Cape Town Opera: Rising to the occasion during a milestone year

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The manner in which Africa’s premier opera company has thrived during a year that savaged the performing arts is in many ways a clue to Cape Town Opera’s ongoing success during its first 21 years of existence. By Keith Bain 

Robust, powerhouse, attention-grabbing, world famous… South Africa has become known as a producer of voices that stir the soul, raise the roof, get audiences to their feet yelling “Bravi!”, “Brava!”, “Bravo!”.

These voices that garner such admiration on stages worldwide are apparently formed by some mysterious alchemy of South African oxygen and water and sun. Either that, or it’s in our DNA, some fire in our blood.

And out of this pool of raw, natural talent, a pleasing number of voices are finding international renown.

Singers like virtuoso soprano Golda Schultz who, after two years with Cape Town Opera (CTO), successfully auditioned for the prestigious Juilliard School in the US. She now enjoys instant name recognition in the classical music world and this year headlined the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms. Watched by millions, the show was broadcast live from an empty Royal Albert Hall in September.

And then there’s world-renowned Pretty Yende, who went from rural Piet Retief to spotlight engagements at the Opéra Bastille in Paris; bass-baritone Musa Ngqungwana, a UCT graduate now based in the US; and UCT-trained tenor Levy Sekgapane whose performances in numerous local opera productions spurred him to win both the Monserrat Caballé singing competition and the International Belvedere Singing competition in 2015. He, too, is now the toast of the international opera scene.

And, of course, there’s the CTO’s award-winning chorus which annually woos and wows audiences around the world. Known for its versatility, its repertoire stretches across genres and traditions, from classic European opera to Zulu hymns, American spirituals and jazz numbers.

“We are known and we are sought after for our productions and our voices,“ says Susan Smith, CTO’s Board Chairperson, which is well-established as the continent’s premiere opera company. “Many magnificent voices across the world’s stages come from South Africa, and many of those have passed through the professional development opportunities CTO offers.”

And while these voices belong to acclaimed individuals, those who know opera, recognise its demands as a collaborative artform. It is not its voices alone that make an arts company like CTO shine.

Each production is the culmination of not just one artist’s contribution to the evolution of culture, but the coming together of a creative village: Beyond singers drawn from across the country, there are orchestras, dancers and choreographers, set designers and carpenters, costumiers and wig makers, lighting designers and video artists and many more.

Aside from this multiplicity of talent, there’s an unseen team of managers and organisers making the plans and schedules and budgets that enable such vast collaborative efforts to happen.

And, while CTO is a non-profit organisation whose existence is possible thanks to the support of donors, it has been able to extend its reach and impact by adapting its business model to include an energetic international touring schedule. Shows like African Angels, Porgy and Bess, Mandela Trilogy and African Prophetess have marked CTO as a cultural ambassador while showcasing South Africa’s enormous and unique singing talent to the world.

“Touring shifted the dynamic,” says Smith, “opening up many new horizons, enabling overseas partnerships and longstanding donor relationships that are very important to us.”

Those international connections have extended the company’s financial latitude, not only making it a significant economic contributor, but ensuring that its staff remained secure during lockdown.

“This company has put R350 million back into the local economy,” says Smith. “Last year alone we put back R12.7 million. This is by employing people – not just the artists and musicians who are vital to what we do – but seamstresses, designers, set-builders, technicians, people who box our sets and send them overseas when we’re on tour. There’s a whole hive of activity around putting on an opera. So, while we’re a good investment in the cultural heritage of South Africa, we’re also good for business.”

It’s not all about economics though, nor about treating foreign audiences to South African voices. CTO’s reputation is as Africa’s premier opera company, known – apart from kickstarting global careers – for identifying and fostering talent within local communities. It runs singing clinics and outreach projects, and finds raw talent, putting untrained voices on a professional path.

And apart from performing classic European operas, CTO stages fiery choral showcases that include songs in African languages, and is involved

in the development of new South African work as part of a burgeoning oeuvre of indigenous opera. It also cross-pollinates within the global talent pool, collaborating on world-class productions, and hosting international soloists.

But all of this activity was suddenly paused in 2020, starting with the postponement of a special gala performance at Kirstenbosch Gardens by UCT-trained Pumeza Matshikiza, who is now Europe-based but regarded among the world’s most recognised South African voices. She was due to perform alongside tenor Sipho Fubesi, accompanied by CTO’s chorus, just days before South Africa was locked down in March.

“With our schedule suddenly cleared out, we had to chart a new course,” remarks CTO’s artistic director Matthew Wild who has for six year’s steered the company’s choice of productions for its seasonal calendar.

“It was a particularly tough blow, as our planned 2020 season was unusually full of major international collaborations (in Germany, Switzerland and Austria) which had taken many years to plan,” he adds. Yet, despite witnessing most of its plans for 2020 “come crashing down” it’s striking to hear Wild begin talking about “the season that keeps on giving” as CTO adapted its plans, developed new strategies, and embraced digital technology as an unpredictable future played out.

“We were guided by the sense of responsibility we felt towards our company members, our freelance collaborators, our audience members, and our funders,” he says.

From delivering food parcels to struggling ad hoc singers, to repurposing the company’s production department to manufacture facemasks for distribution to school learners, CTO stayed the course.

Creative people are, after all, problem solvers.

It was to have been a year of celebration around the company’s 21st anniversary, and if circumstances dampened the celebratory mood, they had the opposite effect on creativity and innovation.

If anything, CTO was inspired by 2020’s restrictions to not only meet the challenges but reach beyond.

“​The pandemic propelled the company to realise its future plans of bringing CTO in line with the 4IR objectives of the country a lot earlier than anticipated,” says Africa Melane, who held the post of interim managing director of the company through much of the crisis. “Being able to provide company members with the tools to work remotely was a massive achievement for a company that thrives on the dynamism of in-person engagement.” 

This fast-tracking of CTO’s embrace of digital technology led to the creation of webcasts, online learning programmes, and filmed productions for audiences to stream at home. There were even rehearsals conducted via Zoom across global hemispheres.

When its annual national schools tour – during which a team of singers travel the country to provide music workshops for thousands of learners competing in South African Schools Choral Eisteddfod – ended abruptly due to lockdown restrictions, CTO developed “Sing like a Pro”, a series of 12 instructional videos available on CTO’s YouTube channel. Produced by CTO’s Youth Development and Education Department, the e-learning programme enabled learners to continue preparations for the SASCE competition.

The making of a newly commissioned one-act opera, Amagokra, formed the subject of  the first of CTO’s pandemic-era webinars, originally streamed on the company’s YouTube channel in May.

And, 68 days into lockdown, as restrictions eased, CTO for the first time brought three musicians together to collaborate with a small crew to create a video of songs as part of its Phoenix Central Park Behind Doors project. In it are Director of UCT Opera School Jeremy Silver on piano, violinist Refiloe Olifant, and soprano Brittany Smith, who is one of six singers employed by CTO as part of its Young Artist Training Programme. The unique programme gives graduate singers, with soloist potential, not only advanced training, but opportunities to refine their technique and stage skills before launching professional careers.

Another example of what’s possible in the absence of live audiences was CTO’s collaboration with Cape Town City Ballet and Camerata Tinta Barocca to create a filmed production of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater.

“It was the limitations of lockdown that spurred this project,” says Wild. “When new lockdown regulations allowed performing arts companies to create work for streaming or local broadcast, we looked for a collaborative project which we could create in isolation, bring together very quickly and then produce for broadcast. Stabat Mater is a lovely compact piece, ideal for the circumstances.”

Since the team wanted to engage London-based South African choreographer Mthuthuzeli November, the decision was taken to try a previously untested process of having him choreograph the entire work over Zoom. “It took a good deal of innovation within our music department in terms of remote coaching and collaboration,” says Wild, “and everybody involved only came together in the flesh in the last few days before we filmed.”

The result? An arresting film in which dancers and singers perform in a grid, marked by upright neon strip lights that reference the pandemic’s spatial alienation. The voices, intoning Mary’s despair at the crucifixion, pierce the soul as they echo the anguish of our present calamity. And, because the camera takes the viewer – virtually – closer to the action than is possible in a theatre, the various limitations imposed by circumstance offered new possibilities.

The production was available to stream for a month-and-a-half, affording almost unlimited audience access. And it’s been screened on DStv.

Smith is pragmatic and positive about such developments. “While we know what we do, the pandemic forced us to look at how we do what we do. So we explored other mediums that are new, innovative and at a socially-appropriate distance.”

Ultimately, though, virtual productions were never intended to permanently replace the live-audience performances that are CTO’s core business; the eye was always on returning to real stages.

Trailblazing once again, the company embarked on a collaboration with UCT Opera School; envisioning a late-October run, rehearsals for Mozart’s Così fan tutte got underway, if somewhat modified for the times.

Regulations permitting a maximum of 25 people in the rehearsal space made for an experimental five weeks of prepping for a show which no one knew for absolute certain would actually happen with an audience. It helped, though, to lead with a “make a plan” attitude and roll with the ongoing shifts in rehearsal protocols and audience policies, while prioritising the company’s health.

Since – as they say – the show must go on, it did. Così fan tutte became one of the very first live theatre performances in the country since the start of our extensive lockdown. Albeit with limited, socially-distanced seating, masks on audience members and most of the orchestra (wind instruments excepted), and stringent protocols ensuring the safety of cast and crew. 

Similar adaptive strategies had gone into Porgy and Bess, a collaboration with Austria’s prestigious Theater an der Wien earlier in October. With Wild directing and CTO chorus members joining the European cast, the show – staged in Vienna – went ahead in front of live audiences for a two-week run. Again, in “an adapted form” and “after much logistical juggling,” says Wild.

It’s not only being able to pull off such major coups as performing full operas or collaborating in Europe that has been a triumph for CTO in a year of disruption. A series of ‘Thank You” concerts, performances for essential frontline workers in the Western Cape, have been a highlight for the company.

Even as such opportunities to perform live open up, however, the future remains unknowable.

“As we finalise plans for the year ahead,” Wild says, “we find ourselves in the same boat as opera houses around the world: trying to use a combination of intelligent guesswork and in-built flexibility to craft a programme which can withstand the many unknowns facing us in 2021.”

And as plans for 2021 fall into place, audience demand to see the company in person has been unfaltering. Aside from full houses for Così fan tutte, the company’s first summer concerts – an afternoon of opera, bubbly and canapés at Quoin Rock wine estate in Stellenbosch on 12 December, and an evening of African and American spirituals at the Groote Kerk in Cape Town (scheduled for early-December but postponed due to a resurgence of infections in the Western Cape) – both quickly sold out.

Even as scheduling a new season gets underway, and rehearsals for 2021 begin, the company remains on its toes, vigilant, cognisant that nothing is cast in stone.

And the company – itself an organic, living thing with people at its heart – is ever-evolving.

On top of the usual rigmarole and the extra burden and added complexities posed by the pandemic, 2020 also saw the departure in June of Elise Brunelle, CTO managing director; her shoes, as of November, have been filled by Alex Gabriel.

And stepping into Wild’s shoes when he departs next April to pursue an increasingly international directing career, is CTO’s new artistic director, Michael Hunt.

Hunt’s work in opera has taken him from Wexford to the Faroe Islands, from Las Palmas to Portland, and his considerable achievements include directing Fidelio in the Gulag; the biggest site-specific opera work the world has yet seen, it was staged in Russia with a cast of over 600.

Such sharing of expertise, know-how and talent goes to the heart of CTO’s dynamism, to the core of its creative essence. Its reputation may be built on the voices of its singers, but its aptitude as a performing arts organisation lies in the way it brings people together. And the extraordinary manner in which those people rise to the occasion. 

“This is a ‘can do’ company,” says Smith. “After two decades of resilience in the face of multiple challenges, it affords no small satisfaction to know that during this pandemic every member of our company is safe and well. We’re buoyant and bubbly with creativity, and in the most beautiful voice. That is for me the very best celebration of our 21st anniversary. 

“It’s been a huge learning curve for a business in the performing arts. But we’re not daunted at all. Some things may be daunting at the time, but we have a look at it, we consult, we find out where we can collaborate, we leverage our networks. And I’m excited that for the next 21 years, and the next 21 years beyond, we are moving forward confidently.”