Cape Town Opera are bringing their Porgy and Bess to the UK for the first time. Richard Edmonds finds out the driving forces behind the cast and its creators.
Cape Town Opera bring their acclaimed production of George Gershwin’s folk opera Porgy and Bess to Birmingham Hippodrome next week - a city first for this distinguished company.
Yet CTO are no strangers to touring.
For several years since its opening night in Cape Town in 2006, Christine Crouse’s production of the Gershwin classic has moved around considerably, including in its range Oslo, Sweden, Australia, Israel and Berlin (where the former conductor of the CBSO, Sir Simon Rattle, is shortly to conduct this season’s tour at the Deutsch Opera - a great feather in the company’s cap), drawing armfuls of critical bouquets on its triumphal progress.
In Israel, the empathy the singers aroused amongst their audiences was given much praise.
Writing for “Musical America”, Keith Clarke spoke of a “fully integrated ensemble, working together joyously”, while here at home, it was this unity the British critics admired, noting the sense of cohesion and devotion from a large, supremely talented cast.
Crouse, a warm and friendly director, who I met recently on a visit to Cape Town, in the rehearsal areas of CTO, has updated this production of the Gershwin masterwork to Soweto in the 1970s, a period when apartheid destroyed the lives of millions of native Africans. Porgy and Bess was also re-imagined on Broadway in January this year, in an updated version by Diane Paulus, and the playwright Suzan-Lori Parks, humanising the opera for the American Repertory Theatre.
Crouse told me: “As a creative team, we were inspired by the pictorial depictions of township and urban life in Soweto during the 70s in which we found in the photographs of Jurgen Schadberg, chief photographer of the South African ‘Drum’ magazine, and in the photographic work of James Barnor, men who worked up until the disbanding of the apartheid system.
“The word ‘township’ or location, was used to refer to the under-developed residential areas in South Africa, earmarked for the South African people. South Africa’s townships have often been referred to as the place where the heart of the nation beats strongest, and where a deep sense of community exists as strongly today as it ever did.
“Transferring this South African township history to Porgy and Bess seemed to fit perfectly.”
The people of Gershwin’s Catfish Row pass their days in derelict buildings, always having a little space and time left for strangers who come with a need for comfort and affection or a little corner to sleep. The transposing of one concept to another meshes perfectly. In fact, the cultural life of Catfish Row rules equally in Crouse’s Soweto township.
I asked Crouse what she saw as her greatest moment in the theatre.
“I think it is that wonderful second when you sense an audience is being transported. There is that spellbinding silence which comes when a singer catches at you heart and holds it, until you lose your grip on time and space - that I truly believe is my greatest moment in theatre.”
Michael Williams joins us and the theatre dimension extends immediately.
Now 50, Williams trained as an actor in Cape Town, but left and worked his way to Nepal and hippiedom “to avoid military conscription”, he says.
“In Nepal they wanted me to write an opera on the Buddha with a Nepalese chorus, no less. But as things turned out I left for Japan then London, where I worked on a production of Lohengrin. Then I wanted to come back here to a new Africa. It was exciting, it had changed, and I found myself writing and staging operas, one of which was Hendrik Hofmeyr’s The Fall of the House of Usher.
A modest man, Williams neglects to tell me that his production of Bizet’s Carmen for CTO, was staged to great critical acclaim in 2011. He is also the director and librettist for CTO’s Mandela Trilogy which will open at Cardiff’s Millenium Centre on June 20.
“The most thrilling moment for me was when Mandella’s grandchild came to me after the first night in 2011, and said: ‘When Tata spoke of the years in the Transkei, he gave me a picture of his life at that time, and that is exactly what I saw on stage tonight’”.
Then Williams and Crouse go into a huddle with Albert Horne, the young conductor, while the cast take five and you sit mesmerised listening to the rise and fall of accented South African voices with their fascinating stresses and inflexions. Here and there amongst the large company of opera singers, you hear the click language used by the Xhosa people - a wonderful sound, at its most defined, similar to a pistol shot going off. Impossible for a European to reproduce.
“We speak it from birth” notes Lubabalo (‘Luba’) Velebayi, a singer from a township, who has made it into the company. Luba tries to show me how, but to no avail. “Can you sing something from, say, Carmen in Xhosa?” I say.
“Certainly can” says Luba and goes into Toreador using clicks, which give an edge to the song Bizet never dreamed of.
The cast come to talk as the day lengthens into afternoon. I meet three women who all sing Bess, and Xolela Sixaba who is a magnificent Porgy, with a terrific stage presence combining a fine physique with a gloriously resonant baritone. In a recently-published book, Sixaba said: “I never thought I could be a part of anything like this,” yet here he is, touring the world and wowing audiences from London to Melbourne with his performance.
“It’s all a miracle”, he says, “I came here first in the mid-90s, and eventually got into Cape Opera.
“In London I sang Porgy in a concert performance and I couldn’t quite believe that 3,000 people were listening intently. “It was like something I would never have believed possible. I stood there amongst the cheers, and thought where am I? It was unforgettable.”
Of Porgy, he says: “Well, to tell you the truth, it’s not easy to be on your knees for three hours, pushing a small cart at the same time. But it’s the character and that’s that, I don’t complain - I look upon it as an honour.”
All the ladies who sing Bess speak of early inspiration from gospel choirs - it is a cultural experience shared by most, if not all the black singers who make up CTO.
Tsakane Valentine Maswanganyi, who has the easy, graceful look of a fashion model and lives today in Ravenna with a footballer husband. Tsakne told me she trained in Pretoria where her mother conducted a church choir. “When I started singing I was helped a lot by my father who played cassettes of classical music for me to absorb. I listened endlessly, I guess that was when I knew that I wanted to be a singer above all else.
“Yet I was continually discouraged. People said you ought to train as a doctor or a vet. But I wanted to sing above all else. Bess? Well, to get the balance right is important. Yes, she is free with herself, but there are lots of Besses in this world and she is the product of Catfish Row, but with a big heart. When I sing the role, I never think of myself as performing, but as sharing.”
Nonhlanhla Yende had a grandmother who was a female bishop, so choral singing in church style was in her blood.
“We also sang songs from African tribal history. I wanted to know the cultural history of my people. It helped having parents in the music industry, and I first sang in public at music recitals. Bess? Well, she’s had a good life and if she’s morally weak, it’s because of the life she’s been exposed to. I grew up in a township - there were lots of people like Bess,” she said.
The third Bess, Sibongile Mngoma, an impressive lady - a sort of explosion in red silk, who was born in Soweto, said her career as a singer was a great surprise to her. “I had always thought I was destined to become a lawyer!”
It all seems to fit into a pattern of achievement against all the odds, and it began on an autumn afternoon in 1926, when George Gershwin was handed a book by his secretary, Nanette Kutner. It was a thin book by DuBose Heyward, entitled, simply Porgy.
Gershwin wrote to Heyward about his intention (with permission) to convert the book about black fishermen in South Carolina into an opera. The original idea was to use Al Jolson as Porgy, but this was abandoned. The opera took a ten year gestation period, before Gershwin was satisfied with it.
The trials and tribulations of writing this masterpiece in places all over America finally concluded. Rehearsals began with the director Rouben Mamoulian and the original set designs were by Sergei Soudekine, who had designed for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The American ‘Theatre Arts Monthly’ for October 1935, noted that “folk-opera takes more preparation than a play”. The original Porgy was Todd Duncan.
After the first rehearsal, Mamoulian was up half the night filled with misgivings about the piece. When the phone rang, he was glad, it took him out of his misery. It was Gershwin on the other end.
“Rouben, I just had to call you, I am so thrilled and delighted over the rehearsal today (Mamoulian recounting all this later in his biography: “I Remember” said he “already began to feel much better”).
“I always knew that Porgy and Bess was wonderful, “continued Gershwin, “but I tell you, after listening to that rehearsal today, I think the music is so marvellous - I really don’t believe I wrote it.”
But, of course, Gershwin did, and in his tragically short life, gave the world, Summertime, I Got Plenty O’ Nuttin’ and “It Ain’t Neccessarily So, songs which will last as long as there are singers as fine as the men and women of the Cape Town Opera to sing them.
* Porgy And Bess begins a UK tour on Wednesday, June 6 at the Birmingham Hippodrome culminating in a season at the London Coliseum from July 11 http://www.porgyandbess2012.co.uk Birmingham Hippodrome, 0844 338 5000 www.birminghamhippodrome.com