national Arts Festival Banner

Tuesday, August 4, 2009


Classical Notes by William Charlton-Perkins

The KZN Philharmonic’s heavily booked Reneè Fleming Concert in the Durban City Hall on August 27 received a further box office boost this week, thanks to a block booking of 200 tickets by students of the Walter Sisulu University in the Eastern Cape. The students have paid for their tickets without any sponsorship, and the University will fund their transport. Their cultural tour will form part of their academic programme and their experiential learning component. Great initiative, great experiential learning. Concert-goers who have not yet booked seats for Durban’s classical music red letter event of the decade should do so soonest, to avoid disappointment.

Music-activist-turned-film-maker Roger Lucey’s engaging documentary, Aria del Africa, formed part of the 30th Durban International Film Festival. Subtitled New Voices of a New South Africa, it bears the stamp of one who has approached the field of Opera with caution over the past decade and more. Lucey is known for his credentials in World Music circles. Now in the throes of a History of Music thesis at Drake University in the United States, he freely acknowledged his change in attitude towards Opera, having finally discarded his one-time impression of the art form as tainted with widely perceived pre 1994 elitist connotations.

His Aria del Africa is a simple tale told in the medium of film, cleanly crafted and refreshingly free of grandiose expression. It charts the progress of two opera students of the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town. As the opening credits roll, we are privy to the early moments of Mozart’s Don Giovanni at the Baxter Theatre. By the time the Overture has played out, we have been introduced in cut-aways to the protagonists, 23-year old baritone Musawenkosi Ngqungwana (who plays Leporello onstage), and soprano Musa Spelman (Donna Anna).

Interviews with the young singers are spliced between footage of vocal warm-ups and backstage rehearsals. Inevitably these lead to a triumphant opening night conclusion. In the interim we accompany each student on illuminating visits to their Eastern Cape rural homesteads. These yield profoundly touching perspectives of their faith, courage, and sheer determination to reinforce their talent with dogged hard work and painful personal sacrifice. Déjà vous, in the light of so many comparable scenarios in our own UKZN Opera School and Choral Academy.

The second film dealing with opera on the Durban International Film Festival, the Metropolitan Opera’s The Audition, deals with aspirant opera stars, too. Directed by award-winning filmmaker Susan Froemke, it looks at the intense pressures young opera singers face as they struggle to succeed in one of the most difficult professions in the performing arts.

According the media notice, the film covers the dramatic week leading up to the finals of the 2007 Metropolitan Opera auditions. It focuses on three very different tenor contestants: Michael Fabiano, a fiery 22-year-old grappling with his inner demons; Alek Shrader, a 25-year-old with movie-star looks who attempts to sing nine high Cs in the fiendishly difficult aria that made Pavarotti a star; and Ryan Smith, who at the age of 30, and with little formal training, is pursuing his dream of an operatic career. In short, , The Audition is both a suspenseful competition narrative and a revealing backstage look at what it takes to make it as an opera singer. – William Charlton-Perkins