“Porgy And Bess” Ethics

“Porgy and Bess,” the now  iconic opera that premiered in the United States in 1935, tells the tragic and heroic  story of a Southern African-American ghettoemploying  some of the most memorable music in  the musical theater canon. Composer George Gershwin denied licensing rights to  companies that wanted to use white performers in the opera (requiring black make-up)  and his estate still stipulates that the work  be performed by an all-black cast, or rights will be denied.

It will not shock anyone who has read much here to learn that I oppose Gershwin’s all-black edict, just as I oppose objections to actors of any race being prohibited from playing characters of different races. The only question should be whether the production and artistic version is fair to the work and to the audience. Prior restraint of any vision is antithetical to the spirit of the performing arts. I happen to think that a white version of “A Raisin in the Sun” would be ill-advised, but how do I know for sure? I’ve been proven wrong before, and more to the point, I’ve proven others wrong with my own productions.

The inevitable result of Gershwin’s grandstanding, for I believe that’s what it was, is that most people never have a chance to see a full production of “Porgy and Bess.” Yet there is no reason why the cast would have to be all black. Let’s even put aside the inflammatory  issue of “black-face.” Some characters in the show, like the snake-like hustler Sporting Life, could be portrayed as white without distorting the show one bit. Non-traditional casting principles would argue that the whole cast could consist of whites, Asians and others playing the black characters. It would be fun—yes, I think of this kind of principled fight as fun—to cast the show with light skinned African-Americans and mixed race performers who identify as black. What would the Gershwin estate do about that, I wonder?

The limitation is racist and rigid, and it has the effect of restricting both art and the enjoyment of it. It is also a dangerous precedent: what if the estate of Alan Jay Lerner decreed that only whites could play Eliza Doolittle and Henry Higgins in “My Fair Lady,” or King Arthur and Guenevere in “Camelot”? I don’t see much difference. Will Lin-Manual Miranda  demand that only “performers of color” be cast in future productions of “Hamilton”? Oooo…I hope he does, and don’t be so sure he won’t. How droll: only Latinos and blacks allowed to play Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr! Nonetheless, it is an artist’s legal right to insist of such conditions, and thus the artist’s estate’s as well.

This, however, is unethical and indefensible:

The Hungarian State Opera decided to mount  a production of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy and Bess,” but not with black singers. They white singers were given letters that asked them to declare to declare themselves black so the company would be granted a license to do the show.

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. (I assume they were still asserting that they were African-Hungarians. That would be all right, wouldn’t it? That is, if it weren’t a lie.)

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.  Okovacs defiantly insiste that he should be able to direct the opera with whatever cast he chooses, saying in one  interview that “Hungary does not keep records of skin color,” and in another defending his request that his cast lie this way:

“If we have to play on absurd grounds,we can’t do anything but join the field in absurd outfits.”

Call this the Bizarro World argument, which is embodied in the Rationalization list by Rationalization 30:

30. The Prospective Repeal: “It’s a bad law/stupid rule”

Citizenship, an ethical value, requires obeying the law, but a lot of people convince themselves that that laws are voluntary, and that it is somehow ethical to violate “bad” ones, defined, of course, as those that are inconvenient, burdensome, or that stop you from doing what you want to do. Laws embody the ethical values of society, and if one of them seems wrong to you, you are nonetheless obligated to follow it as part of the social contract. To do otherwise is unethical. Your options are limited: write and speak in opposition to the law (or rule), in hopes of changing the societal consensus; work within the system and with others to change the law; find a legal and ethical way around it; or violate it openly as a matter of conscience, and accept the penalty—civil disobedience.  It isn’t ethical to violate what you think is a bad law while it is still a law, because this creates an obvious breach of the Rule of Universality: if everyone followed that course, we would have chaos and anarchy. There are bad rules and laws, no doubt about it. It must be the group—society, the culture—that decides when one of them needs to be amended or eliminated. The individual who does this unilaterally is threatening the stability of society, and that’s unethical no matter what the law is.

Okovacs has also said that he is opposed to allowing “the presence of people in a production to be determined by skin color or ethnicity.”

I completely agree. However that means, until the “Porgy and Bess” copyright runs out, that the Hungarian State Opera cannot ethically perform Gershwin’s masterwork.

 

9 thoughts on ““Porgy And Bess” Ethics

  1. I wonder what the chances are that he will obtain a copy of the book and music, Xerox them, and put it on anyway? It’s been done before.

  2. I note that you state that the “Hungarian State Opera cannot ethically perform Gershwin’s masterwork.” Since I don’t know much about copyright law, does that mean they cannot legally perform the work? Just wondering.
    Whether it is his masterwork is debatable. I always thought it was “Rhapsody In Blue.”

  3. Citizenship, an ethical value, requires obeying the law, but a lot of people convince themselves that that laws are voluntary, and that it is somehow ethical to violate “bad” ones, defined, of course, as those that are inconvenient, burdensome, or that stop you from doing what you want to do. Laws embody the ethical values of society, and if one of them seems wrong to you, you are nonetheless obligated to follow it as part of the social contract. To do otherwise is unethical. … [und so weiter] … if everyone followed that course, we would have chaos and anarchy. There are bad rules and laws, no doubt about it. It must be the group—society, the culture—that decides when one of them needs to be amended or eliminated. The individual who does this unilaterally is threatening the stability of society, and that’s unethical no matter what the law is.

    You are echoing Edmund Spenser’s complaints about the Irish ethos of Elizabethan times and its attitude to law and law enforcement. The Irish hewed to a different standard than yours or his, even praising that very “chaos and anarchy”.

  4. I do not understand how this licensing requirement is legal. Imagine if Microsoft stated in its licensing agreement that only blacks could use its software.

    Imagine a store that says it employs only minorities so no whites should apply. Someone needs to prove to me that skin color or racial charateristic will ensure purity of meaning in the work. Theoretically, you would only be able to hire black’s living in depression era ghettos and not affluent or college educated blacks.

    I understand that a writer wants users not to decompile, deconstruct, reconstruct or otherwise change the product that effectively harms the original intent, meaning, utility, or otherwise bastardizes the “art” but who can view, use, or otherwise obtain equivalent value based on race is a mystery to me.

    • Do our laws allow private businesses to institute race-based employment? Is such a contract legal? Could someone franchise a German-themed restaurant called ‘Oktoberfest’ and specify that all the employees seen by the customers had to be white to maintain the atmosphere?

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