Katy Wright

Deputy Editor, Classical Music

New Porgy and Bess to break all-black cast directive

8:00, 23rd January 2018

A new production of Porgy and Bess will break the Gershwin estate’s stipulation that the piece should only be performed by all-black casts.

The Hungarian State Opera will present the piece with a cast of Hungarian singers at the Erkel Theatre later this month, breaking the restriction of almost 40 years.

The opera received its premiere in 1935 with a cast of classically trained African-American singers. Ira Gershwin introduced the rule of the all-black cast in the 1980s, presenting it as a gesture in support of emancipation.

Hungarian State Opera will present the work between 27 January and 8 February following a two-year negotiation with the copyright holders. Marcell Bakonyi and András Palerdi will share the role of Porgy, and Orsolya Sáfár and Gabriella Létay Kiss will share the role of Bess.

In a statement, the company said: ‘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.’

Writing for the New York Times in 2002, Anthony Tommasini noted that the work is not often produced: ‘It cannot be easy for most opera companies to assemble a strong black cast, though City Opera, to its credit, has assembled three rosters of singers who rotate in the solo roles.’

He continued to call for an end to the stipulation: ‘Over the last 40 years the field of opera has increasingly embraced nontraditional casting. If Leontyne Price could portray an adolescent geisha in ”Madama Butterfly,” a role she sang exquisitely, why not a white soprano as Bess?’


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