BBC Proms under ethnic fire for West Side Story casting

BBC Proms under ethnic fire for West Side Story casting


norman lebrecht

April 24, 2018

Broadway star Sierra Boggess has withdrawn from the role of Maria in the BBC Proms concert of West Side Story in order she says, to give more opportunity to singers of Latin origin.

Here’s what she writes:


Last week, it was announced that I will be singing in a concert of West Side Story at Royal Albert Hall for the BBC Proms in London. Because it was a concert presentation and not the show proper — I had signed on to lend my voice to honor Leonard Bernstein in his centennial this year, with an orchestra I have loved singing with for years, following in the long list of sopranos who have all sung the score before me.

‘After much reflection, I’ve realized that if I were to do this concert, it would once again deny Latinas the opportunity to sing this score, as well as deny the IMPORTANCE of seeing themselves represented onstage. And that would be a huge mistake. Since the announcement of this concert, I have had many conversations about why this is a crucial time, now more than ever, to not perpetuate the miscasting of this show. I apologize for not coming to this realization sooner and as an artist, I must ask myself how I can best serve the world, and in this case my choice is clearer than ever: to step aside and allow an opportunity to correct a wrong that has been done for years with this show in particular. I have therefore withdrawn myself from this concert and I look forward to continuing to be a voice for change in our community and our world!’



What on earth would Lenny have made of that?

And why did the BBC go to a Broadway star when there are so many fine Marias close to home?

UPDATE: If Maria has to be Latina…


  • DavidB says:

    Sounds fair enough. We wouldn’t accept blacked-up white actors in Porgy and Bess after all.

  • Elizabeth Owen says:

    Do we have any Puerto Rican singers in Britain? I think Maria was a
    white American part and George Chakiris was of Greek origin so it was a mixed cast at the time.

  • Sue says:

    To the best of my knowledge (Humphrey Burton’s huge bio on Leonard Bernstein), the parts were cast for Broadway actors and dancers and you can see that in the film version.

    If we’re going down this road then why stop at theatre? Remakes of films inevitable. “Dr. Zhivago” should be recast using Russian actors; “The King and I” without Yul Brynner; “Lawrence of Arabia” – an atrocity which cast Anthony Quinn as an Arab!! “Not Without my Daughter” should never have cast Alfred Molina (Spanish) as an Iranian. Robin Williams as a gay man in “The Birdcage”. On and on and on it goes.

    • Vaquero357 says:

      Or other cultural appropriation atrocities of the cinema: Laurence Olivier as the Mahdi in Khartoum, or Herbert Lom as Ben Youssif in El Cid….or, shoot, Charlton Heston as El Cid. Or any soprano who’s not (1) French and (2) suffering from tuberculosis singing Mimi in La Boheme or….

  • Don Ciccio says:

    Paging Cantinflas!

  • Stephen Munslow says:

    And what if she’s the best singer? Is it worth having second-best in order to satisfy some arbitrary fashionable principle?

  • John Edward Niles says:

    When have come a LONG WAY from when the show opened. Remember WSS opened in 1957, only 3 years after Pajama Game which in own right was very progressive: during the McCarthy Era to have show that was pro-labor was a bit brave. There had been objections over the text of You have to be carefully taught in South Pacific (1949, only 8 years earlier). But to have ethnic authenticity in WSS was not really a consideration or that matter considered necessary. However, I remember going to the National Theater here in DC and saw WSS with Puerto Rican characters speaking and singing in Spanish and the Anglos speaking and singing English. It was very effective. In the Heights is now becoming standard rep. The issue of ethnic accuracy in casting came up about 15-20 years ago with Miss Saigon. It IS a time with kind of ethnic sensitivity in casting.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Ana María Martinez and Nadine Sierra, both Puerto Rican.
    Or the Cubans Aylin Perez and Lisette Oropesa.
    Any of them could jump in if not booked.

    That said, who cares who they cast as long as they can sing the part?

  • msc says:

    Bernstein chose Te Kanawa, a non-Hispanic (or should I say “Latinx”), for his DG remake.

  • CDB says:

    This reads a bit like a forced confession of the sort that Shostakovich and other Soviet-era composers might have been ‘asked’ to make.

  • mr oakmountain says:

    Come to think of it, are there enough bass-baritones from the Netherlands to cover all performances of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman?

  • Nadine Weissmann says:

    Ailyn Pérez heritage is Mexican, not Cuban, though she was born in Chicago.

  • Stephen Munslow says:

    I have some sympathy with this position. I’m a real Worcestershire yokel, and have long been irritated that the yokels in the Archers – Eddie Grundy etc – are not played by Worcestershire folk with authentic accents, but by luvvies talking a sort of Mummerset. I might take this opportunity to add that yokels in general are hugely under-represented in the arts and in most other fields. British society is downright rusticophobic.

    I’m getting very confused though – I thought colour-blind casting was the in thing in the theatre and cinema. Isn’t that the opposite of this?

  • Rob says:

    Those of you who remember the Proms under John Drummond’s directorship will recall what a wonderful season of summer concerts it was.

    And now ? Oh dear.

    • Una says:

      A whole load of political correctness as well for the bargain! But the Proms have now become so-called internationaand big comnercial business – and that included Hull or Peckham last year – or is it this year?!!! Perhaps we should have a North Korean singing Jerusalem and Rule Britannia. No good asking a Scot!

  • Schwalbe Hochküst says:

    What is the female version of cuck?

  • Samson Cheung says:

    You are a silly girl that carried away from art by political correctness. The decision will not put you ahead in the artistic world of performance. It is based on true artistry and not by your mere absence. It follow the moronic implication that future production of Madam Butterfly will only be staged with real Japanese Geisha and Turandot with an obese Chinese Soprano ! ! No wonder the box office these days is doomed.

    • Greg Hlatky says:

      Of course that’s just what the next demand is. Anything that seems insane today will be mandatory tomorrow.

  • V.Lind says:

    This is just nonsense. It is a role in a musical –meant for actresses and singers. If they can’t play something they are not, they are not up to much. Are all future Hamlets to be Danish? Are we to turn our backs on Cumberbatch and Tennant and Olivier and all the others who have had the political incorrectness to tackle the role?

    Ms.Boggess is probably extremely well-intentioned, but it is woolly thinking. It would have been fine if the producers had had the same thought and chosen a Latina to sing the role — if it was somebody good, there would have been no complaints about tokenism. But this sort of thing is silly. Reminds me of Justin Trudeau, interrupting a young woman making a good argument in a town hall meeting, who had the temerity to use the word “mankind.” Ignoring her valid points on the issue under discussion, he asked her if she would not prefer to use the word “peoplekind.”

    This singer was chosen because the producers apparently thought she had the talent to perform the role well. More fool her for giving it up for some politically correct half-baked idea. I wish these people would just grow up.

    • Weeksie says:

      I’d be interested to know what John Wilson thinks.

    • Sue says:

      I submit that 2 generations of politically correct propaganda has PREVENTED them from finding an alternative narrative. It’s not only sad but reprehensible. Worthy of the North Korean dictatorship.

  • SVM says:

    Acting is, by its nature, a process of impersonation. Although some verisimilitude may be of value, it does not rely upon the actor being of comparable ethnic origin, howsoever defined — to suggest otherwise is to impugn the capacity of actors and singers.

    If there is an issue of certain ethnicities being underrepresented on the stage (I have not done enough research into this matter to hold a strong opinion either way), the solution is to encourage them to audition for any role suitable for their vocal, linguistic, and (where applicable) physical capabilities. I would have thought that playing a role that is culturally/ethnically alien to oneself should, in fact, broaden one’s outlook and understanding of the world. Thus, by withdrawing from the role, Boggess is being insular, depriving herself of the opportunity to learn a little bit more about what it is to be a Latina. But, I cannot help wondering whether the whole “ethnicity” business is the real reason for her withdrawal… to me, it sounds like an attempt to distract promoters and audiences from the fact that to withdraw from a contracted performance after the programme has gone to press is, in the absence of compelling medical/personal/logistical reasons, highly unprofessional behaviour (in the classical-music profession; perhaps Broadway has different norms).

  • Rodrigo says:

    Interesting. I’ve always been puzzled by black English singers/conductors who seem to feel their color gives them special insights into Porgy and Bess.

    Simon Rattle’s Porgy with Berlin used soloists and a chorus who were certainly correct in appearance ethnically, but as I recall there wasn’t an African American among them. It was a totally “Europeanized” Porgy. It was fictitious. They might as well have been Eskimos for all they had in common culturally with the characters they portrayed.

    • Albert Horne says:

      Latonia Moore, Andrea Baker, Howard Haskin, John Fulton, Lester Lynch, Angel Blue, Tichina Vaughn, Michael Redding – all fantastic African-American singers who were the soloists in the Berlin Porgy with Rattle. I was Chorus Master for those concerts, and, granted, my Chorus was South African and not “African-American”, but it’s hardly correct to include those wonderful above-mentioned soloists in that statement. Willard White, together with my South African chorus, also hardly portrayed a “Europeanized” Porgy, and certainly shared many of the experiences which make the inhabitants of Catfish Row a community and family. I’m certain that everyone who attended those concerts in the Philharmonie were moved by the emotional and heart-wrenching performances of American, South African, Jamaican and British singers alike…

      • Rodrigo says:

        Dear Mr. Horne, of course the audience enjoyed it! It’s a great work, and it was well performed. No question there. Congratulations to you for your excellent work with the chorus.

        The issue being discussed here is the importance of ethnic authenticity in casting. My point is that ethnic authenticity does not necessarily mean cultural authenticity.

        The caveat in my original post was “As I recall”. I stand corrected. I do remember, however, that the Canadian Measha Brueggergosman was originally cast as Bess. Latonia Moore was a last minute replacement. Although Breuggersgosman is technically “American”, Canada is not the US. Like the UK, Canada an entirely different country and culture than Gershwin’s Catfish Row. This casting struck me as odd considering the wealth of US African American sopranos prepared to sing Bess with both artistry and cultural understanding.

        Andrea Baker, btw, is “British American”.

        Sir Willard was brilliant beyond words and I frankly wouldn’t have cared if he was from the moon.

        I hate to touch a point so close home – again, kudos for your superb work as chorus master – but frankly although the chorus was artistically outstanding, it did strike me as odd that Rattle chose not to use a US chorus. That seemed to me an almost deliberate act of disempowering the connection the US has to this work. Watching the chorus, it was clear to me even visually that they were not African American. They were a curiosity to me. Not bad, not good, just not authentic.

        Because I am a US musician working in Europe, I have seen Europeans – esp. white Europeans – miss this point a lot. I hate to say it but I can only surmise that to many white Europeans, all black people, regardless of what part of the world they come from, look the same. The South African chorus in Rattle’s Porgy looked as foreign to me as a group of Dutch or German singers might have. Yet they were ethnically correct.

        African American culture is unique and identifiable and as obvious now as it was in Gershwin’s time. Skin color is not the only hallmark. I think many white Europeans, including Simon Rattle, are oblivious to that.

        On a personal note, my shackles are up on this topic because the last time my orch. did Gershwin, a very British black guest conductor was hired. He fancies himself to be an expert on US rep. Did he study in the US? No. Does he know much about the US? No. Why? Apparently because he is black. He was better qualified to conduct Elgar.

        So that’s my rant. Ethnic authenticity does not equal cultural authenticity. Thank you for listening. And again, Mr. Horne, Berlin’s Porgy was sensational, your chorus superb. No disputing that whatsoever!

        • AKP says:

          Rodrigo in discussing the casting of Porgy and Bess claims “his shackles are up”,which is a rather unfortunate error given the subject matter of the piece.

          • Gary says:

            I believe that the Porgy and Bess performance licence requires appropriate ethnic casting and has always done so.

          • Rodrigo says:

            Oh boy, was that ever a Freudian slip! I meant, of course, hackles. Thank you for noticing!

          • Rodrigo says:

            To Gary, yes, we are all aware that licensing of Porgy & Bess requires ethnic authenticity. Those were Gershwin’s express wishes.

            The backstory & justification of that has to do with the popular US singer Al Jolson, a white guy who rose to fame performing in black face. He begged Gershwin to play Porgy, in black face, of course. Gershwin would not allow it. Gershwin insisted that African American singers be hired. Gershwin prevailed. It basically marked the end of the black face tradition in the US, and also the end of Al Jolson’s career.

            However, I still think that Gershwin would have been startled by the chorus in Simon Rattle’s Porgy. I honestly don’t think it occurred to him that a chorus from South Africa might ever be used.

  • David Boxwel says:

    “Sierra” is a Spanish word. so she could qualify to sing Maria, which is also a Spanish name.

  • Sharon says:

    It sometimes is disconcerting for me in both musical and non musical theater to see an ethnic minority actor play what clearly has to be a white character in a performance, especially in a small theater or if there is a small cast.

    Even in a staged reading that I saw the other day about Harvard students in 1920 where there was a character read by a Black actor and another character read by an ethnic Chinese when in reality all the characters had to have been white in this historic play where all the characters were real people was a little disconcerting to me.

    However, what would concern me more in a musical like West Side Story would be the English accents in a play which is focused on conflict between ethnic groups in New York City!

    • Sharon says:

      What I meant by disconcerting is that the performance does not seem, at least not to me personally, to quite as authentic as perhaps it might be.
      But then that just might be my own prejudice

    • AKP says:

      Accents – it’s called acting.

    • Stephen Munslow says:

      You are absolutely right. It is not at all unnatural to expect some versimilitude. It is akin to a lying, when a person clearly not authentic takes part. But in these days of relentlessly diminishing freedom we are understandably fearful to speak common sense lest we evoke the dreaded R word designation.

  • peter owen says:

    With all this talk of “authenticity” it might be worth reminding ourselves that the masterpiece Porgy was composed by a white man of Russian-Jewish heritage.
    As, come to think of it, was West Side Story.

  • Daniel Somerville says:

    There appear to be some deliberate misunderstandings in these comments. This decision is not about ethnic authenticity in the production. This action is a protest against inequity. In a world where there are so few roles for people of colour surely when a role is a non-white character then those roles shouldnt be filled by white performers for whom there are many other roles. It does not now mean that only white performers should sing the white roles. The argument that if only black singers can sing in Porgy and Bess then only white singers should be able to sing in Anna Bolena (an arbitrary example) is an argument based on a rigid idea of equality that refuses to acknowledge the issue of inequity in the sector. Equity and equality are not the same.

    • Clem says:

      I fully agree with your point on equity and equality. However, it is you who are mixing things up. If the ethnic background of a character is being used as an argument to select a singer of a similar ethnic background, then the same argument can be used in other discussions as well. Hence the remarks on Dutchmen. If you, or Boggess, want to do something against the underrepresentation of non-white singers, there’s a very effective way: just refuse to participate in an event that doesn’t feature enough of those singers. If she had written “I regret being cast as a member of an nearly all-white cast and therefore decline”, she would have made her point in a much more effective and honest way.

  • Don Fatale says:

    So who’s going to tell Pretty Yende that she shouldn’t be singing Lucia or Adina? Nobody, and quite right too.This is absurd. I think the opera world has no need to get sucked into all this politically/ethnically correct nonsense.

  • Sixtus Beckmesser says:

    One of the best performances I’ve ever heard at ENO was Sir Willard White’s Marshal Kutuzov in Prokofiev’s War and Peace. But if you follow the logic of not allowing caucasian singers to perform WSS, or Otello, or Aida, or L’Africaine, or Lakme etc etc the world would be deprived of Sir Willard’s superb performance…..or does this only work one way?

    • Rodrigo says:

      I agree! Sir Willard White’s artistry, as with a handful of international artists, transcends any racial parameters. He should sing anything & everything he wishes to, IMHO. What a thrilling and gifted performer!

      • Ellingtonia says:

        How about answering the question posed at you?

        • Rodrigo says:

          What question is being posed at me? Sixtus & I are both fans of Sir Willard White. We think he should sing whatever he wants to. I have no opinion whatsoever on who should play Maria in WSS story.

    • David B says:

      Yes it does only work one way, and that will continue to be the case as long as black people are an oppressed minority.

      • Ellingtonia says:

        So let me get this right, in your view colour blind casting is only appropriate when it is to the benefit of those from BME communities (how do you square this with equality of opportunity and NOT equality of outcome?) So do tell us when will these groups no longer play the victim / oppressed card? At present in the arts field every black actor, writer, producer, director………seems to be worthy of a nomination for an award irrespective of quality. Yes, there are good black actors and directors, but the PC brigade are falling over themselves to give awards willy nilly to “people of colour”…………..BUT, only one colour!
        I don’t know whether or not you are familiar with the laws of the UK but here, “positive discrimination” is unlawful, as against positive action, which isn’t.

  • Phillip Ayling says:

    Maybe in the interest of authenticity a Hispanic should be commissioned to write a new score…Leonard Bernstein’s score is now officially tone deaf.