WHEN Operalia chooses you, the doors of the world's greatest opera houses open for you.
It has been like this for 30 years. The panel of judges consists of some of the main artistic decision-makers and managers of the music world. They listen carefully. They can hear the potential of a budding voice.
Over four days last week, 34 hopeful young singers took part in the challenging elimination rounds of the biggest opera competition in the world. They were the cream of the crop, selected from 800 applications. Five of them took their first singing steps on South African stages.
It became clear during the week that these young singers were honing their innate talents every day. Practising and practising, over and over and far from the glamour and appreciative audiences. They know failure, but it is an unusual perseverance that drives them.
That's how it is for Operalia singers. That's how it is for the Springboks.
Eight days after Paris, we again made history. This time our flag bearers were the soprano Nombulelo Yende from Mpumalanga and Siphokazi Molteno, a mezzo-soprano from the Eastern Cape. For six days during the qualifying stages, they sang in the Artscape opera house with no audience, just the jury members in an otherwise empty auditorium, apart from technical people going back and forth to ensure the gala night on Sunday ran flawlessly.
Their aim was not a Webb Ellis Cup but the approval of the silvery fox chairperson of the jury, Plácido Domingo, who still sounds like a 40-year-old tenor at 82. (I heard him rehearse with the Cape Philharmonic Orchestra.)
Nombulelo Yende sings Op. 24 from Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin at the Operalia competition. © Operalia / medici.tv Full concert here: https://bit.ly/3StbY72
That Domingo? Indeed, the Spanish tenor in the famous trio with countryman José Carreras and the Italian Luciano Pavarotti. The Three Tenors, who took the sting out of opera for us ordinary earthlings. In the process, they won millions of enthusiastic new fans for opera. Now you could hum O sole mio in your kitchen, in your slippers, without your housemates thinking you'd lost your marbles.
The Three Tenors meant opera was no longer just a series of incomprehensible shrieks from women with outrageous cleavages or men in funny shoes. No sober person has time for such noisy drama. Pour another brannas instead.
If you are from those ranks, or choose to wither away there, it's a shame, but okay. In any case, you know more about the big O than I do about rugby.
Anyway, before you became master of your own cassette and record collection, you probably heard Onse Mimi countless times, without any temple curtains or foreskins being torn as a result.
And if you can also sing a handful of notes from Seeman and Liefling (in your own way of course, to hell with everyone else), then there is yet another opera singer wandering around in your head, this time a tenor; one that is maybe softer on your ear than Mimi. If Gé Korsten had not switched to light music, he could have become one of Europe's leading tenors of his day, opera insiders reckon.
And, closer to the present: on the day earlier this year when Mommy Lizzie's crown at last came to rest on son Charlie's head so he could be called King Charles III, you might also have heard a little of the big O coming from your television. Wearing an impressive bright yellow dress, the voice of our spirited ambassador for opera, Pretty Yende, rang out through Westminster Abbey. Charles invited her himself. (In retrospect, one realises that the colour of her outfit was a nod to Springbok gold.)
She did a beautiful job of the “sacred fire", in the spiritual sense of the word. (Obviously with no reference to the kind of fire that the Bokke have, and that our Prez does not have.)
Pretty Yende in Westminster Abbey.
The 31-year-old Nombulelo Yende, who made it to the final, glamorous round of Operalia on Sunday night, is none other than the little sister of Charles's Westminster nightingale. After Pretty won Operalia in 2011, she never looked back. Singing in the church choir in the former Piet Retief, now Mkhondo in Mpumalanga, and the input of the masters at the University of Cape Town music school were decisive in the Yende sisters' early vocal development.
Six years after Pretty Yende, in 2017, local tenor Levy Sekgapane won Operalia's men's division.
When a village girl in a sparkling silver evening dress put Mkhondo back on the map on Sunday evening, it felt like the bonfires would burn forever. Here she stood, in front of a packed opera house, the winner of the prestigious CulturArte prize of $10,000. And what's more, a worldwide audience of 120,000 people could hear her on the streaming service medici.tv.
When Yende won Operalia in 2011, 90,000 people experienced it on their screens; no wonder maestro Domingo says opera is by no means on the wane; it just keeps getting bigger.
On Sunday night, her younger sister's hair was tied back in schoolgirl style. Her accessories were simple, her makeup subtle. Except for her mouth, which was a full-bodied fuchsia pink. In the quarterfinals this was also the colour of her dress.
“Myrepienk”, was what heavy-set Afrikaner-tantes in a bygone era have called this colour; white girls wouldn't be caught dead wearing that.
But now, tantes? Go listen to the sounds coming from the colour of your contempt. Nombulelo Yende sang the brief aria from the opera Yevgény Onégin by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, the same man who wrote the music for Swan Lake, a ballet your daughters should all see as soon as possible. You would approve of his Tatyana's incorruptible morals. (Despite her slipping a love letter to a show-off idiot.) Listen to how it sounds. From Piet Retief to Saint Petersburg her voice rings out: “Let me be lost, but first I call in the blinding hope… Puskai pogibnu ya…"
We also saw our other Operalia finalist, Siphokazi Molteno from East London, in pink during the week, but a much softer shade: that of ballet slippers and marshmallows. She was honoured with an encouragement prize of $5,000.
When the mayor of Cape Town, Geordin Hill-Lewis, heard that Operalia's main sponsor, Rolex, was giving away some of its watches to everyone who did not win a cash amount, he raised his hand at the media launch: “Excuse me, Maestro…" He wanted to know from Domingo if there was a category for late entries!
Anyway, if you want to wander through the “good old days" some more, don't forget about Onse Mimi. She was only 24 when she joined the Vienna State Opera and stayed for 22 years. When she opened her mouth, laurel wreaths and songs of praise followed. The greatest of these was probably Vienna's honorary title equivalent to a knighthood: Staatsoper Österreichischer Kammersänger.
It's not an opera aria, but listen below how Mimi sings S Le Roux Marais' Heimwee. You might just long for your mother:
When the Nico Malan theatre complex opened in 1971, every last artist and audience member was white. On the square outside, a small group of people gathered in protest against the injustices of the statutory separation of art and culture. It screamed to high heaven, but for 20 years the heavens did not hear. Last Monday, this same square was filled with people yet again, this time to celebrate the Springboks.
Judging by what is nowadays staged and performed in the erstwhile Nico Malan, now Artscape, those decades were also a terrible loss for white people.
Last November, Louis Heyneman, chief executive and artistic director of the Cape Philharmonic, received a call from Operalia's head office in New York: Maestro Domingo would like to come and celebrate Operalia's 30th anniversary in Cape Town. He knows the orchestra is world-class but he also needs to hear if the thousand and one other things required to present such a glorious event are doable?
When the final curtain fell on Sunday night, Heyneman could be rightly satisfied. Operalia had once again proved “some of the best voices in the new generation of opera singers come from the southern tip of Africa, the nursery for emerging voices and musicians".
Heyneman, acknowledging that he and the Cape Philharmonic could not have pulled the event off by themselves, thanked all the sponsors; from the (hopeful😊) mayor to Rola Volvo in Somerset West, which transported the Domingo dynasty safely and luxuriously.
In the big-O euphoria, I almost forgot: the female voice who took home $10,000 belongs to French soprano Julie Roset; the male voice that of Stephano Park, a bass from South Korea. If you haven't heard them yourself or listened to them for free on medici.tv, now might be a good time to go do so.
♦ VWB ♦
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