Hungarian Opera Sidesteps Requirement for Black Cast in ‘Porgy and Bess’ by Having White Performers Say They Identify as African-Americans

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The Hungarian State Opera has devised a cunning way to bypass a stipulation that the 1930’s George Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess” be performed by an all-Black cast.

The company, which first put on the opera one year ago, is reportedly asking its white singers to sign a paper saying they identify as African-Americans, according to The Guardian. The show has returned this year for six performances after last year’s spat with the Gershwin estate, which clearly stipulates the opera only be performed with a Black cast.

Hungarian State Opera
The Hungarian State Opera caught heat from George Gershwin’s estate last year after it debuted the play with an all-white cast. (Photo byMartin Barraud / Getty Images)

The company performed the first of its shows on April 5 and is suspected to have used illegal photocopies of the musical scores that were rented for the show’s performances last year.

With very few actors of color or African descent in the Eastern European nation, the company asked its performers to sign a paper that read: “I, the undersigned, hereby state that African-American origin and identity are an inseparable part of my identity. Because of this I am especially glad to be able to perform in George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess,” according to Hungarian news site Index.

Most in the cast reportedly signed it, and while company’s managers saw it as a joke, there were actors were worried their careers at the opera house would be in jeopardy if they refused to sign it.

Citing the Wold Atlas, NewsHub reported that an overwhelming chunk of Hungary’s population — 90 percent to be exact — are ethnic Hungarians, Romani, Germans, Slovaks, Romanians and Croats.

Tams-Witmark, the company that owns the licensing rights to the opera, has withdrawn authorization for the play’s staging, meaning the Hungarian State Opera doesn’t have permission to perform it. However, that didn’t stop the company from slapping a disclaimer on the show’s playbill, stating: “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.”

Szilveszter Ókovács, the general director of the Hungarian State Opera, declined to answer questions from The Guardian, and instead directed the outlet to a series of questions he had posed to the Index. They included “what color is ‘black’ on the Pantone scale?” and “[If] One of Barack Obama’s grandparents was ‘white’, do you think it would be right if he performed in Porgy and Bess?”

Ókovács also asked the outlet, “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?”

The embattled opera house made headlines last year when it cancelled  a run of the play “Billy Elliot” after right-wing media claimed the musical would “turn children gay.”

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