Was Gershwin being racist when he insisted on an all-black cast for Porgy and Bess?

Hungarian State Opera director Szilveszter Ókovács thinks that George Gershwin’s all-black cast requirement today is racist.

Porgy and Bess was first staged on Broadway in 1935; the music was composed by George Gershwin and the libretto was written by his brother Ira Gershwin in collaboration with DuBose Heyward, who wrote the original story. The authors prescribed an all-black cast for the opera. Today the Gershwin estate owns the rights to the opera and requests an all-black cast except for the few minor white roles.

When the Hungarian State Opera recently decided to stage Porgy and Bess they opted instead for an all-white cast. It is hard to assemble an all-black cast in Budapest and this is not the first time that Porgy and Bess is presented with white singers. In 2002 Anthony Tommasini argued in the New York Times that the all-black cast is not necessary for the opera. (Read Tommasini’s article here.)

Scene from the all-white cast Porgy and Bess / Bea Gergely – Kanadai Magyar Hírlap

After negotiations over the all-black cast requirement ended, the Hungarians added a statement in the printed materials that the production would be taking place without authorization and “is contrary to the requirements for the presentation of the work.”

This would have been the end of the story, but Opera director Ókovács went one step further. Ókovács started to give interviews stating that that the Gershwin estate’s requirement of an all-black cast is racist. (Read Hungarian article about Ókovács accusations here.) He also called Gershwin a “Jewish genius” while blasting his casting requirement. Connecting Gershwin’s Jewishness to the all-black cast requirement has a hidden message in Hungary: Jews are oppressing Whites; racism is their fault. This is eerily similar to the mantra of American fascist David Duke.

Opera Director Ókovács thundered on Hungarian TV that the all-black cast requirement is racist.

It is important to note that Ókovács was hand-picked for his post by right-wing Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán who thinks that “ethnic homogeneity” is key to Hungary’s success. He opposes race mixing in Hungary. (Read about Orbán’s ideas here.)

The fear of people of color, particularly migrants is appalling. In 2015 Prime Minister Orbán argued in his Tusványos speech that black African immigration was an existential threat to European nationhood and civilization. “And the real threat is not from the war zones, Ladies and Gentlemen, but from the heart of Africa. . . . There are 1.1 billion people in Africa today, more than half of them under the age of twenty-five. . . . In other words, what is at stake today is Europe and the European way of life, the survival or extinction of European values and nations – or, to be more precise, their transformation beyond all recognition.”

Opera Director Ókovács may have raised some valid concerns related to the all-black cast requirement of Porgy and Bess. Unfortunately, his distasteful accusations of racism dragged the casting question of the opera into the swamp of daily Hungarian politics. He should apologize for his public insult of the Gershwin estate.

György Lázár


  1. “The fear of people of color, particularly migrants is appalling.”

    Were the native Americans who resisted White colonization of their ancestral lands also “appalling” in your view? 1+1 must = 2 in my opinion, so if you denounce the will of native Hungarians in preserving their ethno-cultural heritage, then you must also denounce the memory of Crazyhorse, Chief Pontiac and so on. And while you are at it, you might as well go after the Dalai Lama, who also opposes any kind of colonization of Tibet, with any foreign population. The Japanese, Koreans and others should be denounced as well, since they do not wish to replace themselves with a multikulti stew either. They feel that their ethno-cultural identity is unique, precious and should remain a part of this planet’s great ethno cultural diversity. I say Hungarians as well as all other distinct native European cultures have the same right.

    What I find appalling is this obsession of Marxist-Globalists with facilitating & imposing mass colonization on distinct native cultures, especially in Europe. Now that is pure Fascism!

  2. On the issue of the play, I actually agree, an effort should have been made to respect authenticity. I would not want to see Kossuth Lajos played by Will Smith either.

  3. I have mixed feelings about this…what I found appalling is when Hungarian directors/actors resorted to black face. This was not uncommon in Hungarian theater and naturally, it was due to a lack of black people in Hungary. So if there is no other choice, I would rather see an all-white cast. What I find annoying is the director’s reference to Gershwin being Jewish. This is unnecessary, as it has no bearing on the subject.

  4. Child of survivors says:

    Bonaventure, that remark or “zink” will always come up from Hungarians.
    Little do they know ( or want to know ) are that the songs “White Christmas”was also written by a Jewish composer Irving Berlin, and let’s not forget Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers, oscar Hammerstein, Sammy Kahn and on and on.
    Sound of Music could be sang by anyone besides a white singer, but I do not see the King of Siam from “The King and I” played by anyone else but someone from that part of the globe. And if impossible, then correct theatrical makeup as used by Yul Brynner ( partial Buryat ancestry and Russian) would make the actor/ actress seem genuine for the part.

  5. I just returned from watching the production. It was a very strange experience. There was one black in the cast and he played the policeman whom I assume was white in the original production. I thought this was an interesting touch. The dialect was very, very jarring. Only one character had an accent in English that was other than Hungarian American. The overall impression was that this was a very sterile production. I do not think this worked from an artistic point of view and certainly not from a human point of view.

  6. Thank you, Mr. Lázár, for your integrity. The stench of racism and White Supremacy has arisen from this production from the very first moment it was promoted.

  7. Lazar distorts fully the thinks of Ókovács.
    If the editor of this online newspaper would like to clarify this inflated, dark balloons should translate the answer of Ókovács, not to complicate there is the second part of the answer:


    Because this is an English laguage Hungarian newspeper, this is more lighter for the Hungarien readers.

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