Monday, 3 June 2013

Guest post: "'The Fairy Queen' in South Africa", by Shirley Apthorp

I met Shirley Aprthorp a few months ago in a conference in Lisbon. At that time, I heard her speak about young people in South Africa filling a 6000-seat venue in order to participate in a national opera contest (a “dying” art form, some say…). After that, we stayed in touch through Facebook, and there I could follow all the preparations for the presentation of Purcell´s The Fairy Queen in Johannesburg and Cape Town. In this post, Shirley writes about the love for opera among South African school children; about Umculo, the music organization she founded; and about her conviction that South Africa has a huge role to play in the future of opera as a meaningful artform for the whole world. mv

The Fairy Queen, Umculo 2012/2013 (Photo: Neil Baynes)
The address was scrawled on a crumpled scrap of paper: “The Dome”. Johannesburg traffic is daunting at the best of times; all the more so if you are running late for an important event. Arriving finally, I ground my teeth in frustration. Why had I not asked for more exact information? The Dome towered in front of me, a vast building. How would I ever find a high school choir competition in such a complex? Anxiously, I hurried for one of the doors, only to be waved inside with a smile. I was in for a series of shocks.

Inside, the Dome proved to be one enormous indoor stadium. It was packed to the rafters with black children in uniform, waiting eagerly for the first session of the annual high school choir competition to begin. It was a boys-only session and the set piece was the Pilgrim’s Chorus from Tannh√§user. Soon after came solo and ensemble sections, where tenors tackled an aria from Ascanio in Alba, sopranos sang the “Queen of the Night”, groups of four gave more than passable renditions of the quartet from Cosi fan Tutte.  And so it went on. The 6,000-strong audience watched them with utter attention, gasping in unison if a note was missed, leaping up to cheer in four-part harmony if a coloratura run was particularly well-mastered. Six thousand black teenaged opera connoisseurs in one place at the same time, most of them from communities well below the poverty line - could this really be happening?

“Well, yes”, responded one of the organisers apologetically. “Actually we have 10000 finalists here, but the stadium only fits 6000, so we have to organise attendance in shifts.”

The Fairy Queen, Umculo 2012/2013 (Photo: Yasser Booley)
And this is only the tip of the iceberg - these are the select few who have made their way through regional and provincial finals to take part in the coveted nationals.

Choirs competing in national competition must sing a range of set repertoire, from traditional African songs through new compositions on themes of HIV-AIDS to Schubert, Mendelssohn and a wide range of opera repertoire. You can travel to the furthest-flung township or informal settlement in the country and find 15-year-old Paminas and Taminos, hear Verdi and Handel and Puccini from soloists too young to drink or drive.  For a European raised on endless complaints about an aging opera audience, it is nothing short of a revelation.

Literally hundreds of thousands of South African teenagers sing opera and many of them dream of singing for a living, like 28-year-old Pretty Yende, who recently made her debut at the Met after a series of international competition wins and a stint at La Scala; like Luthando Quave, making a name for himself at the Met and in continental Europe; like Sunnyboy Dlala, now in the ensemble at Zurich’s opera house, or Pumeza Matshikiza, one of the stars of the Stuttgart Opera, or Njabulo Madlala, winner of the 2010 Kathleen Ferrier Award. 

Home-grown singers from South Africa are just beginning to grab international attention; yet the entire country currently boasts only one full-time opera company - Cape Town’s - which itself struggles to survive in a post-Apartheid context that does not see that kind of cultural funding as a high priority. The by-whites, for-whites support offered by the Apartheid government to its regional opera companies set a dangerous precedent and not even the extraordinary passion of its disadvantaged communities for the music of opera is enough to turn the current tide.

Umculo (Photo: Yasser Booley)
As a South African, born into a “struggle” family of anti-Apartheid activists, I had grown up as an exile in Australia, only coming to know my home country and extended family as an adult, after the advent of democracy in 1994. I had moved to Germany, where I was coming to know the international opera circuit well through my work as a music journalist.  The discrepancy between Europe’s opera life - well-funded, highly-skilled, and cynical - and South Africa’s - largely unfunded, seldom musically literate, yet extroardinarily passionate and talented - bothered me immensely and, eventually, pushed me into founding Umculo.

In Xhosa, the language of the Western Cape, Umculo means both music and reconciliation. Our organisation draws together an international team to work with gifted young South Africans from disadvantaged communities, providing access to opera, skills, opportunities and international links. From our launch in 2010 with an international music education conference, a festive choral concert broadcast internationally on ARTE TV and a collaboration with Venezuela’s El Sistema, Umculo has grown to the point where it presents fully-staged opera productions for a new audience of Township teenagers, who in turn participate in Umculo workshops.

Umculo works on the social fault-lines of South Africa’s complex society.  Its productions use music theatre to address tensions between races, socio economic groups, nationalities, language groups and age groups.

(Photo: July Zuma) 
Our 2012/13 production of Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, performed in both Johannesburg and Cape Town, is built around a choir of thirty 14-18-year-old singers from the disadvantaged community of Kraaifontein, between Cape Town and Stellenbosch. Vienna-based conductor Warwick Stengards, German stage director Robert Lehmeier and dramaturg Laura Ellersdorfer worked with South African costume designer Thando Lobese and lighting designer Michael Maxwell, young South African soloists and an orchestra which brought together top international and local professional musicians with members of the South African National Youth Orchestra.


Umculo’s team members work on a voluntary basis and projects are run on a shoestring budget. Funding from the Hilti Foundation, the Goethe Institut and private donors enables our organisation to realise its projects, but significantly more funding will be needed for Umculo to become a full-time, sustainable organisation.

We are moved and motivated by the transformation of the young participants, by the passion, enthusiasm and excellence of our performers, by the ease and excitement with which our new young audiences are taking to the experience of opera performers, and by the social impact of our work. Umculo believes that South Africa has a huge role to play in the future of opera as a meaningful artform for the whole world.  We do all we can to further that vision.


Shirley Apthorp was born in Cape Town, South Africa, and emigrated to Australia with her immediate family at the age of two.  She studied music at the University of Tasmania, Hobart.  During her studies, she began writing locally and nationally about music; upon graduating, she embarked on a career as a freelance music journalist.  A Churchill Fellowship and grants from the Australia Council, Arts Tasmania and the Goethe Institut took her to Europe in 1994; she has lived in Berlin since 1996, reporting on music for the Financial Times (UK), Bloomberg, (USA), the Australian (Australia), and numerous music magazines.  She founded Umculo in 2010.

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