Music heals apartheid’s wounds in South Africa
As the world mourns Mandela, Clemency Burton-Hill says it is time to celebrate South Africa’s rich culture – and its thriving classical music scene.
In the wake of Nelson Mandela’s death, much has been made of the significance of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. By donning the Springboks jersey, Mandela took a critical step to unifying his riven country, and proved that a sport once seen as the exclusive preserve of white people could also be embraced by the black population.
In a similar way, the drastic shift in South African perceptions of classical music – particularly opera – also represents the shattering of a previously unassailable barrier. In 2002, when the Cape Town Opera company mounted a production of George Gershwin’s Porgy & Bess, the principal roles all had to be sung by Americans because there were no South Africans with the classical training to take on such demanding vocal parts. A decade later in 2012, the company dazzled both local and international audiences with a new production of the same work – and every single major role was sung by a black South African artist, many of whom were born, raised and still live in the townships.
Such progress would be a notable achievement for any country. For one that enjoys no direct government subsidy for an artform that, after apartheid, has invariably been viewed as a symbol of white, European culture, it is remarkable. When the company triumphantly toured London last year, I interviewed Cape Town Opera’s managing director, Michael Williams, who described the advances made in South African opera as “nothing short of a renaissance”.
So what was it that finally busted the stereotype of opera as something for rich white folks? No less than the evidence that it patently wasn’t. “It was certainly a challenge to develop the singers who could eventually sing the leading roles, but people started to realise that the voices coming from the townships were magnificently suited to singing not only Gershwin but Verdi and Wagner and, with a little training, Mozart and Puccini too,” Williams told me.
The people’s opera
Listening to the likes of Xolela Sixaba (Porgy), Bongi Ngoma (Bess) and Tshepo Moagi (Sportin’ Life) sing was a profound experience. Not just because these South African men and women were singing so powerfully, but because of what they were singing about. The director had relocated the action from Catfish Row in the 1920s to Soweto in the 1970s – a critical juncture in apartheid-era South Africa –and it packed a serious punch.
‘We looked at our company and we thought, where do they come from? Where do they live?’ said Williams. “‘What is the story of their lives? Once that was the catchphrase, the ideas just poured forth. So many things just fell into place: issues around drug peddling, which is a real, hard issue in the townships; male-on-female violence, which we as a country unfortunately have very bad statistics on; or how a community takes revenge on a murder.’” And yet, he notes, despite “those grisly issues, there is also the strength of family and community, the sheer sense of unbound joy that is a key mark of singers who come from the townships.”
Song is inextricably woven through the tapestry of South African life, and that “sense of unbound joy” has been a key ingredient in the unexpected flourishing of classical opera in post-apartheid South Africa. “There’s a song for when you’re born, when you first walk, your first date, when your car breaks down, when you get married and when you die,” Williams said. “Always, there’s a song! It’s almost as if the rituals of the passing of life are accompanied by a chorus, and, when you want to start singing stories, opera is simply the next step.”
Classical is the new pop
To prove to young black South Africans that opera really is a step they too can take, Cape Town Opera have developed an impressive outreach programme. “It’s important to go in to the schools, to show the kids aged 12, 13, 14, the sorts of role models they can aspire to,” Williams told me. “So every year we take some of our singers on a national 2,500m odyssey. We go all over the country, doing workshops and performances, and kids seem to instinctively recognise the music and want to sing like that too. Sometimes we find young people singing opera because two years ago we happened to go past there. Young teenage girls singing the Queen of the Night aria, like it’s some kind of pop song....”