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Hungarian Opera Asks White Performers To Identify As Black To Abide By Casting Rules

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Matt M. Miller Contributor

The Hungarian State Opera sent letters to its cast of white performers earlier this month asking them to identify as black for a production of “Porgy and Bess” in Budapest, Hungary.

The cast was asked to sign a declaration that “African-American origins and spirit form an inseparable part” of their personal identities, according to Hungarian news outlet Index. The letter was sent by the Hungarian State Opera’s general director, Szilveszter Okovacs, who previously defended the idea of presenting George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” with a fully white cast despite reservations held by the Gershwin estate.

“Porgy and Bess” first premiered in the United States in 1935, depicting the hardships faced by African Americans in the Charleston tenements during a time of racial contention. Gershwin originally turned down those who wanted to perform the opera in blackface, opting to feature black performers for the lead roles instead. The rights to the play are still owned by the Gershwin estate, which sets certain requirements and stipulations for the opera’s performance such as the necessary use of black performers. The New York Times speculates that the letters were part of a publicity stunt orchestrated by Okovacs in protest to these stipulations. (RELATED: Actress From Classic Disney Channel Show Says She Was ‘Forced To Look As White As Possible’)

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 12: (L-R) Actors Phillip Boykin, Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis join the cast to take a bow during the curtain call at "The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess" Broadway opening night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on January 12, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

NEW YORK, NY – JANUARY 12: (L-R) Actors Phillip Boykin, Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis join the cast to take a bow during the curtain call at “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” Broadway opening night at the Richard Rodgers Theatre on January 12, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Okovacs responded to Index when asked about his decision to request that his cast identify as African American by asking several questions of his own, such as, “What color is black on the Pantone scale?” and “Could 14 nonwhite artists, who are professionally suitable for the opera stage, live in Hungary today?”

Sargent Aborn, the chief executive of Tams-Witmark, an agency that issues licenses for Broadway musicals and who represents the Gershwin estate, confirmed to the New York Times that the Hungarian State Opera was operating without a proper license for “Porgy and Bess.” The cast had been reportedly using illegitimate photocopied versions of the musical scores for the production up until that point. (RELATED: United Airlines Implements Policy Allowing Customers To Identify As ‘Non-Binary’)

Okovacs told Euronews, attempting to justify his position, that “If we have to play on absurd grounds, we can’t do anything but join the field in absurd outfits,” referring to the Gershwin stipulations.

He added, “It’s just not possible to do this [an all-black cast], you cannot decide who performs in a show based on the colour of the skin or their origin.”