Hungarian singers declare ‘we are African-American’

Hungarian singers declare ‘we are African-American’


norman lebrecht

April 10, 2019

Fifteen singers of the Hungarian State Opera have declared themselves in writing to be African-Americans in order to appear in Porgy and Bess, according to the opera’s director Szilveszter Okovacs.

The Gershwin estate requires Porgy casts to be of African ethnicity.

In order to get around the condition, 15 out of 28 performers have signed a paper stating that ‘African-American descent and consciousness are an inseparable part’ of their identity.

Only a matter of time before ex-Pres Obama declares himself to be Hungarian-American.


  • Mike Schachter says:

    One is reminded of Einstein’s supposed comment about infinity and human stupidity

  • Been Here Before says:

    One should not forget that over the decades of living under various authoritarian regimes, the good people of Eastern Europe developed a considerable skill in bending ridiculous rules and regulations. A clear victory for music and common sense!

  • Virág Réka says:

    Yes of course. One has to adopt the appropriate indentity group label as the individual is valueless.

  • Caravaggio says:

    Reminiscent of Elizabeth Warren’s stupid and inexplicable using of her likely insignificant Native American ancestry to get ahead.

  • Cubs Fan says:

    How much longer will the Gershwin estate be able to make this silly demand?

  • Anon says:

    It’s disrespectful, IMHO, & demonstrates the ignorance & complete lack of understanding that many Eastern Europeans have in matters of race & racial identity. They seem to be esp. oblivious to US civil rights history & Gershwin’s reasons for making this stipulation. I hope the Gershwin Estate sends someone with dna kits there to test every one of those 15 singers for ethnicity & sues the company if their claims prove to be false.

    • Viola da Bracchio says:

      [[ They seem to be esp. oblivious to US civil rights history ]]

      And why the *hell* are they obliged to know your history? You clearly know diddly squat about European history. You think Europe is a country, and you make rude and arrogant generalisations about its nations and peoples. Grow up.

      • Anon says:

        My history? I live in Europe. I know my history thank you, but perhaps you’ve never heard of the EU. Hungary is a member nation. As are Bulgaria, Romania, Czechia and Poland. We share a currency, a centralized govt. and a European heritage.

        I work with many people from that part of the EU, and among the older generation in particular there is a certain naivete about race. They are predominantly white countries, and historically they don’t have much experience with different races. There is a lot of ignorance and bias towards Asians and, I’d imagine, Africans as well.

        If you’re performing a work with a strong historical context, like Porgy & Bess, you’ve got to know the history of it. That is “why the *hell* they are obliged to know” about it. And it should be respected, IMHO.

        Instead of respectully contacting the Gershwin Estate and perhaps requesting a dispensation of the requirement for a black cast, which is reasonable, considering that they wish to present it in a white country, the general director of the Hungarian State Opera, Szilveszter Okavacs, is literally and very publicly thumbing his nose at the Gershwin Estate, the wishes of the composer, and the history of the opera and its context in US history.

        Yesterday’s NY Times gives a good description of the situation:

        Unfortunately it’s not the 1st time Mr. Okavacs has run amok trying to present an opera out of context. Let’s just say that this Porgy is not his first rodeo. He is a apparently an arrogant and outspoken advocate of taking operas out of context and presenting them in whatever way he pleases, regardless of the wishes of the composer or what’s in the score.

        According to critics, this production has nothing to do with Porgy and Bess. Mr. Okavacs is using the Gershwin music to present his own story. It’s apparently set in a modern Hungarian train station, with a mostly white cast. Given Gershwin’s strict requirements during his lifetime, a production like this should at least require the permission of the Gershwin Estate.

        Stravinsky’s Estate recently forbade Yuja Wang and Martin Grubinger from performing a duo version of Rite of Spring. The heirs of these great composers have an obligation to preserve the integrity of what they wanted.

        As a courtesy, Mr. Okavacs should have at least consulted the Gershwin Estate. He should have asked permission. Given that he wanted to do the production in a white country, perhaps the rules could have been flexed. But he didn’t. He made a public mockery of Gershwin’s stipulation for a black cast. He is speaking to the press and thumbing his nose at the composer, his wishes and his Estate.

        To me, this is inexcusable.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Anon writes: “I hope the Gershwin Estate sends someone with dna kits there to test every one of those 15 singers for ethnicity & sues the company if their claims prove to be false.”

      There is no gene which makes someone “black”. There is no way to prove someone is not black, or that someone is genetically Hungarian. The Gershwin estate would simply lose if they try to sue.

    • William Ford says:

      Do you mean race, racial identity or ethnicity? Or, do you mean to use them interchangeably? Your point is unclear for lack of rigor.

  • Lord Bus Stop says:

    What a shameful lie – and in writing, signed.

  • Vance Koven says:

    My impression has been that the Gershwin estate only imposed this as an absolute condition in the US, and waived it for countries without a substantial number of performers of African origin (which might mean that the Hungarian performers’ actions will prove self-defeating). The estate will lose its ability to make such demands in the US when P&B becomes public domain there in 2031 (assuming P&B was published in 1935), while in most European countries copyright on P&B would expire 70 years after the death of the longest-lived co-author, which was Ira Gershwin, who died in 1983. Even then, the looser “moral rights” provisions of most European countries could still allow the estate to impose those restrictions, theoretically ad infinitum.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    Rachel Dolezal gained positions because she ‘identified as’ black when she wasn’t.

    • Bruce says:

      True; but then she lost them when her true identity was discovered.

    • BrianB says:

      Claimed she is “transracial” which the American left seems to be perfectly happy with.

      • Paul Brownsey says:

        Well, this supporter of the UK left *isn’t* happy with it. There’s no occasion to use this to slag off people who aren’t right-wingers. It’s simply that “I identify as X” doesn’t mean you ARE X.

  • Kolb Slaw says:

    It is for this reason that there are legitimate productions of Porgy and Bess constantly touring Europe with African-descent cast members, which provides many of them with a career. So it is quite ethically and morally wrong of these Hungarians to insist on being in the show. But it certainly is non-traditional casting. I doubt it will be allowed. They could do Treemonisha instead, which probably doesn’t have those requirements, or even simpler, Showboat.

  • “Only a matter of time before ex-Pres Obama declares himself to be Hungarian-American.”


    That such a comment was made is an indicator of how backwards and primitive most Europeans are on race.

  • Novagerio says:

    “The Gershwin estate requires Porgy casts to be of African ethnicity” – wait a minute, in 1943, right in the middle of the Nazi occupation of Denmark, Porgy & Bess received it’s European debut, and sung in Danish by danish singers (Einar Nørby and Else Brems in the title roles)

    I also recall a Götz Friedrich production at the Komische Oper Berlin early in the 70’s (Chereau’s Bayreuth Hagen Fritz Hübner sang Porgy), and of course, all sung Auf Deutsch (!)

  • Anon says:

    Interesting blog on this subject: “Whitewashing Porgy & Bess”. Memorable quote – “We must respect the intentions of those who create the art.”

  • Peter says:

    Can I identify as of African Descent even if, through no fault of my own, I was born with a white skin ?

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Yes, since there is nothing really to determine what people are ethnically. The only requirement is you (or others) describe yourself as having that identity.

  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    I wonder if these two artists had to declare that they identified as homeless? I think we need to be told.