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White cast of ‘Porgy and Bess’ opera in Hungary provokes debate on artistic freedom

The Hungarian State Opera has dramatically tweaked the famous George Gershwin opera, setting it in a refugee camp in an airplane hanger. It’s a far cry from the original African-American cast and US Deep South context.

The Hungarian State Opera’s new staging of the 1935 opera “Porgy and Bess” begs the question as to just how far artistic freedom can go.

The Hungarian version by Andras Almasi-Toth has a predominantly white cast, whereas the George Gershwin original showcased classically trained African-Americans. The opera is based on the 1925 novel “Porgy” and a subsequent play, which tells the love story of a beggar and drug addict living in the throes of racism and violence in a fictional community in Charleston, South Carolina. The plot, music and themes are rooted at their core in African-American culture and historical hardship in the US.

Why would the Hungarian State Opera choose to so markedly alter the story as to cast mainly white singers and set it in a make-believe refugee camp in an airplane hanger? As a January 30 article in The New York Times points out, the move clearly violates the wishes of the composer and lyricist sibling team, George and Ira Gershwin, “whose estates stipulate that the opera be performed only by black casts.”

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