2012 South African Theatre Retrospective: Opera and Musical Theatre
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by David Fick
With 2012 drawing to a rapid close, there is no better time for an overview of the theatre productions seen on stage in South Africa over the past year. The second part of this four part series focuses on opera and musical theatre, the first part having had a look at the plays, with the next two articles zooming in on comedy and cabaret; and dance and physical theatre. All feature comments from members of South Africa's theatre community about their respective theatrical highlights of 2012.
First, the operas....
PORGY AND BESS, the American folk opera by George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward, returned to South Africa following a series of international engagements. Set in Catfish Row, a slum in Charleston, South Caroline, the piece deals with the life of Porgy, a disabled African-American beggar who attempts to rescue Bess from her abusive lover, Crown, and her addiction to "happy dust", fostered by a local drug dealer, Sportin' Life. With the setting transposed to Soweto in the 1970s in Christine Crouse's production, the piece starred Xolela Sixaba and Nonhlanhla Yende as Porgy and Bess. The production received many rave reviews, with much praise reserved for Michael Mitchell's set design and the fervent energy with which the company delivered the material.
Conductor Jeremy Silver was behind the baton for Cape Town Opera's presentation of the Puccini classic, LA BOHEME. Given Nkosi sang the role of Rodolfo opposite Nozuko Teto as Mimì, who prepared for the roles under the tutelage of Mirella Freni and Renata Scotto in Italy. An irresistibly romantic piece, the opera is a valentine to life in the Latin Quarter of Paris in the 1840s, following the lives of four bohemian artists, most notably that of the poet, Rodolfo, and the terminally ill seamstress, Mimì.
My opera pick for the year was the Leonard Bernstein one-act, TROUBLE IN TAHITI, which had a short season at The Fugard Theatre in August starring Thato Machona and Violina Anguelov. Bernstein called upon his autobiographical experiences when writing TROUBLE IN TAHITI, which exposes the reality behind façade of suburban life by telling the story of an unhappily married couple. The link between Bernstein's life and his works was deftly reinforced by a piece entitled THE MUSICAL MARRIAGES OF Leonard Bernstein, which was researched and compiled by the opera's director, Matthew Wild.
Some of the other works that appeared on stages around the country this year included FIDELIO, which had the novelty of being staged inside the Castle of Good Hope; Cape Town Opera's usual collaborations with the University of Cape Town Opera school, COSÌ FAN TUTTE and THE TALES OF HOFFMAN; and BRAVO OPERA AFRICA, half of which featured a new one-act Zulu opera, ZIYANKOMO AND THE FORBIDDEN FRUIT, which was composed by Phelelani Mnomiya, with a libretto by Themba Msimang.
Musical theatre also made its voice heard in South Africa this year. In Cape Town, the year kicked off with a revival of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, which subsequently settled into a comfortable run in Johannesburg. This reproduction of Harold Prince's iconic staging of the smash hit by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Charles Hart and Richard Stilgoe starred Jonathan Roxmouth in the titular role, with Robin Botha and Magdalene Minnaar alternating as Christine, the object of the Phantom's obsession. Freelance actor and singer, Anton Luitingh, who is currently Resident Director on the Asian and South African tours of JERSEY BOYS, picked the show as one of his highlights of the year, saying that 'Pieter Toerien's production of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA provided the most spectacle and bang for your buck on SA stages in 2012.'
The second big musical to return to South African stages this year was KAT AND THE KINGS, David Kramer and Taliep Pietersen's musical from the 1990s, which had success around South Africa, in the West End and on Broadway in that decade. The nostalgia-fuelled look at the trials and tribulations of a vocal group from District Six during the apartheid era played a sold out season at The Fugard in Cape Town before transferring to Monte Casino for nine weeks and then returning to the Mother City for a summer season, where it continues to play until the 19th of January. The show's small ensemble cast features Danny Butler, Dean Ballie, Grant Peres, Zakariyah Toerien, Amy Trout and Carlo Daniels.
CABARET, John Kander, Fred Ebb and Joe Masteroff's unforgettable 1966 musical about a young American writer, Cliff Bradshaw, and his experiences in decadent, early 1930s Berlin; his relationship with an English cabaret performer, Sally Bowles; and the insidious rise of the Nazi party in Weimar Germany, was my personal favourite of the musical theatre productions I saw on stage in South Africa this year. KickstArt's production first appeared in Durban in 2011, before touring to Johannesburg and Cape Town in collaboration with Pieter Toerien Productions in 2012. The cast included Samantha Peo as Sally, a role which had been played by Lisa Bobbert in Durban, Bryan Hiles as Cliff and Sascha Halbhuber as the Emcee.
Some of the musical theatre productions that played South African venues this year included a reduced, five-man version of THE PIRATES OF PENZANCE at Old Mutual's Theatre on the Square in Johannesburg and KickstArt's festive season presentation of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST at the Elizabeth Sneddon Theatre in Durban. There were also a handful of original musicals of varying quality on offer at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, the vast majority of which - as usual - will sadly vanish without a trace, without further opportunities for development.
What was your favourite musical or opera you saw in South Africa during 2012? Leave your comments beneath this article as we continue to celebrate local theatre in 2012 - and be sure to watch out for our feature in early 2013 where we take a look at the musicals and operas that await South African audiences in the New Year.
Photo Credits: Jesse Kate Kramer (KAT AND THE KINGS).