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Hungarian State Opera stokes controversy with all-white casting of Porgy and Bess

Hungarian State Opera stokes controversy with all-white casting of Porgy and Bess
Porgy and Bess. Image: The Hungarian State Opera/Facebook

2 February 2018

A Hungarian production of acclaimed US opera Porgy and Bess has caused controversy after casting white singers to play black characters.

András Almási-Tóth’s latest production at the Hungarian State Opera transports the work from an impoverished town in 1930s America to a Hungarian train station at the peak of the 2015 migrant crisis.

But critics have slammed the choice, claiming the decision disregards the last wishes of the opera’s writer and composer.

George and Ira Gershwin stipulated the work should only be performed by a black cast and, before their deaths, repeatedly refused to give permission for all-white groups — who often wished to perform the piece in blackface — to stage the opera. The Hungarian State Opera performed the piece in blackface throughout the 1970s and 1980s, although the practice has been scrapped in the latest rendition.

Szilvester Okovacs, the Hungarian State Opera’s general director, told The New York Times that lawyers for the Gershwin estate had reiterated the casting restrictions during negotiations. “They said only an all-black cast,” Okovacs said. “But we didn’t see it in the contract.” The performance contains a disclaimer that the current staging is “unauthorised.”

Written in 1935, Porgy and Bess follows the story of Porgy, a disabled beggar who tries to rescue drug-addicted Bess from her violent boyfriend. The opera, which combines elements of jazz and classical music, intially attracted disdain from African-American audiences, who felt that the work and its characters pandered to racial prejudices. Subsequent stagings, including a 2014 production in London, have gained wider acceptance, with black artists taking greater ownership of the work.