SA opera stars in full voice abroad

2014-01-05 14:00

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It is a curious thing that in a country with precious little opera development, our singers continue to shine on the international stage.

Last year was a remarkable one for young black South African opera singers?–?and we can expect more of the same this year.

Pretty Yende, Vuyani Mlinde, Pumeza Matshikiza, Luthando Qave, Fikile Mvinjelwa, Golda Schultz?...?the list of rising soprano and baritone stars continues to grow.

Of course, they are stars abroad because there is little opportunity to shine at home in the most expensive of all music genres in a country with many economic challenges.

Yet talent, often from the townships, has found its way into our few existing opera schools, notably the University of Cape Town and Cape Town Opera.

This exposure has led to invitations to audition for international productions and schools.

Yende leads the pack in this regard and has been the poster girl for this new band of singers.

Hopefully, having her perform in South Africa after her sensational debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York will help convince funders from the public and private sectors that opera is a worthwhile investment.

Cape Town audiences got to see her singing three times last year.

Elza van den Heever, another local soprano, also had her Met debut last year as Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda.

Matshikiza recorded her first album with Decca Records, the same company that has recorded Luciano Pavarotti.

Bass-baritone Vuyani Mlinde is singing at the Frankfurt Opera and Jacques Imbrailo is building a reputation as a fine baritone. Can we dare hope that opera is growing at home again?

Last year, Cape Town Opera was involved in an international collaboration with five other opera companies from the southern hemisphere.

They collaborated on a production of Verdi’s Otello, which was last seen in Cape Town in the early 1990s.

Before that, Umculo/Cape Festival, a fledgling NGO that believes opera can be used as a tool for personal growth in young people, staged a revival of its 2012 production of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy-Queen.

The value of this endeavour lies in the way this organisation uses opera, a dated art form, to address South Africa’s current social challenges.

The Fairy-Queen was used to tackle issues around “corrective rape” and sexual identity.

Most of the significant opera performances happen in Western Cape.

The jury is out on whether the formation of Gauteng Opera will change this.

It is the current incarnation of The Black Tie Ensemble, which was begun by Mimi Coertse and opera director Neels Hansen.

Hopefully, Gauteng will also produce many fine South African singers.

For years, opera has been on the funding back burner, labelled as Eurocentric and irrelevant. Yet, if you go to the opera in South Africa today, you will see that most singers are black.

The passion for the art form lies in humbler beginnings. Our young operastars were almost all exposed to choirs from an early age.

Choral traditions shaped voices and allowed the finest of them to become soloists after which they were spotted and trained further.

We are a nation of incredible raw voices, say the international scouts. Now if only we could learn to appreciate them at home.

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