Wednesday 18 October 2017

Cape of Good Opera raises its voice

'Welcome to the Cape of Good Opera," announces the billboard in South Africa's second most populous city. There's clearly more to Cape Town than Table Mountain and one of the most famous headlands in maritime history.

In this country, with a rich tradition of music and singing, there's only one full-blown, year-round professional company, and that's Cape Town Opera (CTO). Last year, it celebrated its 10th anniversary, a fact that has as much to do with South Africa's turbulent emergence from a troubled past as any reluctance to embrace the art form.

Through the years of apartheid, opera was one of the vehicles used by the whites-only regime to peddle the propaganda that South Africa was a civilised place. This was, of course, a facade. There were no seats for black people in the stalls.

Even after the opera house was desegregated in the 1970s, there was still a ban on engaging non-white artists. It wouldn't be until the final ending of apartheid in 1994 that the opera could go its own way, but even then hurdles remained.

With priorities in many other areas, the government funding that had sustained it previously was cut off. But with determination the musical community of Cape Town set about rebuilding the company, and, in 1999, CTO was born.

It's still a struggle, financially, and CTO has had to be innovative. It has built up a network of collaborations with other houses, bringing the unique, rich sound of South African voices to stages across Europe.

And it has established an outreach programme at home to encourage interest in opera, as well as seek out new talent. Once a year, some of CTO's best young singers take to the road to visit schools and communities right across this vast country to stimulate interest and push the operatic message.

CTO has grown into South Africa's biggest performing arts company. Not only does it encourage and develop local talent, it promotes an alternative and expanded vision of what opera is and can achieve.

On the margins of the World Cup, it presented African Songbook, an opera based on the life of Nelson Mandela, featuring music from folk song to jazz to western contemporary. South African opera has come a long way from the days when it was an elitist, whites-only entertainment.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTE lyric fm from 9.30 each Saturday morning.

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