Gauteng Opera singers Phenye Modiane, Khayakazi Madlala, Solly Motaung, Yolanda Nyembezi, Kagiso Boroko and Chuma Sijeqa are seen at the theatre of the Gauteng Opera this week. The board has announced that it will be closing down because of funding constraints. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips
Gauteng Opera singers Phenye Modiane, Khayakazi Madlala, Solly Motaung, Yolanda Nyembezi, Kagiso Boroko and Chuma Sijeqa are seen at the theatre of the Gauteng Opera this week. The board has announced that it will be closing down because of funding constraints. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips

Must opera now completely die in SA before people wake up?

By Sheree Bega Time of article published Mar 17, 2018

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In the past few weeks, Cloete, the chief executive officer of the Gauteng Opera, has started to bring in more and more boxes for himself and his colleagues.

He knows that inevitably they will all need to begin the painful task of packing up their offices. Still, he is trying to keep his colleagues’ sagging spirits up.

“It’s not serious packing yet,” he says, with a loud laugh. That’s because Cloete, along with his artistic director, Phenye Modiane, still has hope that the curtain won’t go down on the Gauteng Opera - not yet.

“Miracles do happen,” he says, grinning and shrugging his large shoulders. “People sometimes wake up at the last minute.”

Gauteng Opera singers Phenye Modiane, Khayakazi Madlala, Solly Motaung, Yolanda Nyembezi, Kagiso Boroko and Chuma Sijeqa are seen at the theatre of the Gauteng Opera this week. The board has announced that it will be closing down because of funding constraints. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips

Last week, the board announced that it had resolved to shut down the Gauteng Opera and cease all operations by March 31, because donations - from a collection of private and foreign funders - had run out.

For Cloete, who has spent 18 years with the company, it’s not over till the fat lady sings.

There’s a sense of weary resignation. “Look, we’ve been struggling for years. Last year, we nearly closed down in June, then we received a donation and plodded along and then we nearly closed down again until we got another donation.

“Now the board has decided that unless we get at least a million rand, we mustn’t even try to stay open. That would tide us over for five months or so until we find funding.”

It’s a tragic tale for a company that has run itself on the motto of “Opera for everyone” with its mission to “offer the Gauteng public as much opera and classical music as possible” entertaining diverse audiences with different opera offerings.

In that time, the Gauteng Opera, which relocated from Pretoria to Ferreirasdorp on the edge of the Joburg CBD in 2015, has developed and trained well over 150 singers, technical experts and arts administrators.

Gauteng Opera singers Phenye Modiane, Khayakazi Madlala, Solly Motaung, Yolanda Nyembezi, Kagiso Boroko and Chuma Sijeqa are seen at the theatre of the Gauteng Opera this week. The board has announced that it will be closing down because of funding constraints. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips

But dwindling public and corporate support has hit hard, and in recent years the indefatigable Cloete and his team have seen how opera has increasingly been overlooked and forgotten.

“Our theatre can seat 239 people,” says Cloete, by way of illustration. “Last year, the most people we had for our Christmas concerts was 100.

“In our little operas, we had 30 or 40 people show up.

“Our dinner concerts do well but that’s only 50 people who attend.

“We did La Boheme last year at the Joburg Theatre, and while people said it was spectacular that we did it so beautifully with so little money, we only sold half of the tickets.

“We only pushed through with the show because we had already signed contracts with the artists, and then, we could only pay them.”

Cloete’s biggest worries for the future centre on the young students training at the company’s Gauteng Opera Academy that live for the stage.

The academy offers talented singers with no formal training and from historically disadvantaged communities the chance to further their studies and gain experience, with their tuition fully covered by sponsorships and grants. “Some come as far as the Eastern Cape because there’s no other means for them to study unless they take R40000 to study at a Technikon or a university,” he explains.

Gifted students like 23-year-old soprano Khayakazi Madlala. “Last year we were in negotiations with (international opera star) Pumeza Matshikiza to be our Mimi for La Boheme.

“But of course, to pay in euros, we just couldn’t,” he says, rolling his eyes, theatrically. “So we asked Khaya, and boy did she sing the role of Mimi.

“She was unbelievable. And it just shows you the talent we have in this country that will just die.”

It’s late afternoon and Madlala, a third-year student at the academy, has just finished rehearsing for what is likely to be the final fund-raising concert this evening at a Midrand Italian restaurant, a regular, popular gig for the company’s ensemble of singers.

“I’m worried I won’t be able to finish my studies because of this whole saga,” she says, tears welling in her eyes. She grew up learning about opera from her grandparents, and then her brother.

Now, she dreams of emulating the success of famous operatic exports like Pretty Yende.

“Opera fulfils me. It’s my heaven. The saddest part about all this is that there are children who love singing, but if opera dies in South Africa, where will they sing?

“People have been ignorant about opera. There have been times we’ve performed for 10 people here in the auditorium but prepared for the concert for 10 months. We want to sing for people, not chairs.”

“We’re the last entity that gives people the opportunity to earn from singing,” says Cloete.

“There’s loads of opera students at Wits University, Potch, Pretoria University and TUT, but what do you do with them when there’s no more opera in SA?

“Not all of them can go overseas to study further, so does it mean that these people with these great voices have to do something else with their lives? We all have to eat.”

Cape Town Opera, too, is hanging by a thread. “They had to retrench 75% of their staff, which includes artists.

“So for me, that is worrying. Must opera now completely die in SA before people wake up in two years time and start from scratch again? That’s a lot of hard work, time and energy.”

He grows irritated. “There’s always those people who say opera can die because it’s a white, elitist Eurocentric art form, which is nonsense.

“Look at our young black singers. In communities across the country, in all these choral competitions and celebrations, people sing opera.

“I get very angry because if you want to go that route, so are our clothes and cars European, but we’ve made them our own.

“In our whole company, I’m the only pale male. I always say people cling to the description of opera as the big fat lady with the breast plate screaming on stage, but that’s not at all what it is.

“You can’t get up and just run the Comrades. It’s the same with singing. You train.

“You need to stand on the stage in front of a 1000 seater with a 60 piece orchestra in front of you and a 60-piece chorus behind you, sing and still be heard in the back row.

“Now that takes some doing. And that’s what opera is about. Training a voice into an art form.”

As he rests his deep voice, baritone Solly Motaung says it feels as if his soul is being ripped out.

“We are young, we love opera, but we don’t have a young audience, so it’s hard for us. We have to build something to attract young people so we have more of an audience to have opera again in SA.”

Fellow singer Yolanda Nyembezi agrees. After ditching her human resources studies, she enrolled at TUT to study music.

She soon realised that while everyone could sing, they could not all sing opera.

“To have such a platform is really beautiful, to talk through music to someone else even if they don’t understand what you’re saying because you’re singing in Italian.

“If we are to lose an opera company like this, then we are literally killing the future of many young talents.”

Last week, the Dance Umbrella announced its closure, too. Cloete remembers dancing for its productions in the 1990s.

Gauteng Opera singers Phenye Modiane, Khayakazi Madlala, Solly Motaung, Yolanda Nyembezi, Kagiso Boroko and Chuma Sijeqa are seen at the theatre of the Gauteng Opera this week. The board has announced that it will be closing down because of funding constraints. Picture: Nhlanhla Phillips

Modiane is pinning his hopes on a campaign by Classic FM to raise money to save the company. “I’m optimistic,” he says, simply.

Cloete knows they need a miracle. “We’ve been funded by the Lotto and wonderful companies over the years such as Sappi, Royal Bafokeng, Nedbank, SAB, but when CEOs change, they don’t all like opera We applied to the City of Johannesburg for funding and they said they can’t fund us this year because of the economy.”

It will be hard to walk away, and Cloete doesn’t have any firm plans, other than trying to help the academy’s youngsters finish their piano exams and secure corporate gigs.

“It’s very sad. If we can’t save this, then the next thing will fall and the next in South Africa. No one will be brave enough to venture into something again.”

* The last performance of the Gauteng Opera, Sacred Songs, will be held at the Tin Town Theatre tomorrow at 3pm. All proceeds will go to ensuring a last salary for the artists and staff.

The Saturday Star

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