White cast of ′Porgy and Bess′ opera in Hungary provokes debate on artistic freedom | Music | DW | 01.02.2018
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White cast of 'Porgy and Bess' opera in Hungary provokes debate on artistic freedom

The Hungarian State Opera has dramatically tweaked the famous George Gershwin opera, setting it in a refugee camp in an airplane hanger. It's a far cry from the original African-American cast and US Deep South context.

The Hungarian State Opera's new staging of the 1935 opera "Porgy and Bess" begs the question as to just how far artistic freedom can go.

The Hungarian version by Andras Almasi-Toth has a predominantly white cast, whereas the George Gershwin original showcased classically trained African-Americans. The opera is based on the 1925 novel "Porgy" and a subsequent play, which tells the love story of a beggar and drug addict living in the throes of racism and violence in a fictional community in Charleston, South Carolina. The plot, music and themes are rooted at their core in African-American culture and historical hardship in the US.

Film still of Porgy and Bess with Pearl Bailey and Sidney Poitier, 1959 (picture-alliance/Everett Collection)

Earlier versions of 'Porgy and Bess' have had a black cast, with the film still here showing Pearl Bailey and Sidney Poitier, from 1959

Why would the Hungarian State Opera choose to so markedly alter the story as to cast mainly white singers and set it in a make-believe refugee camp in an airplane hanger? As a January 30 article in The New York Times points out, the move clearly violates the wishes of the composer and lyricist sibling team, George and Ira Gershwin, "whose estates stipulate that the opera be performed only by black casts." 

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Szilvester Okovacs, the Hungarian State Opera's general director, told The New York Times, that the contract between his opera house and the Gershwin estate's agents, Tams-Witmark in New York, did not mention specific casting limitations. Relaying a conversation from the contract negotiations, Okovacs told the newspaper: "They said only an all-black cast, nothing else."

"But we didn't see it in the contract," he pointed out to the paper. "We have the contract and it is without this language."

Read more: Nixed opera 'Tannhäuser' — a blow to artistic freedom?

Disclaimer necessary

Tams-Witmark, however, did stipulate that the opera house add a sentence to all printed materials. Jim Colleran, director of communications for Tams-Witmark Music Library, told the online magazine OperaWire that the opera company's advertising and program now includes the following statement: "The manner in which this production of 'Porgy and Bess' is being produced is unauthorized and is contrary to the requirements for the presentation of the work."

Okovacs told The New York Times that the aim in changing the setting and cast of Hungarian State Opera's production is to take the opera "out of context, so it can't relate to any specific place." Director Almasi-Toth reiterated similar sentiments in an English-subtitled press video tweeted by the Hungarian State Opera:

"I have taken the plot out of its original settings," the director said, before commenting on the casting decision. "This piece have [sic] almost disappeared from the world of opera for the well-known legal restrictions. Now we will have a sort-of non-replica production as we do not need to have an all-black cast." "Porgy and Bess" is frequently produced at opera houses in the US.

Refugees in an airport hangar

The new setting may be an airport, but it also recalls real-life scenes in a Budapest train station in 2015 during the height of the European refugee crisis, the New York Times pointed out. There, refugees camped for weeks before migrating on to other European countries.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his right-wing government have tried to fend off the European Union's migration policies, which require member states to resettle a quota of refugees. At a recent meeting in Budapest of the Visegrad Group, an alliance of central European nations, Mr. Orban said, "We do not wish to become a destination country for migrants."

Read moreSatire one of few remaining bastions in Orban's Hungary

In the opera's press video, director Almasi-Toth also invoked without clear reason Hurricane Katrina, the devastating storm that struck the US gulf in fall 2005. "How is it possible to find a home in this homelessness?" he asked, describing the question as "everyone's reality."

Two singers onstage at the Hungarian state opera singing in Porgy in Bess (Hungarian State Opera/Péter Rákossy)

The setting of the Hungarian State Opera's 'Porgy and Bess' recalled transport waiting areas with its plastic benches

Is all art adaptable?

Operas are constantly being altered in their staging to reflect cultural contexts and atmospheres. But the uprooting of "Porgy and Bess" and its placement in an ambiguous contemporary context, charged with political overtones and diverging so significantly from its roots, raises the question of to what extent culturally-specific works can be adapted into broader contexts.

George Gershwin with the Porgy and Bess score (picture-alliance/Everett Collection)

American composer George Gershwin wrote the 'Porgy and Bess' opera score

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As quoted by The New York Times, Almasi-Toth, told online theater magazine Szinhaz that "while performance and staging solutions have progressed — we play, sing and stage Puccini differently from 50 years ago — this opera was left out, which makes for a very sterile production. It can only take place on Catfish Row in the 1930s, which gives it a fairy-tale like quality, devoid of its real-life aspects."

The last of four performances of the opera by the Hungarian State Opera will be on February 8, 2018.

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