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Porgy and Stress – A Conductor’s Opera

Porgy and Stress – A Conductor’s Opera

By Rory Winston

Shocking. Controversial. Disturbing– words with fluctuating values. Depending on the context, these adjectives can mean anything from offensive and questionable to arresting and substantial. Heard on TV news, they’re the perfect lead-in for an investigative report or exposé. As a blurb on a blockbuster film’s billboard, they’re mere hype. As part of a speech at an art exhibition, the same words mean thought-provoking. Appearing in a music review on a familiar opera, they’re ‘music to the ears’ – a sign that an established classic remains as potentially unsettling as it had been on the day it first opened generations earlier. While controversy in itself doesn’t add value, it indicates relevance. And, although the the level of international outrage for the Hungarian State Opera’s recent production of Porgy and Bessmay not have been on par with the 1912 Paris premier of Nijinsky’s Afternoon of the Faun, it’s nice to note that a gem from the Gershwin canon continues to raise eyebrows.

Admittedly, most of the wrangling surrounding the recent rendition in Budapest were more legal than artistic in nature. The focus: an alleged stipulation by the copyright holders, Tams-Witmark, insisting on an all-black cast. Given that Hungary’s racial demographics don’t support the required number of African American talents, adherence to such a requirement would, de facto, have made a local production unfeasible. And so, the General Director of the Hungarian Opera, Szilveszter Ókovács, opted for a pragmatic solution. He acquiesced to a compromise wherein four performances could be green-lighted without incurring a law suit so long as the performance openly acknowledged its officially unauthorized status. But, while a transgression based on practical considerations alone would, at best, have garnered a footnote in the financial section of the New York Times, it took the unapologetic approach to capture headlines.

Porgy and Bess
Porgy & Bess and symbolic edifice

In an avowed attempt to make the opera locally relatable, Director András Almási-Toth presented an enigmatic realm devoid of time, space and racial-specificity. It isn’t merely the cast of Porgy and Bess that isn’t African American but the very characters being represented. Instead of a South Carolinian black community, the audience is given dispossessed hordes of unknown origin. While production notes and directorial commentary lend themselves to numerous interpretations – from Hurricane Katrina’s victims to the more topical Syrian refugee crisis in Europe – the references remain vague throughout. Whether this ambiguity exists in order to bypass censure from a government whose administration has a notoriously hardline immigrant policy, or whether the ambiguity is a half-hearted artistic contrivance created for the sake of averting charges of cultural appropriation is immaterial. Justifications are afterthoughts for court rooms rather than audiences. No amount of conceptual theorizing can resurrect an unengaging performance, just as no amount of politicizing can undermine a transcendent work. The important question is as simple as it is difficult to answer: Does the opera work? More specifically: Does the production move the audience? If yes, does it do so in a way that remains faithful to the intentions of the authors? Does it provoke the right kind of conversation? Do the changes add or distract? Is there an overall vision to the sum of the parts? To answer these, let’s deal with the parts first.

Much to its advantage, the Hungarian Opera’s Porgy and Bessis foremost a conductor’s opera. Despite visual cues to the contrary, the orchestra and singers as conducted by István Dénes, are a single evocative entity – a thoughtful celebration of all that is Gershwin. When it comes to realigning classical musicians to suit a jazz idiom, there’s likely no one better suited anywhere than Dénes.With a profound sense of swing-timing, he elicits the groove and elasticity necessary for conveying the opera’s variegated spirit. Imbuing the work with a panoply of musical references, Denes effortlessly shifts styles in accordance with the demands of each scene creating both memorable moments as well as seamless continuity.

Porgy and Bess is a creative hurricane, a tour de force that absorbs a myriad of genres. And it is precisely this inimitable fusion of eclectic motifs that Denes transmits. Working with highly skilled singers and musicians, Denes reveals the score’s many hidden layers. Besides animating the alternatingly lazy to frenetic feel of the jazz age, the conductor teases forth the pageantry of Broadway musicals, the soulful sound of black gospel, the mournful mood of Eastern European Jewish songs, and the energetic hook-filled legacy of early 1900’s pop tunes. Both playful and evocative, the highly personal world that is Gershwin breathes in his hands.

Orsolya Safar and community

Though the Hungarian production had but 4 performances, it came complete with two almost entirely different casts – a situation leading to both avoidable imbalances and exciting surprises. As a leading lady, Orsolya Sáfár brims with Broadway bravura. Her Bess is carnality incarnate with undefined aspiration and delirious desire forged into a single being. The feel is contemporary – one that owes as much to 2011’s revamped Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (directed and written, respectively, by Diane Paulus and Susan-Lori Parks), as to the original. Though the superimposed ‘refugee theme’ is far from explicit, Sáfar’s portrayal brings home a powerful point – one that was as true for black women during Gershwin’s era as it is for female refugees today. Namely, a woman striving for independence within an already persecuted minority suffers the worst fate of all: oppression from both her own community and the world at large. From wild abandon to drug-induced resignation, Sáfár connects with her ever-changing environment. It is her ability to do so that goes a long way in helping to tie together disparate themes and passing characters.

One such passing character, Porgy. Weather sung by the mellifluous bass-baritone, András Palerdi, or played by a zealous Marcell Bakonyi,Porgy – as directed – comes and goes like Hamlet’s ghost, often seeming more like an apparition narrating his own life than a viable character. Though Palerdi’s inimitable tone and enunciation does justice to the music, he hovers at a once-removed from Dubose Heyward’s plotline.

Playing Crown in both casts, Csaba Szegediis a threatening presence that looms over events like an archaic force. Though dressed in a garishly colorful patchwork jacket that screams ‘Nepalese Hippy spiritmeets Commes des Garcons,’ Szegedi’s haunting laugh rolls through the audience like thunder from an approaching storm. Whether by design or default, Crown’s persona has been recalibrated. He’s less the antiquated villain than an all too familiar sexual predator and abuser. Each grunt, snarl and blusterous bellow is a haunting reminder of what Harvey Weinstein might sound like within an operatic context. And although the choir doesn’t come out singing a rendition of #metoo as Crown falls dead, one can sense the Weinsteins and Cosbys of Hungary wincing in the wings.

Lajos Geiger as Lawyer Frazier

Lajos Geiger is another singer who, luckily enough, plays every show. A consummate actor, Gieger is a convincing Lawyer Frazier. Channeling Ron Moody’s Fagin in Oliver, he presents us with a street-smart conman able to turn on a dime. In the matter of a single scene, Geiger goes from cunning to caring to callous to coy. It’s soon evident that survival for Frazier depends on humor, guile and smarmy charm. Besides, playing the fraudulent lawyer, Geiger doubles as the community Undertaker. The interpretation is both fresh and exciting as the character exudes all the wariness, wiliness and desperation of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice. There is a disarming element to his portrayal of recidivists – one that makes us to empathize with a man who needs to go on deceiving simply in order to survive. Likewise,András Palerdi (Porgy) Tivadar Kiss(Mingo) and Gergely Ujvari(Robbins) came off with an insouciant air that makes it feel as if they were living rather than playing the part. Their ability to sing, act, and move in a seemingly unrehearsed manner, anchors otherwise detached scenes, lending a level of much needed reality to otherwise random moments.

sporting life
Laszlo Boldizsar as Sporting Life

As for Sporting Life, László Boldizsár brings the jazz age to life with all the fanciful flourish of an MC at the Cotton Club (incidentally, the very name of his own former jazz ensemble). Liberally borrowing from vaudeville, cabaret and Broadway alike, Boldizsár sings, dances and even trumpets his way through the performance, quickly becoming a crowd-favorite. For those able to keep track, his presentation is an onslaught of insider references with homages to everyone from Cab Callowayto Ben Vereenwith odd hints of Sammy Davis Jr.and Joel Greythrown in for good measure.

Mourning scene
Sznato Andrea, Fodor Gabriella & Lajos Geiger

As for the heart of this opera, it lay in the singularly soulful sound of Gabriella Fodoras Serena. Undulating between lachrymose longing and a form of ‘weltschmerz’ endemic to a wandering people, Fodor gives us everything from cantillation to gospel to guttural lament. As though possessed, she embodies wave upon wave of notes, while simultaneously giving way to the undertow of chords that tug beneath. Driving with the earnest force of Mahalia Jackson, the rapt state of Patti Labellein paroxysm, and the vocal dimensions of her own rich tone, Fodor is no Cynthia Clarey or Leotyne Price copy. Personal, powerful and persuasive, Fodor is a panoply of emotions, an orchestra onto herself.


Virtuoso Dancers: Viktor Tóth, Botond Takács, Levente Bajári, Iurii Kekalo, Miklós Dávid Kerényi, Zoltán Oláh, Ildikó Boros, Bianka Rotter, Alexandra Kozmér, Aleszja Popova , Gergő Ármin Balázsi, Dmitry Timofeev, Lea Földi

As openers and closers for acts, little compares to the mood-inducing divertissements brilliantly choreographed by Dóra Barta. With allusions running the gamut from Alvin Alley to Twyla Tharp, Bob Fosse and, the more recent, Will B. Bell, Barta’s vocabulary is as exacting as it is colorful. Also noteworthy is Barta’s corps of nationally acclaimed prima ballerinas and premier danseurs – the list includes: Ildikó Boros, Bianka Rotter, Alexandra Kozmér, Aleszja Popova, Lea Földi, Levente Bajári, Luuri Kekalo, Miklós Dávid Kerényi, Zoltán Oláh, Gergő Ármin Balázsi and Dmitry Timofeev. Beyond the pyrotechnical flair and panache of each member, the group as a whole is sheer set design. As the dancers end one variation, they facilitate the entrance of Sporting Life by morphing into a Mise-en-scène. The vision is a Harlem inspired Sweet Charity moment – one painted by Toulouse-Lautrec.What the directing lacks in precision, Barta amply makes up for in her ability to steer a crowd. Whether choreographing deadly battles, concocting show-stoppers that even the least adept singer can dance or moving an entire grieving mass, Barta is an imaginative choreographer who never loses sight of the story. The same can’t be said for the clearly talented but equally misguided costume designer Krisztina Lisztopád. And by ‘misguided,’ I mean either because she created imaginative costumes that had nothing to do with the plot or ‘misguided’ because the director told her to do so.

the variegated costumes of Porgy and Bess

An overwhelming incongruity exists between the costumes and the milieu in which the story is set and even the milieu where Almási-Toth insists the story has been reset. The costumes are neither African American from the 30’s (or any other era) nor do they remotely resemble those worn by contemporary refugees or victims from a natural catastrophe. If anything, the costumes are decidedly vintage Eurotrash à la Jean Paul Gaultier, a vague homage to Boho-chic with hints of 70’s Blaxploitation classics like Super Fly.If these are refugees, we’ve caught them at a costume party where the theme is Les Misérables-meets-Urinetown.For all Crown’s ferocity, it’s hard to overlook his appearance – a Boho Pagliacci in a rainbow-colored pimp coat. While Lawyer Frazier walks a thin line between buccaneer and early American settler, Maria is decidedly Les Liaisons Dangereuses, Porgy looks like he’s just come from a Luau and Bess is caught between a Gypsy Rose Lee revival and La Bohème. The costume directions might as well have read: anachronistic flea market in a future dystopia.

Hannak’s set design

This is a shame given the sublime stage design created by visiting German artist and coveted Faust Award winner of 2017, Sebastian Hannak. As recipient of the Weltenbauer Award, and as someone named among the top three most successful artists in 2017 by the much-respected theater journal German Stage, Hannak is a prolific and highly lauded designer with some of the most memorable spatial arrangements in recent history. Nuanced and understated, the young artist’s work has appeared in everything from Die Valkyrie, the Reginaldo Oliveira’s ballet Anne Frank, Mythos, MOMO, Cinderella, Kaspar Hauser and Winterreise just to mention a few. With a strong understanding of architecture and perception, his approach is often modular, malleable and relies on a minimalistic sensibility. More often than not, it’s built to shape-shift and distort and alter dimensions simply by a minor adjustment of the lighting or angle.

For Porgy and Bess, Hannak has done his homework and has created a ‘makeshift monolith for a bureaucratic age without a belief system or ideology.’  It is a space that can as easily represent a cold wall as a warm temporary heaven, a prison or a self-determined ghetto, a place of endless options or immovable slabs. With several tiers and many pillars behind which to hide, Hannak’s world is open to interpretation. It can be an inhospitable future or an uncluttered zone that holds promise. As pastel lights bathe the granite looking structure in different tones and translucencies, one gets the sense that although this set is the perfect meeting place for the past and future, there is little room for the present. It is a place that can either lend itself to a promised land or be a nostalgic glimpse at a past now gone. It is a place of arrival and departure. An entrance into nowhere as much as it is an exit out of nowhere, a place that is proscenium and deep stage at once. Neither heaven nor hell, Hannak’s stage is limbo – an exciting space in which much can happen but nothing is resolved. Likewise, the structure is a perfect for parallel movements, for simultaneous things to occur. For one mood to happen on the upper tier while an utterly different mood prevails below. For a song to take place stage left while on stage left a totally isolated dance occurs. But, despite all these opportunities, Hannak’s astonishing set is vastly underused. No simultaneous movements, no parallel plot constructions, the directing neglects the range of options.

boldizsar es safar orsolya
Sporting Life & Bess

Still, the question of whether this rendition of Porgy and Bessworked on every level should come with an a priori: was there ever a version of the Gershwin classic that was considered entirely satisfactory? From its inception, many felt the play reinforced stereotypes which the black community was trying to overcome. Even the most faithful rendition would do little to quell all contention. Despite this, almost every musical expert admits that Gershwin was not only one of the first major composers to legitimize African American music by introducing it into the canon of the Classical tradition, but was one of the first to infuse the idiom with music from his own Jewish heritage and a highly personalized and idiosyncratic style. Gershwin, a second generation American Jew from a Russian/Ukrainian Jewish family, identified with the desperation of those who want to be treated like the rest. His background, his need to express his own painful legacy, his need to fit in, to be assimilated and modern, made him empathize with the plight of oppressed African Americans. And more than that, their musical idiom became a vehicle for him to express his own torments, aspirations and longings.

Gershwin’s aesthetic sensibility as well as his racial sensitivity made him insist that Porgy and Bessbe performed by black singers. This was at a time when artistic segregation was rife and few producers wanted to acquiesce to such a demand. Turning down a highly lucrative offer from the Metropolitan Opera (which had no black cast members at the time), Gershwin stuck to his guns and pulled off a premier with the cast of his choice. In 1983, years after George Gershwin’s untimely death, his brother, Ira – in respect to his brother’s wishes during the last months of his own life – added the stipulation that Porgy and Bess not be performed unless it had a black cast. The clause was intended to ensure that no matter what political tides swept through the country, no matter the level of recurring racism, George Gershwin’s work would remain forever free of biases and stand as an edifice for equality. In a country where discrimination had kept so many talented black singers out of venues, Porgy and Bess stood as an eternal statement of hope.

With no history of slavery, no anti-black racism, and no black minority to speak of, Hungary, like many countries in the Soviet Block, had a very different relationship with Porgy and Bess. Istvan Denes who had, by 1983, already been conducting the opera for years, recalls the day when the new copyright laws abruptly halted their performances:

Maestro Istvan Denes

“It was a shock. Like we had lost our connection to the west. Like we had been abandoned by the world. During the era of the Iron Curtain,” reflects Denes, “Porgy and Besswas our cultural channel to the West. It meant freedom. Staging it felt like laying a pipeline to a better future – a world wherein ideas, fashion, music, and dance flowed freely from one country to the next, a world unfettered by politburos and political censorship. The opera became emblematic of autonomy, self-realization, and rebirth. It symbolized hope.”

Something had gone wrong. Though the new copyright clause was created with the best of intentions, it didn’t serve the ideals behind its creation. If an aspiration towards equality was the primary motivation, the law would have to have been amended to suit each countries local brand of prejudice. For instance, in Lebanon there should have been a stipulation for a Christian cast, in Israel a stipulation for a Palestinian one, in Hungary a stipulation for a Romani one, and in Iran a stipulation for a Jewish one. But a demand for an all-black cast in most Eastern European countries seemed unfeasible at worst and irrelevant at best.

Having been hired in by the Hungarian National Opera as a dialect and acting coach for Porgy and Bess, it’s impossible for me to be entirely objective when it comes to judging the merits of this rendition. My proximity to the production, however, gives me a picture of the amount of preparations that went into realizing a project of this scale. It also gives me insight into just how much earnest desire and passion exists for getting things right.

Conductor teaching
Istvan Denes & Marcell Bakonyi

From the director to the most minor walk-on part, the company shows an eagerness, sensitivity and willingness to learn that I’ve rarely witnessed in my many years of working with theater. Their love of Gershwin is evident. Their commitment to delivering their very best comes from a heart-felt yearning that the day will come when they’ll be free to perform the opera for as many performances as demographically possible. With every show sold-out, each show with a ten-minute long standing-ovation, and a cast and audience eager for encores after what amounts to nearly three-and-a-half-hour long performances, it’s unlikely enthusiasm for this opera will abate anytime soon.

Poetic justice would be if the herald for Hungary’s second golden age of Gershwin came in the form of Istvan Denes. Though the term ‘genius’ obscures as much as it alludes to, when it comes to certain operatic performances the intelligence, flair and wisdom of the conducting is just so pervasive and compelling that there simply aren’t better ways to describe it. In this sense Denes is a genius, at least when it comes to Porgy and Bess. Without making the music feel fragmented or without a center, his approach makes one pay attention to all the diverse themes and elements within the score. In his execution, one simultaneously hears the lost world of Russian Jewry howling with the voice of a freed black slave, the lost world of the Shtetl seen inside the black ghetto, the longing for a promised land whether it be New York or Jerusalem.

Istvan Denes
Maestro Denes working with the singers

With Denes, you feel like dancing, laughing and crying all in one go. There is no moment so somber that burlesque refuses to surface, no gospel so moving that a one can’t find a way to shuffle and dance. From the cantorial hidden in a Baptist litany to the big Broadway number served up on a market square, Denes pilots each flirtatious note over wave upon wave of emotive chords. It is not merely that Denes has a long history with the Gershwin masterpiece but more that he irreverently brings his own history of knowledge into every phrase. Having listened to Porgy and Bess throughout my childhood, it was a big surprise to find out that it took a Hungarian conductor to make me hear Gershwin’s heartbeat in every sound.

An Au revior more than an adieu…

For more on Maestro Istvan Denes 

For full cast


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