself, one must be gay and warned that children “might become homosexuals” after viewing the performance.