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Friday, January 3, 2014


(James Conrad)
Producer and opera director James Conrad passed away in Durban recently after a long illness. Head of the NAPAC (Natal Performing Arts Council) Opera and Ballet departments, he was a well-known figure on the KZN performing arts scene for many years:

James Conrad was born as Jacobus Coenraad Jacobs on a farm near Carnarvon in the Karoo. He studied singing, violin and piano at Stellenbosch University. Due to a wrist injury he specialized in singing and accepted a lectureship at the University of Cape Town where he sang as a young baritone with the UCT Opera Company.

In 1955 he went to London with the UCT Opera Company where he took up a position as a news reader with the BBC while furthering his vocal studies with Cuthbert Smith at the Royal College of Music. Being unhappy with his lyric baritone voice, he trained himself as a dramatic tenor which resulted in an engagement at Glyndebourne in 1959 as Erste Geharnischte in Die Zauberflöte in what turned out to be Sir Thomas Beecham’s last appearance on the podium. Here he had the good fortune to be heard by the Swedish Heldentenor, Sved Svanholm, who recommended him for a DAAD scholarship to Detmold, Germany, where he studied with Professor Frederick Hussler.

Whilst still at the academy he appeared as guest artist in several small opera houses in Die Zauberflöte and as Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos. He also sang in the Bayreuth Festival Chorus and understudied many major Wagnerian roles.

His first permanent engagement was at the Kiel Opera House where he was heard by a Sadler’s Wells talent scout in the role of Corrado in Scarlatti’s Griselda. This resulted in a move to London in 1965, initially specifically to sing in the premiere of Raymond Leppard’s revision of Monteverdi’s Orfeo with original instrumentation.

At Sadler’s Wells he sang amongst other roles, Max in Der Freischutz and Florestan in Fidelio. He sang with conductors such as Colin Davis, Strawinsky, Sawallisch, Knappertsbusch, Thomas Schippers, Vittorio Gui and Raymond Leppard.

In 1966 he was offered a contract by Professor Leo Quayle to return to South Africa for the opening of the new State Theatre. When this was postponed, he was accepted for the position of Artistic Director for the Natal Performing Arts Council where he sang Pollione in Norma. Unfortunately, the burden of administration and producing necessitated an end to his singing career, especially since he had developed asthma.

He produced many operas, including The Consul, La Traviata, Norma, La Bohème, Lucia di Lammermoor, Carmen, Cavalleria Rusticana, I Pagliacci, Il Trovatore, Faust, Nabucco and a 1920s style La Traviata. Three South African premieres were Ariadne auf Naxos, Andrea Chenier (which won him the award for Best Director from the Durban Critics Circle) and Salomé.

Invitations to produce overseas ranged from Tehran, where in separate seasons he staged Der Fliegende Holländer, Rigoletto (with Giuseppe Taddei) and Faust, to Barcelona where he produced Parsifal, which was also televised by Eurovision.

During the 1980s he tirelessly strove for the creation of an opera house in Durban. With the support of the authorities and the Durban City Council, the Playhouse complex became a reality. Artistically he felt that a high point in his career was as producer of Der Fliegende Holländer which was televised in its entirety by the SABC and also shown on German television.

Unfortunately, with the rapid decline in financial support for the arts, he took early retirement in 1989. He taught singing at the University of Durban-Westville until the closure of the Music Department. He subsequently continued teaching singing at his private studio, even after his diagnosis with cancer in 2009. He was particularly proud of one his students, Musa Nkuna, who is engaged in Germany and returned regularly to James to study new roles.

It was only in the final months of his life that James was unable to teach and, after a rapid decline in his health, he passed away on 1 January 2014. 

The memorial service will take place on Friday (January 10) at 14h00 at the Frere Road/Glenwood Presbyterian Church in Esther Roberts Road, Durban.