Special Reports

Broadway Shockers 2019: An All-White Porgy and Bess Plays Budapest

The Hungarian State Opera asked white singers to claim black identity before performing the Gershwin opera.

As 2019 draws to a close, TheaterMania looks back on some of the most jaw-dropping stories of the year.

A scene from the Hungarian State Opera production of Porgy and Bess.
A scene from the Hungarian State Opera production of Porgy and Bess.
(© Péter Rákossy)

This September, a new production of Porgy and Bess opened at the Metropolitan Opera to much fanfare. The acclaimed remounting of George and Ira Gershwin's 1935 opera (libretto by DuBose Heyward) quickly became one of the hottest tickets in town, a strong indication that this musical depiction of the lives of Depression-era black South Carolinians is the most popular American opera. This is not about that production. Rather, it's about a version of Porgy and Bess playing halfway around the world in Hungary — a staging that has garnered a decidedly mixed critical response.

While the Met production stars an all-black cast, the mounting by the Hungarian State Opera features what appears to be an entirely white cast. This has led to some friction between the company and the Gershwin estate, which insists on black performers in the show. The opera's general director, Szilveszter Ókovács, has bristled at this casting requirement as discriminatory. Still, in an effort to cover his bases, he had his cast sign affidavits making the following affirmation: "I, the undersigned, hereby state that African-American origin and consciousness are integral parts of my identity. Because of this I am especially glad to be able to perform in George Gershwin's opera, Porgy and Bess."

One doubts that this did much to assuage the skepticism of Tams-Witmark, the licensing agent for Porgy. But the show goes on: Porgy and Bess remains in the repertory of the Hungarian State Opera, and was performed again from November 20 to 28 with an all-white cast, some of whom now identify as African-American.