GERSHWIN’S opera set in a South Carolina ghetto in the 1930s has been transferred to a Sowetan township with stunning effect
FOLLOWING the success three years ago of its touring version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Cape Town Opera is back in the UK with that very same winning production. The one Scottish stop-off is in Edinburgh on 15 and 16 June. Lovers of Gershwin, and of an opera that in 1930s America defied operatic conventions by depicting the self-governing ghettoised folk of an all-black South Carolina dockside slum, will not be disappointed.
Nor will they be surprised to learn that a South African company makes no apology for transferring the action to a 1970s Sowetan township. As Cape Town Opera’s managing director Michael Williams puts it: “Porgy and Bess deals with all the issues we witness here every day, especially in areas like the notorious Cape Flats, where extreme poverty, drug abuse and appalling violence against women is a way of life.”
More importantly, perhaps, it’s a production that has gone down just as well in South Africa, and not just because its ugly themes strike a social and political chord in a country still tarred by the brush of apartheid. Where Gershwin failed to find a popular niche for his hybrid folk opera in America – initial attempts in either traditional opera houses or on Broadway struggled to establish its tenability within any one designated genre – Cape Town Opera’s uncompromising localisation of the story has captured barrier-less South African popularity.
“It cuts right across the range of audiences,” says Williams. “It has such a wonderful mix of jazz that young people think it’s fabulous. Even the opera cognoscenti are tapping their feet. But mostly there’s a sense of community opera about it, with so many small stories woven through it that it appeals to the general sprawl.”
Storytelling is an intrinsic part of South African culture, he adds. But so is singing. Put them together and it’s easier to appreciate why opera has become so popular there. “Singing is a national pastime, especially among the townships. We have choir competitions that go on for days. It’s in their blood to do combat with the voice. Singing for everyone is a cultural activity linked to all stages of life. When you’re born, there’s a song; when you get married, or when you die, there’s a song; when you get your first kiss, when you buy your first car, there’s a song.”
But how does that transfer to opera, and a production in which South African singers are singing the key roles? For besides having Gershwin in its repertoire, Cape Town Opera does not ignore the classic European operatic canon.
“When singers develop here and reach a glass ceiling, they want to explore beyond that, and opera is the natural place to go. In our latest production of La bohème, for instance, many of the soloists came from rural parts of the Cape,” Williams says.
Oddly enough it was a Scot, Erik Chisholm, who set the ball rolling for Cape Town’s own opera company. Glasgow-born Chisholm – who famously mounted the first-ever UK performance of Berlioz’s epic The Trojans in Glasgow in the 1930s with the amateur Glasgow Grand Opera – was professor of music at Cape Town’s university music school until his death in 1965. “He not only had a great passion for opera and classical music, but was pioneering in is notion that opera, through universal themes, could speak to so many people,” says Williams. He would surely, then, have approved of the company’s current take on Gershwin’s opera, and on another new opera – The Mandela Trilogy – that the company has brought this time to the UK, but which sadly will not be coming to Scotland. Its only tour performance was last week in Cardiff.
The subject matter speaks for itself – a trilogy dealing with three aspects of Nelson Mandela’s life. “Each of the three acts portrays different phases in Mandela’s life – the three women in his life, the three prisons he went to – each act sung by a different singer,” Williams says.
There are distinctions, too, in the musical styles that help it speak to every level of South African society. “The first act uses traditional Xhosa music; the second uses jazz; and the third is more traditionally operatic. Crossing genres in that way reflects South Africa’s diversity. There’s wonderful choral singing, too. It’s toe-tapping stuff.”
It shares a lot in common, then, with Porgy and Bess, that has such memorable numbers as the immortal Summertime and It Ain’t Necessarily So both of which have had their own life outside Gershwin’s socially biting opera.
“It travels well in every sense,” says Williams. “We can relate to it here in South Africa, and the UK is also plagued with drugs, unemployment, and probably violence against women. But it’s also a beautiful love story about a cripple who falls in love with the most beautiful girl on the block. How likely is that?”
The fact is, this is a production that – if the rave reviews from its previous visit are anything to go by – hits every right button. Which is why the Gershwin Estate – notoriously protective of the opera’s integrity and famously unhelpful when it comes to any production that takes it out of its original setting – has no problem with the Cape Town version, not to mention the royalties it is bringing in.
“It’s happy with our success and the fact the opera is being performed wherever we go,” says Williams, whose company prides itself on the slogan “local excellence, global reach”.
Besides the UK, its Porgy and Bess is being performed in Australia this September at a gala concert to mark the opening of Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, and at the Glimmerglass festival in America. But biggest of all are the three performances that Sir Simon Rattle will conduct in Berlin’s Philharmonie.
The American singer Lisa Daltirus, one of two cast as Bess on the production’s previous UK tour, told a reporter: “A lot of people just think that this is a show that is lovely to listen to and happened way back when. They’re not thinking that you can still find places where this is real. And if we’re not careful we could be right back there.”
When opera is as relevant as that, it comes into a class of its own.
• Cape Town Opera’s Porgy and Bess is at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre on 15 and 16 June
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