It’s not simply the inspiration of living under our beautiful flat-topped mountain with its snowy table cloth that makes Cape Town the undisputed opera capital of South Africa. There are other important factors. Like the support and presence of a vibrant university with a music department that year after year trains young men and women from all backgrounds to become polished performers in multi-languages.
Maybe it is the combo of our stunning city and the continual output of talented singers, but somehow Cape Town has been blessed with attracting a succession of men and women including Giuseppe Paganelli in the 1920s, Scotsman Erik Chisholm, Italian POW Gregorio Fiasconaro from 1946-1965 and Milan-born Angelo Gobbato in the 1980-1990s. They made it their lives work to teach and direct youthful baritones, sopranos and chorus members and hone them into a unit which became a company with a name and a sound.
The cherry on the top is finding an artistic individual with business flair who can make the right
connections to help that company survive in tough economic times, particularly in post-apartheid South Africa where funding opera takes a back seat to building basic houses. Right now Cape Town Opera is unbelievably fortunate to have South African-born Michael Williams at the helm. Since 2000 when he became GM, and MD in 2005, CTO has spread its wings and performed in Berlin, Nurnberg, Oslo, Malmo, Umea, Monte Carlo, London, Edinburgh, Birmingham, Paris, Melbourne, Perth, Cardiff and now is again in Munich. These tours have kept our singers and singing alive both in South Africa and abroad. On the 11th July Cape Town Opera will be performing in 4 different countries with 4 different productions. Show Boat is on stage in England, Porgy and Bess in Spain, African Angels in Germany and Spirit of Unity Concert in Wales.
Many individuals who were born or trained in Cape Town have made names for themselves overseas. In July soprano Pretty Yende and tenor Colin Lee will make a bit of artistic history when they team up in the leading roles in Rossini’s Le comte Ory at La Scala, Milan. Both are currently performing in the world’s major opera houses.
The list of other ex-pats working abroad is too long to mention but there are at least 28 sopranos, 6 mezzos, 3 counter-tenors, 18 tenors and 18 bass-baritones flying the banner for CTO!
Yet soloists alone do not make a great opera company. The quality of our chorus plays a major role in the impact of any opera production. Hence the delight among CTO’s singing “foot soldiers” that last year the group received the “Chorus of the Year” award at the 2013 International Opera Awards in London, emerging as one of the most compelling, varied and exciting ensembles on the international Opera circuit.
Under the guidance of Chorus Master Albert Horne, who now conducts as well, the chorus has performed at numerous local and international venues, including the 2013 Perth Festival, L’Auditorium de Bordeaux, Hamer Hall in Melbourne, and the Berliner Philharmonie with Sir Simon Rattle.
The extended repertoire in various genres, awe-inspiring sound and show-stopping, energetic performances have endeared our choral singers to audiences wherever they sing. Be it as “released” prisoners experiencing blinding light again in Fidelio, staged on Robben Island in 2004 and at the Castle of Good Hope in 2012, or singing their hearts out with joy under the banner of FREEDOM in Mandela Trilogy in 2014 in Munich.
Like most opera companies around the world, it’s been challenging for CTO to remain afloat financially. When previously known as the Cape Performing Arts Board, or Capab, it initially enjoyed a healthy subsidy from the apartheid government which was gradually reduced. With the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and the reality of political changes facing the country, the need for transformation in the arts became imperative if any opera company under any name was to survive in the “new” South Africa.
Foreseeing the inevitable, Prof Angelo Gobbato, then head of both Capab Opera and the UCT Opera School, wisely initiated his choral training programmes to allow students from disadvantaged communities to gain live opera performance experience on the Artscape stage and increase their chance of making a living.
In a few years these wonderful black voices, many previously heard only in church choirs in distant parts of South Africa, were carrying off with aplomb comic, dramatic, romantic or wicked roles. With each passing year these diverse performers of our Rainbow Nation, are becoming more accomplished and confident in whichever operatic language they are expected to sing.
Sadly other opera companies in Pretoria, Durban, and Bloemfontein which, like Capab, were subsidised by the apartheid government, have folded but smaller companies and groups continue to pop up to keep singing alive.
Cape Town Opera, like its sister organisation the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra, depends heavily on funding from the National Lottery Distribution Trust Fund along with smaller sums from the Western Cape Government, the City of Cape Town and private funders. The NLDTF is under such pressure from so many in need of its hand-outs that the money does not always arrive when expected, or in the amount that was hoped for.
It’s a tough world out there singing for your supper. But Cape Town Opera is blessed with a team that will fight for its survival through thick and thicker and long may those involved have the heart to continue.“Aluta Continua Cape Town Opera”
Photo by John Snelling
Press release provided by Debra de Souza.