Hungarian State Opera faced accusations of racism last year when its production of George and Ira Gershwin’s 1935 opera Porgy and Bess – which includes hits such as Summertime and Bess, You is My Woman Now – became the first in some 40 years not to be performed by a black cast.
Hungarian State Opera’s Porgy and Bess. Photo © Berecz Valter
The Gershwin estate stipulates an all-black cast for the opera, and Hungarian State Opera was instructed to make it clear in its marketing that its production – which moved the action from segregated South Carolina in the 1920s to a refugee camp in an airline hanger reminiscent of Budapest’s Keleti train station – was unauthorised. Unlike the company’s productions of Porgy and Bess in the 1970s and 1980s, this one does not have the cast in blackface.
With the production returning for six performances this month, the opera company is in the spotlight once again, having apparently asked the cast to sign a form reading, “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.”
Hungarian news website Index reported that most singers had signed the paper, and that while management had considered it a joke, some singers were concerned that not signing could affect their future at the company.
According to a report by The Guardian, Hungarian State Opera’s general director Szilveszter Ókovács declined to comment on the alleged request to the singers.
This isn’t the first time Hungarian State Opera has made headlines around the world, with the company cutting short a production of Billy Elliot last year following a barrage of homophobic press from the daily newspaper Magyar Idők, which ran a series of articles claiming the production could “transform Hungarian boys into homosexuals”