Editorial: Does the color really does not matter?! – Budapest’s Porgy and Bess are now white!

The State Hungarian Opera presents on January 27th, 2018 one of most American operas by George Gershwin ”Porgy and Bess” in all white cast.

By Opera Views, January 26th, 2018

The press statement on the website of the Hungarian National Opera House new production of the world-famous opera “Porgy and Bess” states as follows:

“As an act in favour of the emancipation the librettist (and brother) of the composer, Ira Gershwin introduced the rule of the all-black cast in the 1980s, a few years before his death. Before this rule was introduced, the Hungarian State Opera had put Gershwin’s piece on stage with its own artists in the 1970s. Although this production, directed by András Mikó even had a revival a decade later, in the past four decades neither the Hungarian State Opera, nor any other company were not allowed to put Porgy and Bess® on stage if not complying with the rules.” 

Strangely at the Gershwin website, there is no mention of the last will of Ira Gershwin at all. Is it hidden somewhere?

Apart from the arguments that the Opera House might now face for not complying with the will of authors or ignoring the opera´s authentic African-American spirit, the decision can be considered to be a smart PR marketing strategy. With all white cast and only four performances set, the production will be certainly a sold-out event and undoubtedly attract a vast national and international audience of opera-goers and professionals. So far so good! But how about the drama behind the story? The political and social impact, this great piece of music theatre meant and still means for the African-American operatic and theatre culture in the United States? Or, shall we rather view “Porgy and Bess” to be a world cultural heritage treasure that doesn´t belong just to one country, but is available to the entire humanity? An impact and success of the great plot, music, singing, drama and the production are not determined by the performers color of the skin or country of origin. White Othellos and Adias are not rarity anymore, as well as black Liùs and Konstanzes. The Opera House states that:

“This restriction is broken … in January 2018 following a two-year negotiation with the copyright holders. Having got the permission, the Opera produces the Gershwins®’ masterpiece with excellent Hungarian singers. Hopefully, this historic and sensational premiere can pave the way for other opera companies in the world so that this brilliant opera can be heard in more and more places.” 

This statement, full of exhibiting pride and somehow awkward goodwill may, at the first site, deserve praise and acknowledgement. It also can be viewed as an attempt to dismiss the fears of some members of the original cast, who later expressed their concerns their characters might play into a stereotype of an African American, who live in poverty, takes drugs and solve problems with the fists. That is maybe why the Opera House aims to present the story of

“… the lives of the inhabitants of an African-American community in Charleston, South Carolina, in all of its splendor – its joyfulness and reverence, the hard work and, sometimes, its violence – through the love story of a crippled beggar and a drug-addicted woman.”

Sometimes violence? Really? This, almost joyful description of the opera plot suggests an evening full of beautiful music, happy gatherings and folkloristic scenes. But is this what the opera is about? Or, maybe it is an attempt to look away from a “real story“ behind the world-popular hits like “Summertime”, “It Is Not Necessarily So” or “I Got Plenty O ‘Nuttin”? How about centuries-long slavery, oppression, torture, murder and denunciation of the African-American community of its rights for freedom, life, culture and prosperity?

Warner Publications, 1998. www.gershwin.com
Warner Publications, 1998. www-gershwin.com

The brother´s project In 1924, when George teamed up with his older brother Ira, “the Gershwins” became the dominant Broadway songwriters, creating irresistible rhythm numbers and poignant ballads, fashioning the words to fit the melodies with a “glove-like” fidelity. “Porgy and Bess” was commissioned in 1993 by the Theater Guild. But before, in 1926, the novel “Porgy “by DuBose Heyward (1925) caught Gershwin´s attention. DuBose´s wife Dorothy Heyward created a stage version for Broadway, which was successfully performed in 1927. For the opera, Hayward revised this version, reduced it by nearly half and added more lyrics. Some of them are by Ira Gershwin, the composer’s brother. To achieve the authentic, realistic drawing of the Catfish Raw milieu, Gershwin moved during summer 1934 to Folly Island near Charleston to study the life of the Gullah tribe, whose dialect is used in the libretto.

Elizabeth Foster. October 1952. Photo: Getty Images

Despite the jazz and spiritual elements of the score, Gershwin was eager that “Porgy and Bess“ should be recognised as a folk opera, and not just as folkloristic musical. To realise this, he chose the through-composed form with recitative, without spoken dialogues, combined the Afro-American influences with a large orchestra casting all roles with classically trained singers. In a 1935 New York Times article, Gershwin explained why he called Porgy and Bess a folk opera:

“Porgy and Bess is a folk tale. Its people naturally would sing folk music. When I first began work in the music I decided against the use of original folk material because I wanted the music to be all of one piece. Therefore I wrote my own spirituals and folksongs. But they are still folk music – and therefore, being in operatic form, Porgy and Bess becomes a folk opera.”
Premiere Cast
The cast of “Porgy and Bess” performing on stage 1935. Getty Images.

Nonetheless, it took decades for Gershwin’s American Folk Opera to be understood and accepted as such. After the concert version at Carnegie Hall in New York, followed by the world premiere on 30 September 1935 at the Colonial Theater in Boston and 124 performances on Broadway, the show went on tour to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago and Washington. In none of the cities was “Porgy and Bess” played in a real opera house and it was not until 1976 when the Houston Grand Opera in Texas performed it. Unfortunately, George Gershwin didn’t live long enough to whiteness at least some portion of this success.

Simon Estes and Grace Bumbry in the MET´s premiere 1985. Photo: operanews.com

Finally, in 1985 the Metropolitan Opera in New York premiered the opera with Simon Estes as Porgy and Grace Bumbry as Bess. The opera had major revivals in 1942, 1952, 1976, and 1983 and had since toured the world. It was made into a major motion picture by Samuel Goldwyn in 1959, while Trevor Nunn’s landmark Glyndebourne Opera production was taped for television in 1993.

Impact What strikes the most and ultimately makes “Porgy and Bess” universal in its artistic impact, is a Verismo like a story about love and hate; surviving and death; murder, humiliation, violence, despair and nevertheless hope. The hope for the better life, for the blue skies over the rainbow, for a summertime, where the living is easy.


PORGY and BESS is also a thoroughly American story, a folk tale that leads deep into the Southern States, to Charleston, and to the African-American micro-cosmos of Catfish Row: a sworn community characterised by oppression, superstition and religion. The power of the White Oppression, the everywhere present of fear, injustice and unceasing will to survive correspond in many ways with the story of Jewish People and their fight for freedom and the own land: the promised land. Gershwin’s brothers might have unconsciously passed on the the spirit and life experience of their parents, immigrants from Russia. Moishe Gershowitz and Roza (Rose) Bruskina, who moved to New York due to increasing anti-Jewish sentiment in Russia, have apparently found their promised land. Great American voices like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, Leontine Price and Le Vern Hutchenson, Ray Albert and Wilhelmenia Fernandez,  gave the opera hits their individual sound, a unique atmosphere and character making them not only an earwig but the opera itself to be an absolute artistic and musical treasure.

For now we must exercise the patience and wait to see and hear, if and how on January 27th the new production of the Hungarian Opera House will, hopefully, preserve, or maybe even complement this sound and create the character, an atmosphere that will underline the unique colouring and universal colourlessness of Gershwin´s music and its distinctive authenticity.

Literature used: Monika Schwarz: Porgy and Bess. In: Pipers Enzyklopädie des Musiktheaters. Band 2. Piper, München/Zürich 1987, ISBN 3-492-02412-2. www.gershwin.com, www.zeit.de , http://www.classicfm.com/composers/gershwin/guides/gershwin-facts, Wikipedia.

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