When the Cape Town Opera's revival of "Porgy and Bess" toured Europe, its novel resetting of the American classic to apartheid-era Soweto won raves. When the touring production moved to Israel this month, attention turned sour.
No less than Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu called it "unconscionable" for a South African opera company to perform in Israel, the target of an increasingly aggressive international cultural boycott organized by pro-Palestinian activists hoping to turn Tel Aviv into the new Sun City.
After an ugly public tussle, "Porgy and Bess" — a piece about racism, written by a Jewish composer — opened on schedule Nov. 15, albeit with some hastily added events with Palestinian artists. But protestors outside the Tel Aviv Performing Arts Center still accused the black South African performers of betraying the same kind of boycott that once helped bring down South Africa's apartheid regime.
The showdown capped one of the most combative years yet in Israel's long struggle for international recognition and legitimacy in the cultural world. Buoyed by relative security, an improving economy and a fan base hungry for international acts, Israeli promoters booked an impressive list of big names this year, including Elton John, Rihanna, Metallica, Rod Stewart, Ozzy Osbourne and dance company Alvin Ailey.
But there were plenty of high-profile cancellations too, including Elvis Costello, the Pixies, Carlos Santana, Gil Scott-Heron, Devendra Banhart and a speaking engagement by British film director Mike Leigh.