Last year, the Hungarian State Opera presented Porgy and Bess with an all-white singing cast despite the well-known all-black casting stipulation by the Gershwin estate. The setting of the opera was also changed from a fictional African-American community in Charleston, South Carolina to a refugee camp in an airplane hangar, in an undetermined time and place. An apparent legal loophole allowed the State Opera to present a four-show run with a statement on the publicity material 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.” The Opera’s general director, Szilveszter Ókovács argues that the casting stipulation is racist and that it makes the opera impossible to be performed in Hungary. Many Hungarians sympathize with this stance.
This year the opera was again presented for a run of six performances in April, without the permission of the Gershwin estate. This time the State Opera tried a bizarre tactic. Hungarian news site Index reported that just before the first show, the singers were allegedly required to sign a statement declaring that they identify as African-American. When asked by Index to comment, Ókovács replied with a list of questions about Black identity, including “What color is ‘black’ on the Pantone scale?”; and “One of Barack Obama’s grandparents was ‘white’, do you think it would be right if he performed in Porgy and Bess?”. The allegations were later confirmed on Index by the singers who signed the statement.
I wrote the article below as a response to Ókovács, the Hungarian artists involved in the opera’s creation and performance, as well as the general Hungarian public. It was first published as a translated text on Index. I am now posting the article here in the original English version.
Correction: The article on Index introduces me as currently living in Hungary. This was a misunderstanding. I am actually now living in the United States.
The Hungarian State Opera’s white-washed Porgy and Bess hurts Hungarians
By Valencia James
Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess has been hailed as the quintessential American opera. It holds a special place in the hearts of audiences worldwide. Since its creation and premiere in 1935 it has been performed by a predominantly African American cast, as its creators George and Ira Gershwin insisted. In a time which was just a few decades after the abolition of slavery, segregation and violence against African Americans was commonplace. The Gershwins’ unprecedented radical decision shook the opera world and the global arts scene. Despite the opera’s criticism within the African American community, the Gershwins’ insistence on the opera being sung by African-Americans or Black (of African descent) singers holds as much importance today as it did eighty years ago. The Hungarian State Opera’s white-washed version of the opera and the arguments of its director Szilveszter Ókovács are not just insulting to the legacy of the Gershwins and the history of injustice against African Americans, it hurts everyday Hungarian taxpayers.
As a Black woman from the Caribbean, who has spent a decade learning, working and contributing to the Hungarian art scene and wider society, I would like to offer some thoughts on this matter. I can understand that the idea of being barred from singing an opera due to ethnicity can be alarming. While I do not propose to speak for every Black person, I believe that the casting stipulation is important and in no means robbing Hungarians of anything. In fact, it is the actions of Ókovács that hurts Hungarians!
Porgy and Bess cannot be separated from racial experience and its original context. This does not mean that its themes cannot be universal. George Gershwin wrote and set the opera in the American South where violence was rampant against African Americans with no protection from the law. Segregation laws (known as Jim Crow laws) meant no access to the same quality of education, healthcare and housing as their white counterparts, constant humiliation and degradation. Barred from voting, any bit of success or advancement in their community was met with imminent violence and lynchings of black men by white mobs or organized white supremacists such as the Ku Klux Klan. This is the context in which Catfish Row exists in Porgy and Bess. A community living under constant threat, each character making the best of what they have. So the narrative is intricately intertwined with the African American experience which continues under siege to this day. The distinctive styles of African American music that permeates the opera, was also shaped by these struggles. To separate the music from its original context not only robs the opera of its authenticity, it does an injustice to the people whose struggles made it what it is.
Some have argued, following the criticism of the opera for its stereotypical presentation of African American life, that freeing the setting and casting of the opera from its original racial context is a good thing. To this argument I would ask, “What gives you the right as someone outside of the African American community to decide this as a solution?” This community has been erased from the arts and mainstream media for centuries. Omitting them from a work that was written for them and shaped by them would constitute more of this injustice. I believe that presenting the opera in its original form, as a period piece with sufficient educational material about racial stereotypes and their dangers, would have been more beneficial.
The casting stipulation upheld by the Gershwin estate is not racist. Racism requires a social, economic and political structure of power utilised by a dominant culture over a marginalised group based on race. None of this is at play in the case of Porgy and Bess. The Gershwins’ casting stipulation is rather a form of racial justice, and an important act of cultural and social responsibility. What Ókovács seems to forget is that injustices and discrimination against people of color still exist today and more specifically, in Hungary!
Just last year, around the time of the premiere, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán successfully used openly racist rhetoric against Black and Arab people to win more votes. Thousands of Romani people are subjected to institutionalized oppression which goes unacknowledged. Many live in conditions similar to or worse than what we see on Catfish Row. Additionally there is an Afro-Hungarian community who are pejoratively referred to as “half-breed” (“félvér”). None of these groups are justly represented nor engaged in theatrical productions in Hungary. So in a place like Hungary, where whiteness is used as the definition of being Hungarian, leaving Brown and Black Hungarians with questioned citizenship, the Hungarian State Opera’s insistence on white-washing Porgy and Bess is wrong.
Ókovács’ claims of suffering racism and his false appeal to ‘progressive thought’ is a presumptuous charade that insults the intelligence and lived experiences of inequality that many people of color face on a daily basis. He tries to deflect the obvious dishonesty and disrespect in his actions with a list of irrelevant questions about Black racial identity. A white person claiming African American identity with a signature is perverse, especially when that person is never racialized nor othered as a non-European person routinely is in Hungarian society. I find it hard to believe that any self-respecting person would willingly sign such a statement as the one allegedly sprung on the cast just before their performance.
Ókovács’ actions actually hurt Hungarians. First of all, the legal fees and the imminent fine that will be required will most probably come from the pockets of the same people he claims to fight for, the average taxpayer. Secondly, it is ironic that he claims to be defending Hungarians right to experience Porgy and Bess because the work, though not in its full operatic form, has been performed on Budapest summer festivals as recently as 2017. The same money could have gone to bringing the right cast to Hungary in the summers, and the work would be accessible with a similar frequency as it is currently being presented, which is one run of several performances in every theatre season. Finally, an opportunity to educate the Hungarian public about real issues of social injustice has been lost. Rather than using the work for intercultural understanding, it is being used to create a controversy that advances current political sentiment which harbors discriminative views against people of color.
I think that ultimately, there is more that connects us than separates us. Hungarians and people of African descent share a sad history of colonization. What is not seemingly understood in (white) Hungary however, is how much the legacy of colonisation continues to affect the daily lives of people of African descent. Racism in America did not disappear with Martin Luther King Jr. nor with Barack Obama’s presidency. Romani and Black Hungarians suffer daily discrimination in Hungary. If Ókovács and the artists involved in the opera would take a very honest look at their position of privilege and power in Hungarian society, the oppression that their own ancestors suffered, and the continuing oppression that exists in their own country and around the world, they would see how important global awareness is and that it is their responsibility to show true solidarity to those who are still fighting against systemic discrimination. We must think and see more broadly. That is the only way there can be progress.
We owe it to future generations.