Richard Edmonds recently travelled to Cape Town to preview the Gershwin opera Porgy & Bess, which is now at Birmingham Hippodrome. Here are his personal reflections on the visit.
At 37,000 feet the African coastline looked like a fragile white ribbon holding back the bulk of the Atlantic.
We were hurrying down to Cape Town, where I was working with the cast of Porgy and Bess in the Cape Town Opera production of the Gershwin folk-opera, which began its national tour at Birmingham Hippodrome yesterday.
The flight time (we left Heathrow at 9pm) included the Southern night sky – it was a bonus, and I had a window seat.
Just before night faded into dawn and the reading lights were switched off, I had a last glimpse of the stars which were totally mesmerising.
These stars were huge, almost near enough to touch, and they glowed in the darkness, like enormous stage spotlights on a vast dark stage that stretched away to eternity.
Finally, we saw Table Mountain and Cape Town appeared through an early African winter morning drizzle, then the plane bumped down.
After passport control I realised I was running late. I had lost my colleagues from two London papers ages ago.
So it was the voice of the hall porter saying: “Let me take your bags Sir”, at the luxurious Taj Hotel, (Cape Town’s best owned by TaTa steel, who also own British Jaguar) that restored the balance.
Everything boiled down to a quick hot coffee and suddenly, I find myself in a strange place, initiating provocative but polite dialogue with Cape Town Opera’s singers in the warren of offices that flank the company’s rehearsal space, dialogue which has to produce a feature article within days.
There seems little hope of that happening. However, one soldiers on. And suddenly the singers took off, they talked about their lives, what brought them into opera, and all the things that make an interview tick. And suddenly I find myself singing with one of this years’s several Carmens, the habanera from Bizet’s opera of the same name.
“I have loved Bizet’s Carmen all my life” I say, she feels the same, learning it at her father’s knee. The interview ends in laughter, with this beautiful woman shaking hands, and saying: “See you in Birmingham.”
How quickly Dr. Theatre takes over and how suddenly you forget personal trials and tribulations when the magic of great theatre kicks in. Did I have a headache? I can’t remember, since by now Bess had switched from Bizet and was singing Gershwin’s sublime Summertime.
The company was ranged around the rehearsal room like badly-wrapped parcels, which is the way of companies in rehearsal. But when they sang and moved into the songs Gershwin wrote for black singers only (white opera companies cannot perform Porgy and Bess) everything changed and the roof came off.
This is why I’m here, I thought, this is why I’m on earth, and at that moment, with magnificent singing soaring higher and higher, there was nowhere else on earth I wanted to be.
The Mandela Trilogy is also coming to Britain, but it will be presented only at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff later this month.
It is a stirring, stimulating opera created by three composers, and if the singers seemed almost more enthusiastic when rehearsing it than they did with the Gershwin piece, this is entirely to be expected, since Mandela has now become canonised and is a hero, and for the singers this was their recent history taking in the hideousness of the grim apartheid years.
In terms of Mandela’s history, which is not entirely Christ-like, we must remember that opera can transcend the factual and is unsuited, as one of the composers, Michael Williams, says: “to the rigours of accurate reportage”. It is a case of choosing from Mandela’s life what to finally omit and what to highlight. The result, it must be said immediately, is a stunning opera.
But my time was running out. Our last day was spent in the poverty-stricken townships, which contrast rather poorly with the element of luxury that constitutes life in Cape Town, where the audience attendance at the opera is apparently still largely white.
Our driver was Lubba Velebhayi, a singer with CTO, whose home is in the township called Khayelitsha.
Along the road to the church, where the beauty of the gospel singing was deeply moving, black women were cooking sausages and chicken pieces on iron slabs balanced on iron braziers.
Beside the railroad tracks, washing was drying on the metal fences, strung there by the poverty-stricken black population living in the run-down corrugated iron shacks set back from the road. AIDS affects one in four of the township poor and hospital queues are out of sight, with stretchers to carry away those whose illness causes them to drop down dead while waiting for hours for treatment.
Yet in a ramshackle church, filled with patient, caring people of all ages, from tots in nursery chairs to teenagers, and old people, this congregation worshipped a God they saw as a bringer of beauty into their lives. These warm and loving people seemed to recognise God as their intimate friend and they had developed their hearts to the point where they could receive God’s love unconditionally.
The hallelujahs and God bless you, so oft repeated, came from the heart, as did their singing. This, I discovered, was where so many of Cape Town Opera’s singers had begun their singing careers, working to an impossible goal through hardship and determination and finally succeeding.
These are the people singing tonight on the stage of Birmingham Hippodrome. Cherish them, they are very special.
Before I left, I was given a blessing in the winter sunlight.
“This is Richard, he has come from London to see us”, said the pastor, in his brown business suit. “I want you all to bless him.
‘‘May the blood of God be on your body, on your plane and on the wheels of your plane”. Amen.
The chorus of amens which followed, backed again by amazing singing, and warm hugs, was heart-lifting.
I was glad we were driven away by Luba, for to tell you the truth, I couldn’t see the road for tears, which somehow I couldn’t seem to control.
* Porgy & Bess is at Birmingham Hippodrome until Saturday, June 9, the start of a national tour culminating in a season at the London Coliseum from July 11. http://www.porgyandbess2012.co.uk Birmingham Hippodrome, 0844 3385000 www.birminghamhippodrome.com