Despite sold-out performances of Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the prestigious Aix-en-Provence Festival in France, the Cape Town Opera (CTO) has hit a sour note with 12 chorus singers fighting their dismissal in a dispute over money and contracts.
This week, the opera singers filed their intention to oppose charges of theft and breach of contract, levelled at them by the CTO, in a case unfolding in the Labour Court in Cape Town.
The singers were suspended after featuring in 18 performances of Così fan tutte at the French festival over seven weeks – and accepting between R39 000 and R69 000 pay each from the festival’s organisers.
The CTO claimed the singers were on its payroll while performing at the festival, and, owing to contractual obligations, ought to pay back the euros they earned in France.
Their average monthly salaries as CTO employees range from R6 800 to R10 000, before tax deductions.
Speaking to City Press on behalf of the group, Arline Jaftha, assistant chorus mistress and soloist, who has worked for the CTO for 13 years, denied any wrongdoing.
She said that upon arriving back in South Africa on July 20, they were greeted by a CTO human resources representative at Cape Town International Airport, who handed them letters of suspension.
“We couldn’t believe it, we really did not do anything wrong,” she said.
Their first disciplinary hearing took place on August 2 at the Artscape Theatre, where they faced Michael Williams, managing director of the CTO.
Jaftha accuses Williams of financial exploitation and of trying to double-cross the singers.
Williams is presently in the UK, where he is helping to stage the CTO’s tribute to former president Nelson Mandela, Mandela Trilogy, and could not be reached for comment.
But the CTO’s marketing director Lesley Liddle responded this week: “An independent chairperson subsequently found the singers failed to follow lawful protocol within their contracts of employment with Cape Town Opera. They have since been dismissed.”
City Press is in possession of the opposing court documents filed on Thursday. The court papers list the singers as Lungile Halam, Vuyisa Jack, Arline Jaftha, Monwabisi Lindi, Sifiso Lupuzi, Palesa Malleloa, Nolubabalo Mdayi, Siphesihle Mdena, Fikile Mthetwa, Linda Nteleza, Lilitha Peter and Madoda Sawuli, and rubbish allegations of misappropriated cash.
Marketed on its website as “Africa’s premier opera company”, the CTO’s recent productions include Porgy and Bess, African Angels, Mandela Trilogy and Showboat.
The international music festival is hosted in the university city of Aix-en-Provence in southern France in July each year.
Così fan tutte is not new to controversy and is considered by many to be Mozart’s most divisive work. It chronicles mayhem wreaked by violent Italian troops.
The version that opened the Aix-en-Provence Festival, helmed by French film director Christophe Honoré, is set in Fascist-controlled Eritrea in the 1930s.
Reviewers described Honoré’s rendition as particularly sexually explicit and misogynistic.
A reviewer for The New York Times wrote: “Mr Honoré has added to the misogyny a volatile, violent racism.”
Jaftha said the shows had sold out.
“We did really well,” she said. “I’m a liberal person; in terms of sexual explicitness, this is like Fifty Shades of Grey, but in opera. I felt it was very effective. In fact, I loved it.
“And no, it wasn’t a problem being in a story where we portrayed slaves; that’s acting, that’s a part of our career.”
While the legal dispute continues to be finalised by the Labour Court, Jaftha will appear in the musical The Sound of Music, which will open in Durban in November.
Meanwhile, lawyer Graeme Gilfillan of Nisa Global Entertainment, which is supporting the two advocates representing the singers, said the case was bound to set new precedents in South African entertainment-labour legislation – especially relating to “fixed-term employment practices”.
“This is certainly a case to keep a close eye on,” said Gilfillan. The CTO’s attorney, Grant Marinus, refused to comment.
Responding to questions relating to the Aix-en-Provence Festival fall-out in The Guardian last week, Williams voiced exasperation: “I feel deeply disillusioned and disappointed. What have we got from it? Nothing but a headache and bad press and reputational damage.”
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