When the Hungarian State Opera’s white cast of singers came together in Budapest earlier this month to revive a production of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” they received letters carrying an unusual request: to declare themselves African-American.
According to the Hungarian news website Index, which said it has seen a copy of the letter, the singers were asked to sign a declaration stating that “African-American origins and spirit form an inseparable part” of their identity. At least half the group signed, according to Index.
The letter was from the Hungarian State Opera’s general director, Szilveszter Okovacs, who last year defended the company’s decision to perform the work with white singers against the wishes of the Gershwin estate.
“Porgy and Bess,” which premiered in the United States in 1935, tells the story of an African-American community’s struggles with violence and racism. George Gershwin famously turned down companies that wanted to perform the opera in blackface, and his estate stipulates that the work should be performed by an all-black cast.
The letters seemed to be part of a defiant publicity stunt by Mr. Okovacs, who spoke cryptically and evasively with reporters. In an interview with the Hungarian news network ATV on Monday, Mr. Okovacs said that “Hungary does not keep records of skin color,” and therefore he couldn’t “tell whether the cast suits that requirement.”
Speaking to another TV network, Euronews, Mr. Okovacs acknowledged the oddity of his request to the singers. “If we have to play on absurd grounds,” he said of the Gershwin estate’s requirements for the performance, “we can’t do anything but join the field in absurd outfits.”
Mr. Okovacs added that he was opposed to allowing “the presence of people in a production to be determined by skin color or ethnicity.”
A spokesman for the Hungarian State Opera declined to comment.
Sargent Aborn, the chief executive of Tams-Witmark, the New York-based agents of the Gershwin estate, said in an email on Tuesday that the Hungarian State Opera production was taking place without a license. Hungarian news media reported that the cast had prepared the current performances with photocopied musical scores.
Mr. Okovacs told The Times last year that the company had signed a contract with Tams-Witmark that didn’t contain specifics about the singers’ ethnicity. Still, when the production premiered, playbills and posters carried a note stating that the production was taking place without authorization and “contrary to the requirements for the presentation of the work.”
But on Tuesday, Mr. Aborn of Tams-Witmark contested that version of events. He said that after the Hungarian State Opera confirmed “in writing that they understood the need to cast black singers to present the work dramatically, a license was issued for the 2018 production.” That license has since expired.
“It subsequently came to our attention that the production was in clear breach,” he said, adding that Tams-Witmark and the Gershwins were examining legal options.
Tams-Witmark did not disclose the exact wording of the license agreement. But the founder of the Grange Park Opera in England, Wasfi Kani, spoke to The Times of London about the license her company had obtained for a production there this summer.
“It does not say the singers have to be black but in effect you cannot have white people playing the main roles or the chorus,” Ms. Kani said in January. “It is the only work in the canon where you have to sign up for this. We are fishing in a very small pool because there are not that many black opera singers.”
Mr. Okovacs’s programing has previously attracted controversy both at home and abroad. His decision last year to stage “Porgy and Bess” with a white cast received international attention. And in June, the Hungarian State Opera canceled some performances of the musical “Billy Elliot” after a government-friendly newspaper columnist called it “gay propaganda.”
But Mr. Okovacs has led the company through an ambitious program of expansion in recent years, under the patronage of Viktor Orban’s far-right government. On Monday he announced its 2019-2020 season would be on the theme of Christianity. In an article on the pro-government news website Origo, Mr. Okovacs wrote that he had chosen to explore this topic because Christian traditions were at the core of European culture. “In Europe, even atheists are Christian,” he wrote, a phrase that Mr. Orban has also used.
The company’s new season features 21 new productions, six of which are world premieres. Among them will be a work reflecting on the sacrament of marriage, written by Pope John Paul II when he was a bishop in Poland; a new staging of Handel’s “Messiah”; and an evening of works inspired by gospel music.
When Index, the news website, posed questions to Mr. Okovacs about his letters to the cast of “Porgy and Bess,” rather than answering them, he came back with 22 questions of his own.
These included “What color is black (all black cast) on the Pantone scale?” and “Could 14 nonwhite artists, who are professionally suitable for the opera stage, live in Hungary today?”