Angelo Gobbato remembers the history of opera in Cape Town and the beginnings of Cape Town Opera
When I emigrated to South Africa with my family from Milano in 1950, I was seven years old and already determined to pursue a career as an opera singer. The following account of operatic developments in my adopted country over the past fifty years is thus based on personal experience and recollections and should not be read as either an academic document or as exhaustive historical research.
Although a formal Opera House had existed in Cape Town, the oldest city in South Africa, since the late nineteenth century, by 1950 the new general post office building stood where it used to stand. Any large scale theatrical spectacles such as operas and variety shows were staged in a series of cinema houses of seating capacity around 2,500 which had been designed with sufficient stage and pit facilities to permit their performance. These theatres were given fanciful names such as ‘The Alhambra’ and ‘The Playhouse’ and they had the additional peculiarity of having been designed with stucco moldings that tried to imitate the salient features of their original namesakes. Thus when one walked into the Cape Town ‘Alhambra’ one looked up to discover the jet-blue sky and twinkling stars of an Andalusian night, with stucco cypress trees growing behind the twisting columns of the boxes which lined the walls; the Playhouse in Durban tried to recapture its English tudour counterpart with its stucco wooden beams and diamond paned leaded windows.
It was in the Cape Town Alhambra Theatre that I had my first operatic experiences, both as audience member and as performer. The performances in the early post-war years were given by touring companies of mainly Italian or Italianised singers and I recall the – to me – mythical enchantment of Rigoletto’s with Tito Gobbi, Traviata’s with Virginia Zeani and Barbiere’s with Luigi Infantino under the baton of conductors such as Francesco Patané.
Naturally there were considerable numbers of South African singers who wished to perform and develop their careers, but no they had no realistic expectation of being able to do so unless they went overseas. Many excellent private singing teachers, both from Italian and German extraction, had made their homes in South Africa, especially after World War II, and they organized staged operatic performances and operatic concerts in smaller theatrical venues around the country, often appearing themselves in the leading roles. But the major source of operatic training and operatic performances with South African casts was the Opera School at the South African college of Music at the University of Cape Town. The University of Cape Town (UCT) Opera School had been founded in the early 1920’s under the direction of the Italian tenor Giuseppe Paganelli. In the early 1950’s, under the musical direction of the Scottish composer Erik Chisholm and the stage direction of the Italian baritone Gregorio Fiasconaro, the UCT Opera company mounted regular performances of operas at UCT’s Little Theatre as well as undertaking onerous tours of South Africa and the then Rhodesia with operas such as Don Giovanni, Tosca, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and Falstaff. Although the National Party had already become the ruling party in South Africa and had begun its strict enforcement of Verwoerd’s Apartheid Policy, the University of Cape Town had firmly and publically expressed its opposition to this system and, although individual permits had to be obtained with great difficulty, singers of all races were being trained at its Opera School.
Through his links of Italian nationality and personal friendship with the voice teachers Alessandro Rota and Olga Magnoni the head of the UCT Opera School, Gregorio Fiasconaro, became the stage director for many operas which were mounted by a group of exceptionally gifted amateur singers under the musical leadership of Dr Joseph Manca. This group of singers reflected the distressing political reality of those times by being made up of members of the so-called ‘coloured community’. Under the name of The Eoan Group, these indefatigable workers mounted several seasons of opera at the Cape Town City Hall – a venue which was not only more economical to rent but which was also practically the only theatrical venue in CT for which permits could be obtained allowing mixed races both on stage and in the auditorium. I was thrilled and inspired to hear the many exceptional voices performing in these productions and came to the obvious and logical conclusion that not only was a fine operatic voice a gift granted to all South Africans, irrespective of their racial origin, but that the love and appreciation of traditional European operas could also inform the soul of all our people.
In the early 1960’s the many and insistent demands made over a period of many years by South African performing artists to obtain official recognition and national funding for the formation of South African performing companies was heard and accepted at government level. This led to the formation of four so-called Performing Arts Councils (or Boards), one for each of the then existing South African provinces (Transvaal, Natal, Orange Free State and Cape Province). Although these Peforming Arts Councils took their name and were loosely modeled on their British counterpart, they had their own particular South African characteristics, the principal one being that they had to conform with and operate within the Apartheid laws then in force.
Each of the provincial Arts Councils was given an annual budget by central government, and within this budget each council had to operate departments which would be responsible for the production of Drama, Opera and Ballet. That these Performing Councils were ideated by the Apartheid Government solely for the benefit of white performers and white audiences was amply demonstrated by the fact that when the Nico Malan, the first multi-venue performing arts complex including an opera house built as a performing home for the Performing Arts Councils, opened its doors in Cape Town in 1971, it was declared a ‘whites only’ building. The wave of boycotts and protest that ensued soon caused the Government to revoke this policy and in a futile gesture the Opera House was declared open to all races. But this was clearly an example of far too little and far too late, particularly in view of the forced removals of the long term inhabitants from and the eventual demolition of the historical ‘coloured’ Cape Town area of District Six which was going on at the same time.
In vain did the artistic managements of and the performing artists working for the Performing Arts Councils try to use the existing legal loopholes to open performing doors in the operatic, balletic and dramatic fields to South African performers of all races. The era of protest theatre and international artistic black-listing was upon us, and those all too few black and coloured performers whose inner artistic compulsion drove them to accept to work for the Councils were branded as sell outs and traitors by their own communities. Opera, already considered by many as an elitistic and unnecessarily expensive artistic waste of time, had become synonymous with the Apartheid Government’s attempt to establish international credibility for itself and it was predicted that the advent of a new democratic regime would see the well deserved end of all operatic endevour in the country.
It was under this regime that my operatic career developed and altered from singer in 1964,(the year in which my debut in the Alhambra Theatre singing Keçal in Smetana’s Bartered Bride, the first opera mounted by CAPAB [Cape Performing Arts Board], through Staff Stage Director for CAPAB Opera in 1976, to teacher (I was appointed as Director of the UCT Opera School in 1982) to Artistic Director of CAPAB Opera in 1989. Of course I had had to wrestle long and hard with the option of leaving a country whose political system was so abhorrent to me or that of remaining in an attempt to change the system from within. So I accepted the opportunity given to me by my appointment as Capab Opera’s Artistic Director and tried to find collaborators who shared my vision and would work tirelessly to fill our stages with casts which would be truly representative of our nation’s demographics. I was blessed to be able to appoint Vetta Wise as our Chorus Master and Michael Williams as our Staff Stage Director. Vetta had done serious academic research in and had established cordial relations with leading members of several excellent black community choirs. Micheal had pioneered the writing of children’s operas based on South African indigenous stories and had succeeded in building the kind of community trust required to permit our operatic performers to enter the black community schools and perform under the banner of CAPAB Opera without physical danger and interruptions by protesters. It was for me a moment of great pride to be able to reflect the changing political situation around us by being able to present on the occasion of Rossini’s two hundredth anniversary in 1992 a concert version of Guglielmo Tell at the Nico Opera House with the choruses of men from Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden in Act II being sung by three separate black community choirs.
Our steady perseverance in tilling the vocal fields in the black communities was clearly successful, for, with the advent of our new democracy in 1994, we were rewarded with a flood of exceptional black vocal talent wishing to be admitted to the UCT Opera School. The gifts of some of the young singers who auditioned were such that I was led to propose the creation of a Studio Programme for CAPAB Opera, which would not only provide the funding necessary to cover the UCT Opera School tuition and basic living expenses for eight young singers, whatever their race, but also provide them with performing opportunities as soloists, understudies or choristers in CAPAB Opera productions.
In addition, our chorus master Vetta Wise and staff director Michael Williams agreed to undertake the additional onus of training a group of twelve young singers who had received no kind of previous musical or stage training and were taken from severely disadvantaged black communities. This project, which became formalized as the CAPAB Opera Choral Training Programme, expanded to the training of twenty-four singers in the next year and proved on of the most successful projects undertaken by our company because it created an exponential ‘ripple effect’. The CTP singers brought their passion for all the operatic music they had learned back to their community choirs and in only a few short years, opera, the art form which so many had sworn went against the very nature of our black communities, was in the throats and on the lips of thousands of glorious black voices, becoming the centerpiece of our national choral events and creating special competitions for young singers still at school.
The very special aptitude of the participants in these early programmes and their dedication was such that at the end of 1994, barely one year after the formation of the Studio and CTP programmes, it was possible for CAPAB Opera to mount the world première of ‘Enoch, Prophet of God’ and opera with libretto by Michael Williams and music by Roelof Temmingh, with all the black solo roles in the opera being sung by members of the opera Studio and with the CTP members singing as the black chorus required.
The existence of large numbers of exceptional operatic vocal talent among the black community could no longer be denied. What became a pressing artistic issue, however, was the creation of a suitable operatic repertoire for these singers and the possible adaptation of the production styles of the standard repertoire to create novel dramatic possibilities and credibilities, given the sudden transformation of operatic casts from being 98% white to casts being 98% black.
My immediate choice (1995) fell on Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, an opera of extreme complexity and technical difficulty, which had both a large cast and the copyright requirement of having all the black roles (and there are only two small white speaking roles in the opera) being cast by black singers. I felt this would provide an excellent challange for our newly formed training programmes and was fortunate in being able to invite several American specialists to participate either as conductor, director or soloists in the production. It gives me great joy that in this current Berlin season of the opera we have Willie Waters, who conducted our 1995 production, at the musical helm while many of the singers originally in the Studio and the CTP are either singing principal roles or are members of the Voice of the Nation Chorus.
Later examples of operas from the standard Western repertoire which were adapted to reflect particular South African cultural values and performed by our company (also in collaboration with UCT Opera school) were Bohème Noir, a version of Puccini’s opera which left the music intact but the libretto of which had been completely re-written by Hal shaper to set the story in Johannesburg in the midst of the student riots in 1976; a condensed version of Verdi’s Macbeth, focusing the musical and dramatic action on the two Macbeths and the Witches and setting the action in a completely African context (musical adaptation: Pieter van Dyk, Stage Direction Brett Bailey); Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, setting the Carthaginian action in a clearly African climate and alternating the original music with dance divertissements in authentic African idiom (African music by Dizyu Plaatjies and Amampondo, Stage Direction by Paul Stern).
Original operas were created to librettos provided by the passionate and indefatigable Michael Williams – Orphans of Qumbu, Buchuland, Love and Green Onions – with music by South African composers both black and white, but the key problem of what constitutes authentic and original South African opera remains as yet unsolved and will no doubt prove a point of major debate for some time to come, until we are fortunate enough to give birth to the equivalent of an African Verdi.
Regrettably, and predictably, our success in finding and developing operatic vocal talent was not matched by a sudden political change of heart as to the non-democratic nature of the Performing Arts Councils as originally created by the Apartheid Regime. This led to the New Democratic Government’s gradual but rapid and complete removal of any form of national funding for their arts companies. Any of the companies that wished to continue their work would have to re-group and find alternative sources of funding.
While the opera companies attached to the Arts Councils operating in Pretoria, Durban and Bloemfontein simply disappeared, in Cape Town we were fortunate that our efforts in the transformation of opera had been welcomed and backed by a number of opera loving and sympathetic businessmen. Under the determined chairmanship of Jan Kaminski, a Board of Directors was canvassed and the entire staff and functions of CAPAB Opera were re-registered as CAPE TOWN OPERA, a section 21 company not for gain
With the Government’s declining to increase the total amount of funding available for the performing arts and assigning the entire budget for this funding to a body known as the National Arts Council while permitting any and all performing groups to apply for a tranche of the funding, it hardly came as a surprise that Cape Town opera was at first refused any form of funding from this national source. Even now, after many applications and evidence of job creation for underprivileged communities, Cape Town Opera receives an amount of less than 5% of its total annual budget from national sources.
Obtaining funding from private and business sources proved and continues to prove extremely difficult, since the South African government provides no tax incentive for arts donations. Cape Town Opera was, however, fortunate in obtaining some additional financial support from the Regional Government of the Western Cape, as well as establishing a fruitful working relation with Artscape, the re-named subsidized company that operates the CT Operahouse, now known as the Artscape Operahouse.
More recently, the individual style and talents of the company have been recognized by a number of European opera managements and CTO has toured its productions of Showboat and Porgy and Bess to theatres in Nürnberg, Oslo, Umea and Malmö. The production of Porgy and Bess that is currently playing in Berlin has been conceived not only to reflect the particular intensity and energy of our South African singers, for whom the daily reality of their lives and simply going back home after a night’s work are more dangerous and more fraught with melodrama than any of the operas in which they perform, but also to set the action in the period of Apartheid’s highest arrogance and worst excesses, with forced removals and demolitions of ancestral dwellings competing with natural disasters to make life all too expendable and all too miserable for the many so conveniently forgotten by the few who live in comfort and security.