Nations can be written into being by a document, like the United States with its Declaration of Independence. But a nation’s morale depends on more than words, no matter how piously recited; it helps if the words are set to music, and if the patriotic anthem has the rhythm of a celebratory jig, not a stiff, drilled march. The open-throated chorus of Cape Town Opera contains an ensemble that is called, quite justifiably, the Voice of the Nation, and when its members let rip to intone one of Verdi’s thunderous political protests or to bounce through some riotous Gershwinian jazz, you seem to hear an entire people expressing primal emotions of defiant pride and exuberant joy.
Cape Town Opera – which will give three concerts at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall in September – has not merely transplanted the quaintest of European art forms to a new continent; more importantly, it has made a contribution to nation-building. Though the company receives only grudging support from the South African government, which views opera as a colonial relic, its productions have challenged that prejudice by cleverly Africanising the imported repertory. CTO has set Verdi’s Macbeth in a postcolonial dictatorship with the witches as voodoo priestesses, and tribalised Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas with the addition of some local sorcery. Even more aptly, it performed Fidelio, Beethoven’s opera about a prisoner of conscience, in the penitentiary on Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 years. For Christine Crouse, CTO’s artistic director, these initiatives demonstrate that opera is on native ground in South Africa. “We are a singing and dancing nation,” she told me during the company’s recent tour of the United Kingdom. “You should see our people at the end of a performance – they’re still doing reprises as they go out the stage door on the way home!” The townships are loud with raucous pop, but they also resound to Mozart at his most plangent. “When I hold auditions,” said the chorus master Albert Horne, “I’ll get maybe 40 girls aged 17 who come along to sing the most difficult arias from Don Giovanni or The Marriage of Figaro – and they’re all good!”
While operatic soloists indulge in their egotistical tirades, the chorus represents the community or the nation, held together by fellow-feeling. “Africans,” said Crouse, “have choruses for everything – for slaughtering a cow, for celebrating a birthday, for initiating a boy into manhood. So Porgy and Bess, where the chorus is always commenting on what the main characters do, is a natural for us.” In Melbourne, CTO will perform an abbreviated concert version of that opera; in London last month, it was presented in a staging by Crouse that edgily emphasised what she calls “the clash between this American score and the African people”.
Porgy and Bess can’t help being a white fantasy about black life. George Gershwin and his brother Ira, who wrote the lyrics, were Jewish New Yorkers; they took the story about the crippled beggar and his wayward lover from a novel by DuBose Heyward, a South Carolina aristocrat who lived in a mansion near the Charleston slum that he called ‘Catfish Row’. Like the feudally obsequious plantation slaves in Gone With the Wind, Heyward’s characters talk in bumbling pidgin: “I can’t ’member ebber meetin’ a nigger dat I like less dan I does you,” says Bess to the sleazy dandy Sportin’ Life, while Porgy, puzzled by the oddities of gender, declares, “Mens an’ ’omans ain’t de same.” Gershwin’s music is also faux-exotic, an orientalism of the Deep South. When Olin Downes reviewed the Broadway opening in 1935, he pointed out that “no one of the ‘spiritual’ melodies is actually Negro in origin”: those wild syncopations are recognisably the work of the composer who made the clarinet slither and swoop in Rhapsody in Blue.
Gershwin did research for the opera on Folly Island, off the coast from Charleston, where he transcribed the melodic prayers and work songs of the Gullah people. Heyward considered their chants to be “indubitably an African survival”; in Crouse’s rather tendentious view, he was mistaken. “The Gullahs thought they were the descendants of African slaves,” she said, “but actually they were shipped over from Ethiopia.” Her production – set during the 1960s in the tin shanties of Soweto, whose segregated inhabitants are bullied by white cops and consoled by white missionaries – aims to give the work an authenticity it doesn’t possess, she believes, when performed by African-Americans, who lack personal memories of oppression or exclusion. Americanisation is here a symptom of rootlessness, a blurring of national identity that infects Africans with the wrong dreams: Crouse based her Sportin’ Life on some photographs she found of local spivs known as ‘Tsotsis’ – “guys who went round making trouble in the townships dressed up as American movie stars”, with leather jackets and snakeskin boots.
The Eisenhower administration sent Porgy and Bess on tour to ingratiate itself with a hostile world during the Cold War. Music, however, is dangerously irrational, and can’t be relied on to convey an ideological message. When the production reached Russia in 1956, Soviet audiences smirked at its inadvertent anti-Western propaganda: the characters looked like barbarians addicted to sex and bamboozled by religion. CTO also caused a fuss when it took Crouse’s production to Israel in 2010, ignoring Desmond Tutu’s plea to boycott the country until Palestinians were welcome to attend its performances. Michael Williams, the company’s managing director, replied that his musicians were “exemplars of the free society … in democratic South Africa”, and placed his faith in “the transformative power of the arts”. Protesters in Tel Aviv accused the visitors of treachery: weren’t they sabotaging the kind of cultural blockade that had helped end apartheid? And do the blessings of that free society include the random violence of thugs like Crown, who is killed by Porgy, and the trade in drugs – these days crystal meth, known as ‘tik’, not the ‘happy dust’ Bess snorts – conducted by Sportin’ Life?
The Melbourne concerts pair David Fanshawe’s African Sanctus with extracts from the Mandela Trilogy, a biographical collage about the nation’s father by a trio of South African composers. Fanshawe was an English ethnomusicologist who followed the Nile from Cairo to Lake Victoria in Uganda, on the way recording muezzins, rain dances and milking songs, which he interleaved with the Catholic Mass. “Well, it’s a fictionalised work,” said Horne, “not African at all and not really a Sanctus either. It’s sweet, it’s fun, our chorus likes singing it, but it’s not about their world. It’s all very northern. Fanshawe never got anywhere near South Africa.” The life of Mandela is closer to home, though the man’s moral heroism may be more suited to oratorio than to opera: the elevated truisms of the Freedom Charter don’t lend themselves to lyrical treatment. Luckily, in the Trilogy’s second instalment, Mandela forgets his upright principles and disports himself in a Sophiatown dive, juggling a pair of quarrelsome wives while he cavorts with his slinky mistress Dolly, the nightclub’s torch singer. Liberty is all very well, but licentiousness and loose morals are more enjoyably operatic.
The Mandela Trilogy makes a plucky start at creating a national repertory; it’s a pity that Cry, the Beloved Country – Alan Paton’s novel about apartheid, described by Horne as “South Africa’s Bible” – was long ago pre-empted by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, who in 1949 turned it into a Broadway musical called Lost in the Stars. What South Africa needs now is an indigenous Verdi. It was his operas that rallied Italians to oust the Austrians from their territory and, in 1848, he remarked that the only music fit for revolutionary times was that made by guns and cannons. “I’m not seeing an African Verdi anywhere on the horizon,” said Horne sadly. But in Melbourne CTO’s digest of Porgy and Bess will be preceded by a set of Verdian excerpts, including two rabble-rousing choral outbursts – the prophecy from Nabucco, when the Hebrew slaves exult in a vision of Babylon reduced to rubble, and the sudden detonation of horrified sound in Macbeth, when the Scots learn that their king has been assassinated.
“Almost Black Power moments,” I said to Horne, imagining those massed voices raised in angry imprecation. He laughed a little nervously. “Well, the sound they make is loud, and I’m sure it will be exciting. But we don’t intend to be threatening!” He didn’t need to demur. Music displaces air, as do explosions; in conveying the fury and violence of Verdi, CTO’s choral battalion reminds us of another way in which nations come to be born.
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